Walking the Wind-Filled Forest: Into the Pines by Kiva
The river runs directly below our small cabins here on the mesa. If you were to climb down the steep rocks and make your way through the usually calf deep mountain water, you would find yourself confronted with the other side of the canyon wall. It rises gently from the river before growing steeper and rockier the further it peaks towards the ridge far above. There’s a rough, nearly indiscernible trail running through the Pine forest from the river to the ridge that we use when the water is so high we’re unable to walk the seven crossings out towards our normal parking area. During such floods, we hike to the road using this route and bring bulging backpacks of food and supplies from the village back down into the canyon with us. We’ve walked these switchbacks countless times — in early morning and at midnight, in snow storms and pouring rain. Loba and I have climbed down the mountain off-balance from ninety pound packs and barefoot to avoid slipping on the ice covered rocks and pine needles and we’ve wandered down leisurely while gathering acorns or wild mushrooms. Needless to say, we’ve grown closely acquainted with this special ecology that populates the cooler, north-facing side of the canyon.
The warmer side of the canyon where our cabins are built is dominated by Piñon Pine, Evergreen Oak and Juniper — all three drought and heat tolerant species that can easily withstand our intense Summers. The river divides the canyon in two halves, and the far side remains much cooler and moister year round and is populated by a variety of species that usually only grow at significantly higher elevations. Part of the magic of living in a narrow riparian canyon on the continental divide is that our one small crease in the wild, rambling Mogollon Mountains contains a complex cross-section of many unique ecologies. The Ponderosa Pine forest is one of these special microcosms and offers a cool respite during the hot season and remains covered in a thick blanket of snow after a storm far longer than the immediately surrounding areas during the Winter.
Middle mountain Ponderosa Pine ecologies are peculiar mono-forests, consisting of primarily just the one species with small percentages of Gambel Oak, New Mexico Locust and Alligator Juniper. This lack of diversity at the canopy level can make them especially vulnerable to elements such as droughts, forest fires and the ever increasing pine beetle infestation. Because the forest is defined almost completely by just the Ponderosa (most forests have several dominant species), the whole ecology could be destroyed by the loss of one species. The delicacy of the balance makes this place that much more precious to us and we’re grateful that both the pine beetles and the severe droughts have not effected this bioregion in a dramatic way as of yet. There’s literally hundreds to thousands of smaller plant species that require these vital middle mountain forests for their survival, everything from Spikenard to False Solomon’s Seal, Gooseberry, Skullcap, Usnea, Mountain Candytuft and many others require their cool shade and acidic soil to thrive here in the often arid inter-mountain West. Below, I introduce you to three of my favorite species that grow specifically in our Ponderosa Pine Forest.
Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)
Ponderosa pines are the most common conifer this of the Mississippi and tower over any of our other native tree species. Every part of the tree has been utilized by indigenous cultures – from survival food to medicine to ceremonial tools, the Ponderosas have played an integral role in the shaping of both people and place. The long green needles and flexible bark have made beautiful, tough baskets for a variety of cultures and the pitch for glue and to waterproof footwear. Their wood has been used to build the ladders that lead down into the sacred kivas of the Hopi. The needles have been used in ceremony and the aromatic smoke in prayer. Throughout time, they’ve remained a signature element of the wild mountain landscape that fill the stories and songs of the Old West. The wistful, sweet song of the wind through their branches is the very definition of high lonesome.
Closing your eyes and tracing the ridges and valleys of Ponderosa bark, you can feel the terrain of the earth through your fingers, rippling and weaving out along the skin of this one tree. If you press your face to their puzzle piece shaped bark and breathe deep, you’re immersed suddenly and completely in the warm aromas of vanilla, brown sugar and something like Sassafras. It’s as sweet as cream soda, but imbued with the heat and spiciness of sunshine and resin. Some trees have a stronger smell than others, and Loba and I could make a whole morning out of running from one giant conifer to the next, hollering to each other to hurry up and come over here, come smell this one, it’s the best — no no, come smell this one, it’s even better– until we’re out of breath and sticky fingered from wrapping our arms around the wide pitch spattered trunks.
The Pines are a well known, even archetypal, Southwestern remedy. Even those New Mexico natives who have long since forgotten every other herbal medicine know that the pitch from either the Ponderosas or the Piñons will draw out splinters, heal wounds and help broken bones mend more quickly. It’s also a well known remedy for chest rub congested lungs and liniment for arthritic limbs. Loggers, forest service agents, old abuelas and hiking hippies alike often carry small jars of the salve in their pockets at all times. And if no salve is around, they’re just as likely to grab a glob of soft resin right off the tree or melt a hard chunk with their cigarette lighter.
Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia repens)
Through the thick layer of Pine needles, the winter reddened leaves of Oregon Grape Root are apparent, easily recognized by their waxy surface and sharp edges. They are especially easy to spot in the cold months when the leaves blush a brilliant shade of scarlet and purple. Although Mahonia is a fairly common plant in the inter-mountain West, I’m always excited to discover a new patch. Our native species is a small, creeping variety whose network small rootlets can span an entire mountainside. Normally a nondescript shade of brown and only the diameter of a pencil, the roots can easily be overlooked unless you happen upon one that’s been broken or wounded by the weather or a passing animal. The inner bark is a brilliant shade of golden yellow, an indication of their potent medicinal powers. Although this plant is common, it’s important to harvest it respectfully by not stripping whole colonies from a single area and to always gather roots from the upper part of a hillside rather than the younger parts of the group from the bottom of the hill. While Oregon Grape Root a very multi-faceted medicine, it’s most often used as what the old-timers call a “liver tonic” to stimulate hepatic function and thus improve digestion, reduce allergies, treat infections and clear the skin. I find it one of my most reliable remedies for people who suffer from a pattern of bad skin, chronic constipation, seasonal allergies and bloating, usually with some degree of low blood pressure and ongoing fatigue. The leaves make a powerful salve and the berries make a sour but delicious jam that is one of our favorite seasonal treats.
Blisswort (Scutellaria resinosa)
In seemingly random patches, the wild Blisswort (otherwise known as Skullcap) is scattered through the forest in small to large colonies. And yet, upon close observation, we can see that their habitat is not random at all and that the plants thrive along the path rainwater takes on its way down the mountain. A moisture loving species, the Blisswort favors the shade and cool temperatures of the Pine forest over the exposure and heat of the riverside and chooses to proliferate in small run-off indentations in the earth or gently sloped arroyos. The plants help to prevent erosion and enrich the soil while the water nourishes them. In early Spring or late Summer, they can seem nearly invisible, just short clumps of green among the more brilliant Lupine and Senecio. But come early May, these humble little plants will be much more noticeable with their abundance of white and dark purple-blue blooms and the insects that hover over them. Their flowers are typical of the mint family, but large and pronounced compared to Wild Mint’s more modest appearance. With their sensually large lips and brazen color pattern, Blisswort’s seductive transformation can sometimes make them suddenly seem like the only plant in the forest. The leaves are often resinous, a sticky coating that clings to my fingers for hours after I brush the soft flowers and leaves on my way up the trail.
Intensely bitter in taste, our native Blisswort is much stronger medicinally than any other species I’ve tried, and there’s simply no comparison with the mild tasting (and acting) herb of commerce. Blisswort earned my nickname through its strongly nervine actions that utterly relax and nourish the nervous system and can often send a upset person from the throes of anxiety and fear into a state of bliss and calmness. It’s also a strong anti-spasmodic with an affinity for the digestive and reproductive system, making it very helpful for many women with severe PMS that includes symptoms of irritability, headaches, insomnia, menstrual cramping and digestive upset. It does have a tendency to promote vivid dreams. Unlike many dream-enhancing herbs though, Blisswort usually triggers intense but pleasant dreams rather than the nightmares some people experience with herbs such as the Artemisias. Blisswort is one of the first herbs I ever worked with and remains one of my most valued and frequently used allies.
Photos (c) 2009 Kiva Rose & Jesse Wolf Hardin
Categories: Sense of Place, Wild Plants & Traditional Healingways