025 Left-handed Trees

We are in the high forests — at last.

Like the horny-skinned, dust colored, earth-bound caterpillar that emerges from its cocoon as a soaring butterfly, this sheep trail has changed from the tortures of Ramer Canyon and the Rim Country into a palace of pineclad wonders.

It is Sunday, dawn, and the world is at its prayers; the great pines supplicating heaven with raised branches in thanks for the golden sunlight; the grasses, swaying in a bit of religious fervor, with their brows still moist from a morning baptism of dew; the tiny unopened flowers, petals over their eyes, praying silently in their closets as they were taught to do. Over in the opening, a fallen giant ponderosa lies prone on its carpet of needles — perhaps a Moslem among all these Christians — stretching its branches in prostrate praise to Allah.

The forest incense is burning on a thousand piney and cedared altars and the wind — high priest in this reverent world —is bringing the chant and song of the forest morning to all who worship.

The sermons are in stones, but they hold their tongues. The joy of daylight is in the air, which is sermon enough.

As I stop to make notes in my journal, Boots comes flashing through the trees in hot pursuit of a jackrabbit. But the rabbit knows this bit of woodland better than Boots, and dodges and twists to safety. Panting, yet not dejected, the dog returns to the herd. It was a good bit of fun; a bracer for the morning’s work.

A lamb comes upon me in the clearing and stops a second — startled. Finding me harmless, it nips a stalk of gramma grass and holds it in its mouth, nibbling it upward like an old man chewing a toothpick. If I move, it will jump and be off. But I am a frozen statue so the lamb finishes the blade of grass and slowly continues on.

Some great black ants, in their somber capes and jet hoods, are busy about their business — morticians of the forest — slowly returning the dead trees and plants to the soil.

Up in the ceiling of this forest world there are cirrus clouds, drawn out by some high and vagrant wind until they are like taffy at a candy pull. I look again, and they are the flowing tails of wild horses in a race around the world. Some are tails, long and thin; others are flowing manes.

These trees about me are members of a single mighty family. There stands a ponderosa, the oldest tree in sight — hardened elder now, but once just a carefree sapling at the time Washington chopped that other tree back in Fredericksburg. The cherry tree got into history and the ponderosa belongs there too.

There about it stands its family. Every tree for a length and a half is probably its offspring. Some are now nearly full grown and parents themselves; others — grandchildren perhaps — are just shoots in the ground.

I had thought that I could not survive this long without the nourishment of good music. No music of the kind we ordinarily call such, has reached my ears — except in infrequent campfire songs and the few radio sessions — for well over a month. Yet there has been no need for it with me thus far.

This is because I am daily experiencing music in its most basic forms. Natural sounds — the utterings of birds, crickets, animals — are music at its source. A pine tree is a musical instrument in itself; its long tapering needles are the strings of the harp, and the breezes are the musician’s fingers which strum the strings.

Among these pines there is treetop music, full branch music, then sometimes an orchestration of the entire forest, when not only each branch and tree, but even the dried leaves and needles on the ground, join in a crescendo of sound. There is strong harmony, in a literal sense, in the movements which a wind sets up in the forest.

I think that the music of sight must be an auxiliary to the music of sound. The massed flow of the sheep, the pattern in the bark of trees and in the wood of the trunks and limbs from which the bark has fallen away, the swirls in rocks and in the clouds, the flow of the landscape — these have a musical feel, a rhythm and harmony and tone. On many parts of this trail, my days and nights are filled with music.

Thinking that I might have become lost, Rosalio dropped back to check on me, along with some stray ewes and a lamb.

I explained to him that I wasn’t lost — except in wonder at the beauty of the forest.

“You see left-hand tree?” he asked, and for a moment I wondered if he had somehow caught a look at my journal with its reference to a tree’s branches being raised like hands to heaven.

“Come, I show you,” he said.

As I followed his leading, I noticed that he was looking mainly at the trees — especially the pines — from which the bark had been stripped, by disease, or lightning, or death. Suddenly he stopped, at a great stripped giant, and began tracing the “grain” of the trunk with his herder’s staff.

“You see, she left-handed,” he observed. “The cracks all go around in the wrong direction. That one over there” (pointing to another stripped tree nearby), “she right-handed. Not many trees left-handed.”

For the first time in my life I began to notice that the swirl of the “grain” was indeed different in different trees. This can best be observed when the bark is gone. Most swirl upward and around from left to right. A few have their “grain” or cracks going vertically, straight up and down. And about one in twenty or thirty, I discovered, is truly “left-handed.”

I had just been sensing the beauty of the tree swirls, comparing them to music, but had never observed closely enough to see if they went to right or to left.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as I watched eagerly to find those that were “lefties.”

This day has passed all too swiftly. Now it is night, and Pablo has added to our enjoyment by building for us a giant fire of oak and pine and cedar. (Although called “cedars” by many herders and ranchers, these trees are actually junipers.)

It could have been among the Cedars of Lebanon — or some such setting — that incense was first developed. If there is one thing which I would capture to be breathed again between four walls some day next winter it would be the smell of these burning cedars.

Now the fire is revealing the quality of Rosalio’s eyes. Nearly all herders have gentle eyes. They are farseeing, penetrating, deep — yet warm. They are eyes conditioned by years of constant contact with silent deserts, untouched forests, majestic mountains, arching skies by day, star-spangled skies at night. They are eyes which have spent a lifetime watching out for a thousand children —the sheep; watching for lost lambs, for poison weeds, for animal enemies; eyes which serve.

Eyes bent to the book would not be like those; the herder’s eyes read the forest floor in the daytime and the sky at night. Light of the stars close the lids in sleep. Only herders of the sheep can have eyes like these.