“I felt as though we had stumbled upon an ancient sculpture garden, where incredibly varied wood and stone sculptural forms dominated an otherwise sparse landscape.”
On Monday, Steven and I hiked up snowy Chinquapin Mountain to where, last week, he’d found an elk and a scorpion. On the way up, we experienced what people describe as the special delight of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument: a great diversity of mini-environments within a couple-hours’ hike. We began from our cabin, which nestles near a forest of tall conifers and the occasional clumps of black and white oaks. We passed a wood rat house (a cone-shaped mound of wood resembling a small-scale beaver’s dam, but far from water), witnessed a variety of animal tracks (rabbit, hare, squirrel, rodent), crossed the Applegate Trail, and then, abruptly, the forest ceased. We found ourselves in an altogether different environment: a drier, volcanic rock-strewn meadow, with small scrubby plants like sagebrush and manzanita, and a few monumental wind-pruned western junipers like ancient bonsai. Here there was just an inch or two of snow, compared with the boot- or knee-high drifts beneath the forest canopy, while in places near juniper and rocks, the ground was entirely bare and muddy, or green with moss.
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Beneath one juniper that Steven remembered from before, he lifted a flat stone to reveal a western forest scorpion. I shuddered, though the type that lives here is not the deadly variety of southern deserts. Resembling a shrimp on steroids, the scorpion looked as though it had muscle in its legs and pincers, and its curling tail could inflict a painful wasp-like sting. I watched it flex its legs slightly, then turned and continued uphill.
I felt as though we had stumbled upon an ancient sculpture garden, where incredibly varied wood and stone sculptural forms dominated an otherwise sparse landscape. It looked as though skilled bonsai artisans had spent centuries of painstaking care, pruning the elaborate juniper forms and ornamenting them with tufts of lichen–mostly letharia, but also usnea and goatsbeard. The rocks themselves struck me dumb. How long had the twin artists of wind and precipitation been shaping these organic forms with their hollows, their protuberances, their rugged textures? Millennia?
Steven and I took a break to rest on the substantial, twisted roots of one impressive western juniper specimen and unpacked our picnic snack of apples, walnuts, and veggie chips.
If we were birds, or smaller mammals, or Northwest Indians, we might have eaten the juniper berries, small round blue fruits that are actually the juniper equivalent of cones, found only on female trees.
On both male and female trees, little white dots of sticky, aromatic resin cover the tiny, scaly, needle-like leaves. These resin dots seal off the juniper’s breathing pores to conserve moisture, allowing the species to thrive where other plants could not tolerate the dryness. One field guide, Trees to Know In Oregon, by Edward Jensen, calls juniper the “camel of trees” for its ability to live on less water than any other Oregon tree.
Western junipers are native here in southern Oregon, but have become somewhat of a problem since people started fighting the fires that naturally kept them under control. They suck water whenever given the chance, depriving thirstier species of resources.
“Despite their short stature, western junipers commonly live to be several hundred years old. In the great juniper groves of central Oregon, some grow to be four to five feet thick. Half-dead, gnarled, and ghost-like, they tell of a tenacious struggle to survive where no other tree can” (Jenson 24).
View the full Junipers of Chinquapin Mountain gallery
Photos © Steven David Johnson (All Rights Reserved)