The Ponderosa Pine that Stabbed Back

The weather was exceptionally warm for April, and I intended to take full advantage of it. My plan was to ride a giant figure eight around Flagstaff – over 60 miles and 7,000 feet elevation gain – all on really fun singletrack. Around mile 35 I started up Little Bear, a steep trail on the backside of Mount Elden, and marveled at how few trees had fallen over the winter. Normally, this early in the season, riding steeper trails like Little Bear would mean a lot of stop-and-go climbing over down logs. But winter had been warm and dry, which meant snow had taken down very few trees.

Goofing around in the sunshine before my incident with the ponderosa.

I climbed over only three logs before meeting the one that would end my ride and send me into a spiral of self-reflection on my environmental impact. The trail climbs up through an old burn area, and around every corner, the wind whipped up and around old snags and into the broadside of my bike causing it to teeter underneath me. My ponderosa lay across the trail split in two pieces, with no danger sign, nothing to suggest it was about to turn my afternoon into a four-hour stint at urgent care. To get my bike and myself over the first section, I hoisted myself on top and pulled my bike up and over before sliding off on my butt. The second part of the tree lay length-wise in the trail, and as I shuffled along, off trail, on the uphill side of the tree, I lost my balance for a split second. In an act of counterbalance, I thrust my body toward the tree and felt something stab my hamstring. When I turned around, I was surprised to see stringy pieces of pink-white fat hanging off a jagged branch. There was no blood on the branch, but a steady stream flowed from a hole in my hamstring, pooled around my calf, and dripped down to my ankle.

Once at urgent care, I had a lot of time to think. Initially, after hearing the wait time was over two hours, I fretted about all the things on my to-do list not going to get done that evening. Eventually, I ran out of things to worry about and began turning the incident with the ponderosa over and over in my head. She was a big tree, close to three feet in diameter, and her bark reminded me of my favorite color in my grandfather’s acyclic set when I was kid—burnt umber. Because she had been lying in the sun all day, she gave off the scent of warm butterscotch. The scene was so pleasant, almost tranquilizing, that I kept second-guessing how bad the wound really was.

The ponderosa’s butterscotch smell (vanilla to some people) is what originally grounded me in the Southwest. The smell comes from coniferin, a metabolite found in the lignin of most pine bark, and it has been extracted from a variety of pine trees to make artificial vanilla since the late 1800s. I remember the first time someone introduced the smell to me – I was standing in the sun somewhere in Prescott, Arizona – and I thought: this is comforting, this is exactly where I want to be. I had fled family dysfunction and grey northern Michigan winters for the Southwest, a landscape I had only visited once as a child, and I was nervous. Shy. Unsure of what I was doing. But something about that moment in the sun, combined with the butterscotch scent of the ponderosa, reassured me. Every place I’ve called home since has been near ponderosa pine forests.

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From the American Chemistry Society website: once scientists discovered the structure of vanillin (it gives real vanilla its flavor) they were able to recreate it from the coniferin in pine bark.

So I was devastated, two years ago, when I read an article in the Arizona Daily Sun citing a researcher from Los Alamos National Laboratory predicting climate change would most likely kill all conifer forests in the Southwest by 2050. I’ll be 66. What that looks like, over the years, is the slow transformation of ponderosa forests to juniper and scrub oak forests. Here’s the predicament: Flagstaff is a ridiculously fun place to live, and it’s hard to grasp the reality of our ponderosa pine forests when riding a bike at mock speed, or – I’ll be honest about the cost of living here – focusing all our energy on making enough money to pay rent while still having time to enjoy the mountain and the forest.

Time ticked by slowly at urgent care. While irrigating the wound, the nurse practitioner found a piece of ponderosa buried in the inch deep hole in my hamstring. It was the size of my pinkie nail – maybe a bit longer. She added a few loose stitches, noting there wasn’t much skin to work with, packed it with gauze, and prescribed some antibiotics. It never really hurt, but the hole was a nuisance, and I had to have it packed daily for over a week. Eventually, it healed, leaving behind a unique scar shaped like two rabbit ears.

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I even raced my bike the next weekend.

The ponderosa pines, though, aren’t so lucky. Here’s my layman’s understanding of it: ponderosas are stressed by a combination of increased temperatures and repeated drought, and this makes them vulnerable to bark beetles who bring with them fungi that interfere with the trees ability to use water. Bark beetles also eat phloem hindering the trees ability to transport sugar to their roots. In the end, the trees starve to death and the dead trees – along with the warm, dry conditions – are prime for wildfires.

Thinning helps their plight. A study in the Salt-Verde watersheds published in 2014 found that runoff in areas with accelerated forest thinning increased by about 20%. Again, my layman’s understanding: this increase in runoff makes more water available for each tree in the area, may benefit nearby riparian zones, and may even help nearby communities. The study – titled “Effects of Climate Variability and Accelerated Forest Thinning on Watershed-Scale Run off in Southwestern USA Ponderosa Pine Forests” – puts it like this, “increases in runoff could help offset the current and projected declines in snowpack and streamflow due to warming while improving the resilience of forest stands.” But the offset will never be enough to solve the problem. It’s a temporary band-aid, really, for our reliance on fossil fuels.

I do interval workouts with these ponderosas two or three days a week when I’m training.

The last time I had the hole packed the clinic was far behind schedule, and the nurse took my bandage off and left me sprawled out on the bed for almost an hour with strict orders not to move because I was a leaky biohazard with the wound left uncovered. She came back in at some point, apologized, and handed me my phone to play with. I scrolled through Facebook and was drawn to a photo of a tree holding a sign, begging people walking by to please use reusable mugs. It wasn’t a ponderosa in the photo, but it still made me think about my tree. More random internet searching lead me to these statistics on the Environmental Protection Agency’s blog:

  • Americans throw away 25 billion cups per year
  • 9.4 million trees are harvested just for cups
  • 363 million pounds of waste is generated
  • 3,125,000 tons of CO2 emissions are generated

By the time the nurse was ready to pack my leg, I’d figured out how to use the image of the tree in a lesson plan the following day in the course I teach called Principles of Rhetoric. I used it to start a conversation about connections between kairos, or timing, and the creation of messages. Unfortunately, the first student to speak up said he didn’t think kairos played a role in the image because we’ve known since the 1960s we need to use less waste. Enter impromptu lesson on Arizona’s ban on banning plastic bags juxtaposed with the success many states have had with banning plastic bags followed by the question: if states are having conversations about the success of banning plastic bags – while also knowing consumer waste is still a giant problem – then what else might there be momentum to do? Oh yes, eliminate the use of disposable coffee cups. To really hit the timing of the image home, I shared the statistics from the EPA’s blog.

I wanted to bring the plight of ponderosas into the lesson, but the leap was too big for a 200-level class taught out of the English Department. In fact, the leap is probably too big for this blog post. Maybe that’s the problem. As down-to-earth lovers of the outdoors we’re willing to do the basic things: recycle, bike commute, remember our reusable shopping bags, remember our reusable mugs. Big data, though, tells us it’s not enough – but anything more would be a nuisance in our lives. Or, perhaps worse, cut into the quality of our lives. So, the plastic salad bins pile up in the recycling, plane tickets for the next mountain biking or climbing trip are purchased, and the stoke is high when the trails are bone dry in Flagstaff in April. Or February for that matter.

This essay is for you, ponderosa. At 66, I want to be the slightly crazy grey-haired woman who gets excited by the smell of butterscotch while out trail running and mountain biking. Which makes me think I should take that back. It’s not really about the ponderosa when I put it that way.

One of my favorite ponderosa lined trails in Flagstaff – it’s really only good after it rains.



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