Journal Entry, February 1: Listening to a juniper

Then I hear the old tree whisper, “Look into my life, and you will learn much.”

Then I hear the old tree whisper, “Look into my life, and you will learn much.”

by Larry Lindahl — 

The trail rounds a bend and opens out onto a broad bench of solid sandstone — one of a rising series of smoothly eroded terraces. Near the middle of the rock slope, I angle up and begin to climb. The view opens up behind me as I ascend from one terrace to the next. Finally, with the western horizon unobstructed, I look for a spot to wait for the sunset. Like a dog, I circle around and find a spot to settle down where the rounded sandstone makes a perfect backrest.

As my body sinks into the stone, I take in my surroundings. A twisted and gnarled juniper grows on the slope, making a life here. The tree has obviously survived for centuries. Its wide trunk divides upward into several large, flat branches. Each branch divides into smaller and smaller flame-like divisions. The thicker branches have soft strips of bark hanging down in torn shreds. Only a few branches end in clusters of living green. More often than not, the bare branches appear dead.

Then I hear the old tree whisper, “Look into my life, and you will learn much.”

“What can you tell me?” I wonder.

I have never talked to a tree before. But there are questions I have had for years.

“Old Juniper, I see your trunk and branches are often twisted in spirals. I have been curious. Does the wind make you grow this way?”

“No, not just the wind, although I must face its many moods. A spiral, I have learned, will not easily break. I grow this way for strength against the weight of wet snow, the impact of falling sandstone and the push of the wind.”

One of the juniper’s thick and shaggy branches grows on the ground, reaching its horizontal bulk across the slope. On the uphill side, the trunk stops a collection of rocky soil from eroding downhill. A sparse plant community grows in the soil.

“Since long ago, I have planned ahead. The summer rains run off the ground so quickly. After experiencing this, I had an inspiration. If I could slow down the runoff, my underground parts could have more to drink. So I grew a water dam. A way to make the most of what I was given.”

“So you created a way to water yourself?”

“Indeed,” the wise Juniper replied. “I follow all possibilities of growth. Most trees want to be taller and taller. But they can’t last. A juniper grows to live a long life.”

“To me, many of your branches appear to be dead. How do you survive?” I asked.

“When times are abundant, I grow. When I sense space available for growth, I evaluate my ability. My roots talk to my needles. I observe the wind and sun patterns. Will I be able to send life-giving moisture to a new branch? Can new needles gather the light without overusing resources? My roots seek cracks in the sandstone, places of hidden moisture, places to anchor against the wind.

“But when times are not as good, I reduce my flow. Then many of my branches may no longer show green. But, I do not reject these parts of myself that are no longer growing. They are part of who I am and they still support my life.”

“How do your dead-looking branches still support life?”

“Oh, it is very simple,” the juniper says. “My dead branches hold me. They shade me from the fierce sun. I can reduce my needs and survive drought. It all works out for the best.”

“What would you like to happen around you? Do you want more water, better soil?”

“I simply wish to watch the progress of the seasons. I like the summer sun and the winter cold. The position of the stars and the phases of the moon are my calendar. The cycles of the sun are my timepiece. I need nothing more. I am in no hurry to live my life. I am content to be as I am. I wish to be left unbroken by twilight fire builders and uncut by nature re-arrangers. I am old. I have learned to grow here in this desert because I am patient.”

Then I notice the old juniper has a long branch with healthy green growth reaching out to a nearby piñon branch.

“We share our differences,” the old tree volunteers. “The piñon shades the ground, and I trap the water. We help small, young plants spread their roots and get started. His thick needles give shelter. Young plants need a protected place to get a healthy start.”

I notice baby prickly pear and tiny ocotillo growing underneath the piñon’s branches.

“Someday,” the old juniper continues, “piñon will have lived his life and his branches will no longer show green. But as he returns to the earth he will make the soil richer — more complete. His decaying body will create a home for more life.

On a dead branch, hawk may wait for a passing meal. Another bird might build a nest in a small cavity. Packrat will have sticks and twigs, brought down by the wind, to collect for her home. As piñon dies, insects in his decaying trunk will feed woodpecker and lizard. We are patient and content to do our part. We live at peace with life, and when we die we hope to leave this place better than when we arrived.”

I can ask nothing more.


Larry Lindahl enjoys exploring Sedona and the Southwest, taking photographs of the landscape. He is the author and photographer of Secret Sedona: Sacred Moments in the Landscape. or 

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 1, February/March 2006.

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