The Southern Rockies are covered in conifers of all kinds, but the one that seems to gather all the superlatives is the magnificent – and abundant – Western Yellow Pine, or, as it is more commonly know, the Ponderosa. Santa Fe sits at an elevation of 7000 feet, which is just about the lowest level this pine prefers to grow in New Mexico. By around 9000 feet it begins to drop out, replaced by more cold hardy trees – but this is a band of elevation that covers a lot of territory out here, and one that enjoys the most agreeable and invigorating climatic conditions a visitor could ask for.
In the most delightful of all books written about North American trees, “A Natural History of Western Trees”, Donald Peattie writes: “If you get out of your car, you discover that no conifers are finer than these for a walk beneath their boughs – so ample and open their groves, so clean the forest floor of all save needles and grass and pungent sagebrush, with here and there a fleck of wildflower red or blue – some bugler penstemon or lupine with its pouting lip. And the voice of these Pines is a grand native chanty. “Of all Pines,” thought John Muir, “this one gives forth the finest music to the winds.” If you have been long away from the sound of the Western Yellow Pine, you may, when at last you hear it again, close your eyes and simply listen, with what deep satisfaction you cannot explain, to the whispered plain-song of this elemental congregation.”
I had a walk Sunday afternoon in Bandelier National Monument, an extremely popular destination for visitors to Santa Fe, about a 50 minute drive west of here. The Monument embraces a number of steep canyons cut in the vast apron of volcanic tuff that forms the Pajarito Plateau in the Jemez Mountains, and it is most famous for the ruins of cliff dwellings that have been preserved in some of the canyon walls. But one of the treasures of the park, I feel, are the beautiful groves of Ponderosa pine that grow along the cool canyon floors and shade the trails that take you to see the ruins or the waterfalls of Frijoles Creek.
Winter has arrived in New Mexico and the raked southern light illuminates the northern wall of Frijoles Canyon in a vivid orange glow all day. The light tangles itself in the high crowns of the Ponderosa trees until the sun drops over the canyon rim at around 4:00 in the afternoon, so you can enjoy your walk here until it’s time to head back to Santa Fe for dinner. The squirrels have dinner on their minds ALL the time in early winter, apparently, because the ground under the trees is littered with the nipped-off tips of pine boughs, cut down to release a cone, for further dismemberment and seed caching:
In summer months these forest floors are heavenly. The sunlight releases a fragrance from the duff that is unique among forests, dry and spicy, with notes of vanilla, almost narcotic in its effects when mixed with the other pleasures of a walk in the warm dappled light. It seems to draw every trace of dankness out of the air.
But no matter what season you choose to visit Santa Fe, be sure and make time for a walk in Bandelier or along one of the many trails just east of downtown, so you can take in the sensual delights – music, light, and perfume – of these wonderful Western trees.