A selection from
THE MOUNTAINS OF CALIFORNIA
Narrated by Lloyd James
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A Windstorm in the Forest
One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the
Sierra occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one
of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River. The sky and the ground and
the trees had been thoroughly rain-washed and were dry again. The day
was intensely pure, one of those incomparable bits of California winter,
warm and balmy and full of white sparkling sunshine, redolent of all the
purest influences of the spring, and at the same time enlivened with one
of the most bracing wind-storms conceivable. Instead of camping out, as
I usually do, I then chanced to be stopping at the house of a friend.
But when the storm began to sound, I lost no time in pushing out into
the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature has always something
rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than
one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.
It was still early morning when I found myself fairly adrift. Delicious
sunshine came pouring over the hills, lighting the tops of the pines,
and setting free a steam of summery fragrance that contrasted strangely
with the wild tones of the storm. The air was mottled with pine-tassels
and bright green plumes, that went flashing past in the sunlight like
birds pursued. But there was not the slightest dustiness, nothing less
pure than leaves, and ripe pollen, and flecks of withered bracken and
I heard trees falling for hours at the rate of one every two or
three minutes; some uprooted, partly on account of the loose,
water-soaked condition of the ground; others broken straight across,
where some weakness caused by fire had determined the spot. The gestures
of the various trees made a delightful study. Young Sugar Pines, light
and feathery as squirrel-tails, were bowing almost to the ground; while
the grand old patriarchs, whose massive boles had been tried in a
hundred storms, waved solemnly above them, their long, arching branches
streaming fluently on the gale, and every needle thrilling and ringing
and shedding off keen lances of light like a diamond.
Spruces, with long sprays drawn out in level tresses, and needles massed
in a gray, shimmering glow, presented a most striking appearance as they
stood in bold relief along the hilltops. The madroños in the dells, with
their red bark and large glossy leaves tilted every way, reflected the
sunshine in throbbing spangles like those one so often sees on the
rippled surface of a glacier lake.
But the Silver Pines were now the
most impressively beautiful of all. Colossal spires 200 feet in height
waved like supple golden-rods chanting and bowing low as if in worship,
while the whole mass of their long, tremulous foliage was kindled into
one continuous blaze of white sun-fire. The force of the gale was such
that the most steadfast monarch of them all rocked down to its roots
with a motion plainly perceptible when one leaned against it. Nature was
holding high festival, and every fiber of the most rigid giants thrilled
with glad excitement.
I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion,
across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a
rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had
swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones
of individual trees,—Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,—and
even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet.
Each was expressing itself in its own way,—singing its own song, and
making its own peculiar gestures,—manifesting a richness of variety to
be found in no other forest I have yet seen.
The coniferous woods of
Canada, and the Carolinas, and Florida, are made up of trees that
resemble one another about as nearly as blades of grass, and grow close
together in much the same way. Coniferous trees, in general, seldom
possess individual character, such as is manifest among Oaks and Elms.
But the California forests are made up of a greater number of distinct
species than any other in the world. And in them we find, not only a
marked differentiation into special groups, but also a marked
individuality in almost every tree, giving rise to storm effects
Toward midday, after a long, tingling scramble through copses of hazel
and ceanothus, I gained the summit of the highest ridge in the
neighborhood; and then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing
to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close
to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles. But under the circumstances
the choice of a tree was a serious matter. One whose instep was not very
strong seemed in danger of being blown down, or of being struck by
others in case they should fall; another was branchless to a
considerable height above the ground, and at the same time too large to
be grasped with arms and legs in climbing; while others were not
favorably situated for clear views.
After cautiously casting about, I
made choice of the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces that were
growing close together like a tuft of grass, no one of which seemed
likely to fall unless all the rest fell with it. Though comparatively
young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were
rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in
making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the
top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration
of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate
torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round,
tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves,
while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.
In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to
thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen
others of the same species still more severely tried—bent almost to the
ground indeed, in heavy snows—without breaking a fiber. I was therefore
safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited
forest from my superb outlook. The view from here must be extremely
beautiful in any weather. Now my eye roved over the piny hills and dales
as over fields of waving grain, and felt the light running in ripples
and broad swelling undulations across the valleys from ridge to ridge,
as the shining foliage was stirred by corresponding waves of air.
Oftentimes these waves of reflected light would break up suddenly into a
kind of beaten foam, and again, after chasing one another in regular
order, they would seem to bend forward in concentric curves, and
disappear on some hillside, like sea-waves on a shelving shore. The
quantity of light reflected from the bent needles was so great as to
make whole groves appear as if covered with snow, while the black
shadows beneath the trees greatly enhanced the effect of the silvery
Excepting only the shadows there was nothing somber in all this wild sea
of pines. On the contrary, notwithstanding this was the winter season,
the colors were remarkably beautiful. The shafts of the pine and
libocedrus were brown and purple, and most of the foliage was well
tinged with yellow; the laurel groves, with the pale undersides of their
leaves turned upward, made masses of gray; and then there was many a
dash of chocolate color from clumps of manzanita, and jet of vivid
crimson from the bark of the madroños, while the ground on the
hillsides, appearing here and there through openings between the groves,
displayed masses of pale purple and brown.
The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild
exuberance of light and motion. The profound bass of the naked branches
and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the
pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a
silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen
metallic click of leaf on leaf—all this was heard in easy analysis when
the attention was calmly bent.
I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the
music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was
streaming past. The fragrance of the woods was less marked than that
produced during warm rain, when so many balsamic buds and leaves are
steeped like tea; but, from the chafing of resiny branches against each
other, and the incessant attrition of myriads of needles, the gale was
spiced to a very tonic degree.
And besides the fragrance from these
local sources there were traces of scents brought from afar. For this
wind came first from the sea, rubbing against its fresh, briny waves,
then distilled through the redwoods, threading rich ferny gulches, and
spreading itself in broad undulating currents over many a
flower-enameled ridge of the coast mountains, then across the golden
plains, up the purple foot-hills, and into these piny woods with the
varied incense gathered by the way.
When the storm began to abate, I dismounted and sauntered down through
the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and, turning toward the
east, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil,
towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout
audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to
say, while they listened, "My peace I give unto you."
As I gazed on the impressive scene, all the so-called ruin of the storm
was forgotten, and never before did these noble woods appear so fresh,
so joyous, so immortal.
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