Everywhere we go there are stories large and small written into the land. From stepping over the daily travails of ants, to visiting ancient burial grounds, or hiking through blackened forests where fires ravaged the land. On these walks, you can see the fireweed blossom in the disturbed soil, and the sapling lodgepole pines push up through the ground almost as thick as grass. And there, life’s stories go on.
But this isn’t about all that. This is just a hike with family to see the world’s largest alligator juniper, near my father and stepmother’s home in Prescott, Arizona.
The hike itself is hot and dusty. It is late morning and all the wild animals know enough to be out of the June Arizona sun. Dotting the crest of a hill are giant stalks of Agave americana, stretching over my step-mother’s head. The plant is known for growing slowly for 10 to 30 years in the dry climate, its waxy leaves holding in water collected by shallow roots. At the end of its life cycle, it will shoot a mast upwards, to 25-30 feet in the air. Then, at the end of this herculean effort, it will release seeds and quickly die, the stock turning brown to match the desert before it falls.
This is not so odd in the natural world. Many species produce thousands of offspring at once, spreading them to the wind or currents just before dying. Only a small fraction of the offspring need survive to reproductive age. Better known examples of this behavior are some species of octopuses that will die of starvation after guarding their egg-filled lairs until they hatch or Pacific salmon that swim upstream to lay their eggs and die.
We humans have taken the other extreme approach, where we foist all of our resources onto a few children. We must survive the process to go on and care for their development, and in the development of our communities, even if we personally don’t have children.
The imperative is not to survive, but to make sure that our progeny and community survives. This is the only reason we have time to ponder things like the meaning of life and what our place is in the world and how we want to change it during our brief stay on Earth. Semelparity and iteroparity are the technical terms.
Continuing on, cows eye us from the side of the trail, and calves stand behind their mothers as we traipse on through burnt trees.
The alligator juniper is at the end of the trail, beneath a low hill. It is immediately clear how it has earned its common name. All it takes is a look at the bark:
Normally alligator junipers are about 7 feet in diameter. This one is about 26 feet. Its age is hard to determine, due to the irregularity of its growth. But it is estimated to have watched over this spot for hundreds or thousands of years. Surviving countless cycles of fire and drought.
It has also been converted into a memorial.
In 2013, the City of Prescott, Arizona Fire Department’s Granite Hotshots were here, as was the Doce Fire. In addition to saving nearby property and protecting the nearby community of Williamson Valley, they dug a firebreak to protect the tree, and what was already considered a special place.
Tragically, later that month, 19 out of 20 of them died in the Yarnell fire, where there is now a memorial park. But this tree is also filled with mementos to them. Stones are arranged for them. Bandanas and lockets and crosses hang from branches. We are standing in sacred space.
It is seldom that I come across a spot in nature and instantly know it is someone else’s special place, unless I find them sitting in it, eyes half closed and letting nature in. But we are alone in the shade of the juniper. And here it is still.
Our species has been wandering these lands for millennia, life for billions of years previous. Although not always as dramatic as the story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, or the life and death throes of the agave, everywhere we walk has been carved by the stories. This is one reason to go outside, to find the things that tie the people to the land.
I feel a little awkward to write about the sacrifice of men I did not know for a community I have never lived in. A more local perspective is here, “To Save a Tree,” by Cathleen Cherry.
If you would like to follow in my footsteps and are in the neighborhood of Prescott, Arizona, here is a trail description and directions.
The film “Only the Brave,” released in 2017 is also about the Granite Mountain Hot Shots.