The western juniper is far from statuesque, not even close to colossal when compared with other tree species, and is given to growing in contorted, stunted, twisted, warped, crumpled, distressed and arthritic configurations.
It’s mostly at home in areas of scant rainfall (9 to 14 inches a year) and in shallow, volcanic soils that would drive a normal tree to higher ground. It’s coyote sturdy, a tough hombre uniquely suited to the tortuous terrain of the High Desert West. Nowhere is it more abundant than in Central Oregon, where it grows on about 3 million acres, in varying densities.
The juniper tree has its detractors, and they have valid arguments. Because natural and native-set fires have dwindled dramatically since livestock grazing and fire suppression began, the juniper has monopolized the landscape. According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, there were 420,000 acres of juniper in the eastern part of the state in the mid-1930s. Since then, its range has increased at least tenfold. The juniper sucks water, lowering local water tables, which irritates landowners who have come to view the relatively young stands as invasive pests.
It’s those juvenile trees, most stock straight and comparatively spindly, that can water down appreciation for Juniperus occidentalis.
But the old soldiers, the gnarled, disfigured veterans, some of which were saplings when Leif Eriksson led his expedition to North America 1,000 years ago (well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue) are a lifelong study in rugged individualism.
“We’re so used to seeing all the little trees out there,” said desert advocate Bill Marlett, of Bend. “When you get into the ancient junipers, they rival any (trees) in terms of beauty and elegance. You have to go look for the old ones.”
But not that far.
According to Marlett, the oldest juniper in Oregon (estimated at 1,600 years old) is up on Horse Ridge, east of Bend. Just across U.S. Highway 20 to the north, the Badlands is full of ancient trees. There are also big trees in the country between China Hat butte and Fort Rock and out toward Post way east of Prineville.
And none of them look even remotely the same.
I’ve been shooting photos of interesting old-growth junipers for years. I’m drawn to them, partly because they’re the ultimate non-conformists and partly because they’re a fitting icon for the Oregon High Desert that I love. Coyotes and birds feast on the juniper’s berries. Small animals nest in the crannies and nooks. Big game animals, such as mule deer and elk, use the trees for cover.
For me, it’s the whole package. During a recent hike from the Obernolte Trailhead, on the northwest border of the Badlands Wilderness Study Area, cross country south into the heart of the old-growth juniper forest, I walked quietly, observed carefully and tried to read the vital signs. Although it was quiet, save for the crunch of my boots in the snow and an occasional gust through the dense juniper boughs, the place buzzed with activity. I flushed a cottontail rabbit and a covey of quail. But the fresh coat of snow revealed the usually unseen, a surprisingly varied and concentrated collection of tracks there beneath the big sagebrush, rabbitbrush and bunchgrass. I’m not sure where the jackrabbits and cottontails sit right now in their fluctuating population cycle, but I’ve a hunch it could be close to a peak. They’d been out in force earlier in the day. I also saw the tracks of deer, the scat of elk and my find of the day, the tell-tale track of a bobcat (not surprisingly paralleling a rabbit’s route). A day in the life: The comings and goings would all be erased with the melting of the snow.
The old, old junipers knit the entire scene together.
I don’t believe trees see or feel or speak in the conventional sense, but they can tell us much about a place and something, maybe, about ourselves. Despite an increase in human footprints and a random poacher out for an ill-gotten fireplace mantle, this place feels like it’s been around awhile and it’s breathing OK on its own.
When we walk among the ancient junipers, do we simply see a swath of sylvan sameness or a higher connection to the primitive, soul-churning essence of wild land?
“(Some people) just don’t understand how valuable these old trees are,” said Marlett. “They are irreplaceable.”
At least for the next millennium or so.