It is odd how one can live blind and then suddenly new eyes open. Trees do this all the time in a very visible way. When trauma such as an avalanche or wind storm opens up a new path to light – sleeping life awakens and new branches sprout where none existed until that moment. And so it is that those who live amidst seasonal hurricane winds and reside for months at a time as youth buried under snowdrifts have mastered flexible vision – flexibility in finding the directions of their living. And so it has been with my eyes and Whitebark Stone Pine. This being which is the youngest of the oldest family of conifers – the pine family – has a lot to teach those of us with ears and eyes to hear. Whitebark Stone Pine led the healing and re-treeing of much of the landscape of Turtle Island as the great glaciers began their retreats 13,000 years ago. They did not do it alone. They are a keystone species in an array of communities that span the mountains of the west from near the arctic down into the Sierra and Colorado Rocky Mountains.
The stories of this amazing tree and the communities that have centered themselves with it are oracles of the changing earth. As the earth is changing it is good to listen and bear witness to those who have led the migrations of life on our landscapes. Two species which are most intimately connected to the tree are Clark’s Nutcracker and the Grizzly Bear. Whitebark Stone Pine is always the preferred food of Clark’s Nutcracker and as you will learn most every tree in existence in the wild has been planted by the bird.
Grizzly’s existence on Turtle Island has followed a path in time parallel to the spread of the pine beginning 13,000 years ago. This was a time of the changing of the guards when it comes to our big animals. Black bear was spread across the continent at that time but grizzly replaced the big bear of the time – the short faced bear. The short faced was huge – standing six feet tall at the shoulders on all four feet. It is now extinct – replaced by the grizzly – likely because of it’s flexibility of diet. We are learning that successful survival in our mountain parks of the returning Grizzly Bear may be tied to the fate of the Whitebark. Up to 60% of the dietary intake of Rocky Mountain Grizzlies is the Stone Pine. In years the crop is good fertility goes up and the population has increased by up to 5%. In years the crop is weak bears are pushed down the mountains and fertility goes down and populations have decreased by up to 7%.
In a coming series of posts we will explore the imaginations and dancing of Whitebark Stone Pine, Clark’s Nutcracker and the Grizzly Bear in the Greater CheeAwana (Columbia) Watershed and the connected biomes of Cascadia and the Rocky Mountains.