CHAPTER VIII. THE FORESTS
The coniferous forests of the Sierra are the grandest and most beautiful in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting and accessible of mountain-ranges, yet strange to say they are not well known. More than sixty years ago David Douglas, an enthusiastic botanist and tree lover, wandered alone through fine sections of the Sugar Pine and Silver Fir woods wild with delight. A few years later, other botanists made short journeys from the coast into the lower woods. Then came the wonderful multitude of miners into the foot-hill zone, mostly blind with gold-dust, soon followed by "sheepmen," who, with wool over their eyes, chased their flocks through all the forest belts from one end of the range to the other. Then the Yosemite Valley was discovered, and thousands of admiring tourists passed through sections of the lower and middle zones on their way to that wonderful park, and gained fine glimpses of the Sugar Pines and Silver Firs along the edges of dusty trails and roads. But few indeed, strong and free with eyes undimmed with care, have gone far enough and lived long enough with the trees to gain anything like a loving conception of their grandeur and significance as manifested in the harmonies of their distribution and varying aspects throughout the seasons, as they stand arrayed in their winter garb rejoicing in storms, putting forth their fresh leaves in the spring while steaming with resiny fragrance, receiving the thunder-showers of summer, or reposing heavy-laden with ripe cones in the rich sungold of autumn. For knowledge of this kind one must dwell with the trees and grow with them, without any reference to time in the almanac sense.
The distribution of the general forest in belts is readily perceived. These, as we have seen, extend in regular order from one extremity of the range to the other; and however dense and somber they may appear in general views, neither on the rocky heights nor down in the leafiest hollows will you find anything to remind you of the dank, malarial selvas of the Amazon and Orinoco, with, their "boundless contiguity of shade," the monotonous uniformity of the Deodar forests of the Himalaya, the Black Forest of Europe, or the dense dark woods of Douglas Spruce where rolls the Oregon. The giant pines, and firs, and Sequoias hold their arms open to the sunlight, rising above one another on the mountain benches, marshaled in glorious array, giving forth the utmost expression of grandeur and beauty with inexhaustible variety and harmony.
The inviting openness of the Sierra woods is one of their most distinguishing characteristics. The trees of all the species stand more or less apart in groves, or in small, irregular groups, enabling one to find a way nearly everywhere, along sunny colonnades and through openings that have a smooth, park-like surface, strewn with brown needles and burs. Now you cross a wild garden, now a meadow, now a ferny, willowy stream; and ever and anon you emerge from all the groves and flowers upon some granite pavement or high, bare ridge commanding superb views above the waving sea of evergreens far and near.
One would experience but little difficulty in riding on horseback through the successive belts all the way up to the storm-beaten fringes of the icy peaks. The deep canons, however, that extend from the axis of the range, cut the belts more or less completely into sections, and prevent the mounted traveler from tracing them lengthwise.
This simple arrangement in zones and sections brings the forest, as a whole, within the comprehension of every observer. The different species are ever found occupying the same relative positions to one another, as controlled by soil, climate, and the comparative vigor of each species in taking and holding the ground; and so appreciable are these relations, one need never be at a loss in determining, within a few hundred feet, the elevation above sea-level by the trees alone; for, notwithstanding some of the species range upward for several thousand feet, and all pass one another more or less, yet even those possessing the greatest vertical range are available in this connection, in as much as they take on new forms corresponding with the variations in altitude.
Crossing the treeless plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin from the west and reaching the Sierra foot-hills, you enter the lower fringe of the forest, composed of small oaks and pines, growing so far apart that not one twentieth of the surface of the ground is in shade at clear noonday. After advancing fifteen or twenty miles, and making an ascent of from two to three thousand feet, you reach the lower margin of the main pine belt, composed of the gigantic Sugar Pine, Yellow Pine, Incense Cedar, and Sequoia. Next you come to the magnificent Silver Fir belt, and lastly to the upper pine belt, which sweeps up the rocky acclivities of the summit peaks in a dwarfed, wavering fringe to a height of from ten to twelve thousand feet.