XIV. Nevada's Timber Belt
The pine woods on the tops of the Nevada mountains are already shining and blooming in winter snow, making a most blessedly refreshing appearance to the weary traveler down on the gray plains. During the fiery days of summer the whole of this vast region seems so perfectly possessed by the sun that the very memories of pine trees and snow are in danger of being burned away, leaving one but little more than dust and metal. But since these first winter blessings have come, the wealth and beauty of the landscapes have come fairly into view, and one is rendered capable of looking and seeing.
The grand nut harvest is over, as far as the Indians are concerned, though perhaps less than one bushel in a thousand of the whole crop has been gathered. But the squirrels and birds are still busily engaged, and by the time that Nature's ends are accomplished, every nut will doubtless have been put to use.
All of the nine Nevada conifers mentioned in my last letter are also found in California, excepting only the Rocky Mountain spruce, which I have not observed westward of the Snake Range. So greatly, however, have they been made to vary by differences of soil and climate, that most of them appear as distinct species. Without seeming in any way dwarfed or repressed in habit, they nowhere develop to anything like California dimensions. A height of fifty feet and diameter of twelve or fourteen inches would probably be found to be above the average size of those cut for lumber. On the margin of the Carson and Humboldt Sink the larger sage bushes are called "heavy timber"; and to the settlers here any tree seems large enough for saw-logs.
Mills have been built in the most accessible canyons of the higher ranges, and sufficient lumber of an inferior kind is made to supply most of the local demand. The principal lumber trees of Nevada are the white pine (Pinus flexilis), foxtail pine, and Douglas spruce, or "red pine," as it is called here. Of these the first named is most generally distributed, being found on all the higher ranges throughout the State. In botanical characters it is nearly allied to the Weymouth, or white, pine of the Eastern States, and to the sugar and mountain pines of the Sierra. In open situations it branches near the ground and tosses out long down-curving limbs all around, often gaining in this way a very strikingly picturesque habit. It is seldom found lower than nine thousand feet above the level of the sea, but from this height it pushes upward over the roughest ledges to the extreme limit of tree growth - about eleven thousand feet.
On the Hot Creek, White Pine, and Golden Gate ranges we find a still hardier and more picturesque species, called the foxtail pine, from its long dense leaf-tassels. About a foot or eighteen inches of the ends of the branches are densely packed with stiff outstanding needles, which radiate all around like an electric fox- or squirrel-tail. The needles are about an inch and a half long, slightly curved, elastic, and glossily polished, so that the sunshine sifting through them makes them burn with a fine silvery luster, while their number and elastic temper tell delightfully in the singing winds.
This tree is pre-eminently picturesque, far surpassing not only its companion species of the mountains in this respect, but also the most noted of the lowland oaks and elms. Some stand firmly erect, feathered with radiant tail tassels down to the ground, forming slender, tapering towers of shining verdure; others with two or three specialized branches pushed out at right angles to the trunk and densely clad with the tasseled sprays, take the form of beautiful ornamental crosses. Again, in the same woods you find trees that are made up of several boles united near the ground, and spreading in easy curves at the sides in a plane parallel to the axis of the mountain, with the elegant tassels hung in charming order between them the whole making a perfect harp, ranged across the main wind-lines just where they may be most effective in the grand storm harmonies. And then there is an infinite variety of arching forms, standing free or in groups, leaning away from or toward each other in curious architectural structures, - innumerable tassels drooping under the arches and radiating above them, the outside glowing in the light, masses of deep shade beneath, giving rise to effects marvelously beautiful, - while on the roughest ledges of crumbling limestone are lowly old giants, five or six feet in diameter, that have braved the storms of more than a thousand years. But, whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest gales, this tree is ever found to be irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque, offering a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other species I have yet seen.
One of the most interesting mountain excursions I have made in the State was up through a thick spicy forest of these trees to the top of the highest summit of the Troy Range, about ninety miles to the south of Hamilton. The day was full of perfect Indian-summer sunshine, calm and bracing. Jays and Clarke crows made a pleasant stir in the foothill pines and junipers; grasshoppers danced in the hazy light, and rattled on the wing in pure glee, reviving suddenly from the torpor of a frosty October night to exuberant summer joy. The squirrels were working industriously among the falling nuts; ripe willows and aspens made gorgeous masses of color on the russet hillsides and along the edges of the small streams that threaded the higher ravines; and on the smooth sloping uplands, beneath the foxtail pines and firs, the ground was covered with brown grasses, enriched with sunflowers, columbines, and larkspurs and patches of linosyris, mostly frost-nipped and gone to seed, yet making fine bits of yellow and purple in the general brown.