“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” Aldo Leopold,
Gardiner, Montana, is a small community at the North Entrance to Yellowstone. Though the population swells briefly in the summer, about 800 people live here year-round. We drive at least 50 miles to reach a red light, a doctor, a dentist, or a hospital. From my deck I can see Electric Peak, the tallest mountain in the Gallatin Range which rises to our west, outlining the western edge of Yellowstone. From my backyard, the foothills of the Absaroka/Beartooth Mountains curve from the north toward the east and south, running along the eastern border of Yellowstone. Bison, elk, deer and grizzly have been known to grace our yard.
For the record: Our house has propane, running water, electricity.. ..And a wood stove. The stove is lit throughout the cold fall/winter/spring months. It is the center around which we revolve on cold days. As I write this, it’s a rainy 45 degree morning in mid June. The stove is lit, taking the chill out of the air. As much as we enjoy this warmth, we know that there is work to be done because….wood stoves need wood. And, this time of year that is what we do… cut wood. A few years ago, wanting a happy assistant, Fred bought me my very own chainsaw. I’ve found that I enjoy cutting wood with him… a sort of multi-task Crossfit activity that warms us twice and strengthens more than just our hiking muscles.
Today is day two of woodcutting. Braving the rain,we drive into the foothills above Gardiner, rolling slowly as we search for dead trees. Today there is no felling involved. We scavenge some already-downed trees.
In a small copse of spruce and lodgepole, a 100 foot, 18 inch diameter, Engelmann Spruce is partially fallen, balancing with the top branched end on a small rise and the lower end still attached at a 90 degree angle to the trunk. It looks promising. Last February’s wind event must have been just the right intensity and direction to take this tree, of all the trees, out.
As we limb and buck the wood, I can almost hear the sounds of a tree this large falling: the splintering of the trunk, cracking of branches and the final thud of the tree hitting the ground for the last time. I imagine the silence after the fall, when the entire forest would seem to be holding its breath, until finally birds and mice and squirrels and pine martens begin to stir again and the forest heaves a sigh of relief.
Our tree is old. It began growing at the end of the Little Ice Age when the climate was colder and wetter. Engelmann Spruce prefer higher elevations and colder weather, so this was perfect habitat. Even today, with climate change warming our winters, at about 7100 feet elevation, snow can fall deeply and the skiing can be grand. When our tree was young wolverines made these mountains home . Bison roamed the Great Plains by the millions and Native American tribes lived traditionally on the landscape.
During the birth year of our Engelmann Spruce the first major wagon train headed for the northwest via the Oregon Trail, bringing a thousand pioneers west, intensifying the land grab from the Indigenous peoples. Tribes may not have been severely impacted for another generation, but the destruction of native cultures was on its way.
Our tree’s first 25 years saw comparatively quick growth, then slowing, then slowing even more. Cold weather and deep snows most likely contributed to our Spruce’s early success. By the time Yellowstone was established on March 1, 1872, our tree was already 29 years old, still young by Engelmann standards, but slowing in its growth, perhaps due to competition with the other spruce nearby, perhaps due to warming climate. I needed a large magnifying glass to count the most recent rings, as growth had slowed to minute increments.
Our tree was here when miners came to Jardine, Montana, hopes high to strike rich claims. Our tree was still here when those miners departed, to be replaced by a few vacation homes and a small population of year-round residents.
Our Engelmann Spruce grew large and tall. Standing straight near a two track road, it saw the establishment of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the creation of a campground nearby, the arrival of cross country skiers, of snowmobilers, of four-wheelers cruising the two track. What else has our tree seen… I wish I knew. As it warms us this winter, I will remember the chilly rain today. I will remember cutting through each year. Our tree has seen the World Wars, many presidents, the coming of cars, trucks, planes. It has seen the landing of the first human on the moon. It has seen the polarization of our society. If our spruce could talk, I think it might tell us to coexist, to work together, to get along, to cooperate, to share.
What finally ended our tree’s sojourn? Spruce bud worm? Climate change? Age? Carpenter ants? The tree was punky at its base, but i could find no evidence of insect infestation—no bore holes, no oozing sap. In some parts of the country, Engelmann Spruce can live 500-600 years. Here in Montana? I don’t know. Whatever caused it to be felled by high winds this year, in its demise it will serve us kindly as the winter winds blow.
“He who sits by the fire, thankless for the fire, is just as if he had no fire. Nothing is possessed save in appreciation, of which thankfulness is the indispensable ingredient. ” W.J. Cameron