August 19, 2009 – Mother nature is a surefire cure for human hubris. Free photos inside!
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Western side of Mount Cuyamaca, from about 6,500 feet elevation. On a clear day one can see the ocean, perhaps 40 miles to the west (to the left in this photo).
Having an urge to take some scenic photographs, I headed up to Mount Cuyamaca yesterday, but I didn’t end up taking the kind of photographs I set out to capture. The hazy atmosphere, the summer-baked vegetation and the burned out forest weren’t very conducive to taking panoramic photographs of the landscape. Instead I ended up taking photographs documenting the welcome rebirth of a devastated mountain.
I have hiked this mountain countless times during the past thirty years. Way back in the early 1980s the mountain boasted a lush, dense, shady forest packed with wildlife. I still recall seeing whole families of deer during a hike back then – fathers with huge antlers, smaller mothers and bunches of little ones. Even today, with the forest all but dead, there are incredible numbers of deer, squirrels, lizards and even mountain lions. Yesterday I saw as many deer tracks on the trail as human footprints.
Eastern side of Mount Cuyamaca. Almost thirty years ago the occasional dead tree was an anomaly. Today the occasional living tree is the anomaly.
In the early 1980s the forest was so dense that one could walk much of the five miles or so to the top of the mountain under the shade of trees. I recall a hike after an ice storm hit the mountain. In the early morning sunlight each individual, ice-coated pine needle looked like a long crystal. An entire forest of such needles sparkling in the morning sunlight was awe inspiring, and I have always regretted not having a camera with me that day.
For the last couple of decades, however, the forest has suffered one assault after another. Two decades of dry conditions, bark beetle infestations and in 2003 and I believe 2007 as well, disastrous fires drove the final nails into the coffin of this once lush forest.
I look at this devastated mountain today, recall its former glory and lament the loss that’s occurred just within my lifetime. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how many thousands of times the forest on this mountain has been erased and reborn in this manner. Assuming such drastic upheavals occur every ten-thousand years, then the forest has likely been erased and reborn a thousand times in just the last ten-million years, an exceedingly brief epoch compared to the age of the earth. Knowing that the forest has died out and been reborn thousands of times before makes the loss seem more palatable.
Even in death there is haunting beauty. The pale and charred skeleton of a once mighty oak tree.
I was fortunate to hike here in the winter of 2002/2003, just months before the big fire in October of 2003. It was perhaps the last time there was any semblance of a forest remaining. The sky was so dark at midday that it seemed like twilight. The snow was over a foot deep everywhere, which made hiking rather taxing. And there were abundant mountain lion tracks up and down both sides of the snow-covered trail, which added to the foreboding ambiance. Nevertheless, it was a highly memorable hike.
Today, even amid the death and destruction of what looks more like a war zone than a forest, amid dead trees that stand like so many charred headstones, life is thriving. With the tall trees no longer blocking the sunlight, the smaller plants have a chance to grow, including an impressive number of new pine trees which are already three feet tall.
Rebirth of the forest, including numerous new pine trees
Death and rebirth
Young pine trees where I once enjoyed seeing a crystalline forest
I’m somewhat surprised to see the pine trees growing back so quickly. Who knows, maybe by the time I’m ready to depart this earth the forest will be almost back to what it was when I arrived on this earth. One thing is for certain, should the human species exit stage left, mother nature, in her eternal wisdom and limitless patience, will keep the show going on without us.
A busy little bee doing its part to rejuvenate the forest