Mesa Campground, Lake Roberts
Gila National Forest
I am surrounded by Juniper trees, and the irony is not lost on me. Part of the purpose of this trip is to be moving forward in a new life. And here I am, in the high desert of New Mexico, at about the same elevation of my childhood home, encompassed by the same genera of trees that I laid eyes on daily for 19 years. Despite the irony, something that reminds me of home is comforting.
The Juniper is truly a desert tree: drought resistant, hardy, shrubby. Its leaves are not like the leaves of many other trees; they are described as scales, short, thin and lacy in appearance. The small thin scaly leaves of the Juniper tree do not lose moisture like the leaves of broadleaf trees do. They keep their leaves year round. The Juniper can survive in extreme climates and I have noticed more of them at higher elevations. On this trip, I have seen stubby, gnarled white ghosts of the trees with their bark stripped away, bleached like bones by the sun and wind, in the Organ Pipe National Monument in south west Arizona along the Mexico border. They coexist in the Sonoran desert with the densley-spined cholla (pronounced “choy-a”) that is also known as the jumping cactus, prickly pear cactus, Saguaro (sa-huaro) cactus that appear like tall men with their arms held up high, the elegant Ocatillo with its bunches of small red-orange blossoms that provide pops of color against the desert sky when the cactus are not yet in bloom, with the Yucca of many uses; and also at a mile high in the Gila wildnerness with fewer prickly pear, some yellow fruiting cholla, an occasional Yucca, some small scrubby Gambel Oak trees, and tall Pinon and Pondersosa Pine.
There are three distinct Juniper species here: the Alligator Juniper, the Rocky Mountain, and the One Seed Juniper. The bark of the Alligator Juniper is very distinctive, as it truly resembles the skin of an Alligator with its squarish chunks. Other Juniper species have a reddish bark that grows in long strips. I have seen at least two other types of Juniper, as the one in the Sonoran desert looks very different from the 3 species here. There was also another species at the KOA in Silver City, which was full, dark and beautiful with massive berries at least 1⁄2” wide. The majority of Juniper trees you will see are quite plain in appearance. They generally don’t grow very tall and have a tear drop shape with densely packed thin limbs pointing upward at an angle. There were two varieties of Juniper trees in Moon Valley where I grew up- the plain ones, and interspersed were fewer of what we called “Red Juniper”. I don’t believe that is their proper name. These were taller than the others, with heavier limbs that branched out horizontally at further distances. Their profile was almost like that of a large oak. My sister and I enjoyed climbing these larger trees. They had “character”: they were trees that made you stop and look when so much of the landscape was repetetive. To this day, I love trees that are large, with dramatic twisted trunks and limbs outstretched as they embrace the horizon. They remind me of wizened old men and women weathered by storms, but wise, safe and strong, full of stories of many generations.
The large old Junipers of my childhood home watched over and nourished the natives that my family later found evidence of- chipped obsidion and even some complete arrowheads. Not long ago, I did some research on the natives that lived in Moon Valley and even found some photos of the natives and their dwellings out on the Madeline Plains. Not only did they use the leaves and berries of the Juniper, but they also used the branches to construct upper sides and roofs of their pit homes. As we have traveled through the various desert regions, I have found myself continually curious about and amazed by the ways that the native Indians subsisted. The natives in all of the high desert regions of California, Arizona, and New Mexico ate the berries (also known as cones), and boiled the berries and leaves for medicinal tea.
Enjoyed not only by the Indians, the Juniper cones are also eaten by different species of birds. I remember awakening one day when I was a teenager to the chattering of a large migrating flock of cedar waxwings. I was delighted to observe the formal looking birds that I had never before seen, with their dramatic black masks. They feasted on the pungent, frosty, gray-blue-green cones of the trees just outside our front door for a day or two before continuing on their instinctual path. The cedar waxwings left behind hard purple streaks laced with the tiny Juniper seeds to decorate my mother’s vehicle parked beneath the tree in front of the house.
I stepped outside and stretched my legs to prepare to walk and sprint around the campsite. On my walks around the campsites, I am always on the lookout for plants, birds and animals that I haven’t seen before. As I started into the curve on the far side of the site, near the trailhead that went down the hill to the lake, soft, short whistles came from my right. I paused at site 14 and peered up into the trees to locate the source of the chirps. They seemed to be coming from the tall pine near the picnic table. Nothing in the pine. I stepped quietly to the left, the juniper tree behind the pine now fully in view. Small, handsome, buff colored birds with yellow bellies, black masks, and a short crest flitted among the branches. Cedar waxwings! Here in a juniper tree high in the Gila National Forest were the beautiful little birds I had written about the night before!
My morning walk was forgotten as I jogged back to the campsite to ask my children if they wanted to see the waxwings. Three of them came back with me and we watched the birds feeding among the branches. Seven or so waxwings fluttered around, deftly plucking the green-blue juniper cones, discarding those that were too hard and shriveled for their taste and pausing occasionally to train a cautious eye on us. They patiently endured our observations as we visited the tree a few times. However, when I returned with my camera, hoping to preserve my special memory, they promptly flew to another tree. Apparently my camera was more imposing than four people gathered below the tree. I sadly reminded myself that I really need to get a telephoto lens for my camera!