Thursday, September 22, 2011

Blind Spots

or Getting Back to Nature

Some days just don't go according to plan.

"Closed:  For the purpose of minimizing the potential of a dangerous bear/human encounter.   Numerous bears are in the area feeding on the abundant acorn crop."

There's something compelling about bears.  With a little extra vacation time this year, I've been taking advantage of long weekends all summer to go rambling around in the Great (and sometimes Fair to Middling) Outdoors.  This week's destination was the Sulphur Canyon trail, a loop through what my books promised would be a "lushly forested" area of the Sandias.  The bears got there first, however, and arguing with bears, especially the hungry, grumpy ones with acorn fetishes, is something I mostly try to avoid.

Another trailhead a good, safe quarter mile up the road was still open.  I wasn't familiar with the trail and didn't know what to expect but decided at least to give it a shot.  I enjoyed it—loved it—although it wasn't an unmixed pleasure; but more about that in a minute.

The trail is called "La Cienega," a "wet meadow" in New Mexican Spanish.  Seasonal springs dot this area of the mountains, and the extra moisture fosters some truly lush growth, including alpine forests full of cool, dappled shade that feels just wonderful on a late summer day.  When you spend most of your outdoor time in the unbroken shade of your afternoon patio, the unbroken sunshine of the foothills, or the—I don't know what, slightly grazed?—sunshine among the cottonwoods along the bosque, you forget what it's like in a mountain forest.  The light—oh, the light:  soft and glowing with a cathedral brightness against a rich backdrop of shade.

Fleabane (Erigeron)
A different kind of fleabane

I say "forest" and know that I walked through one but in a way couldn't actually swear to it.  Probably there were trees.  I'm almost certain that there were.  Something, after all, had to have been casting all that lovely, dappled shade, and trees are likely to have been it.*   I was too enrapt looking at the wildflowers, though, to pay much attention to anything else.

From top to bottom, starting in the upper left (add an "I think" after all of them but the yarrow):  Some sort of four o'clock (Mirabilis etcetera); common yarrow (Achillea millefolium); MacDougal's Verbena (V. macdougalii); yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius); pineywoods geranium (G. caespitosum); the same some sort of 4:00 as before; Canadian violet (Viola canadensis); towering Jacob's ladder (Polemonium foliosissimum) in blue and white versions; Whipple's penstemon (P. whippleanus); and cutleaf coneflower seeds and flowers (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Flowers had splashed everywhere, vibrant, lush, exhilarating.  Sunflowers, coneflowers, harebells, asters, geraniums—before I had even made it the few steps from the car to the trailhead, the camera was out and working.  Flowers, I pay attention to.  Trees, on the other hand... they're kind of a blind spot of mine.  I notice them in general but often don't pay much attention to them in particular.  If you asked me whether the forest trees were pines, aspens, or baobabs, I wouldn't know, not because I can't tell the difference, but because I really didn't see them. 

Not the live ones, that is.  The dead ones are a little different.  Only one jarring note sounded during this excursion:

but it sounded over

and over

and over.

Logging?  Forest management?  The internet mentioned logging in the 1950's, but I highly doubt these trees were felled as long ago as 60 years.  Still, it's been long enough for fungus to have grown on the logs, so "a number of years ago" would be my guess, but not many.

Back at home I looked in my books for information about the hiking trail but found no mention of the downed logs.  The blogs and other online resources—no mention.  Either it's such a normal feature of trails in the Sandias, or the path turns into pristine wilderness farther on, or the writers have focused only on guidepost-y landmarks, or they're so aware of all the good things—the raspy call of mountain chickadees, the shrieking of Steller's jays; the brisk, resiny smell of conifers and the sweet scent that only comes near fresh water; the trees (whatever they are) and abundant wildflowers—that the ugliness of waste is something they're blind to, at least in print.

That kind of blew me away—at first impression the detritus almost overwhelms the beauty of the flowers.  It's everywhere.  It looks like a mountainside of trees was clearcut and the unmillable logs abandoned.  But on my second visit, or third?  Maybe I'll learn to be blind to the wreckage, too.

I've found myself since then mulling over different kinds of blind spots:  "inattentional blindness"—the invisible gorilla that we overlook because our focus is elsewhere, as described by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons; blindness to things we haven't yet learned to notice and so don't have on our radar; and the clearcutting blindnesses we choose to suit our own purposes.

One day the land will recover from  and return to equilibrium.  But in the arid mountains, 7,000 feet above sea level, that will be a long, slow process.

La Cienega is getting back to nature—but it won't get there in my lifetime.

* Flocks of considerate hummingbirds are so hard to come by these days.
For the record, I know Dan Simons but am mentioning The Invisible Gorilla purely on its own merits; I haven't been paid—or even bribed with pizza (Dan's preferred medium of exchange).  (Do look at the experiment—it's fascinating.)

Editor's Note: Since publishing a more spluttery version of this post on the 22nd, I've come back and softened it a little.  Really, I don't know why I got so up in arms; the horse is long since out of the barn.

Editor's Note 2:  Baffled made a comment that has me rethinking my impressions.  I may have jumped to conclusions and have done some editing accordingly.  The upshot is, "I don't know what happened there but would sure like to find out."  


  1. Stacy, that first photo is exquisite and what a wonderful range of wildflowers. I've never come across Whipple's Penstemon before. I wonder who "Whipple" was?

    As to the tree felling, many of the woods here both private and those owned by the Forestry Commission manange their woods to varying degrees but there are always some logs left and debris lying about. But it is mainly uesed and in this climate it goes back to nature much sooner.

  2. Janet, I looked up the penstemon--it's named for Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, who led a survey expedition through the southwest in 1854 to find a route for the Pacific Railroad.

    Most of the logging I've seen on federal lands has been what you've described, often as part of a forest fire management program. These trees must have been completely razed at one point, though. I'm kind of surprised the post ended up being such an angry one--it wasn't my intention when I began. I may actually rewrite the last section.

  3. I agree that the forest has its own charm and mystique. It probably is the dappled light that filters through the trees. The logging I don't know much about. It's been a while since I've hiked through any forest. But I think loggers often leave things behind. I suppose they know what will be good to mill and if it doesn't meet their criteria it is left. It could have been good firewood for someone, though, it looks like. Perhaps ask a ranger? Maybe if attention was drawn to this waste, they would not look past it and have a solution next time.

  4. Holley, from what I read online, the wood here isn't actually particularly good for logging--it's too brittle and soft. I wonder if the loggers didn't take the few trees worth milling and cut down the rest to get to them. I'd definitely like to find a ranger, if only to learn the history of what happened here. It's been a number of years since the logging happened, though--I'm pretty sure the mills in Albuquerque have shut down since then. And at this point, doing anything to retrieve the felled lumber would do more damage than leaving it to rot. :/

  5. Stacy, when I lived in the Jemez Mountains, you could get a permit to cut fallen trees for firewood. Trees that had fallen over naturally. I don't know if there was any kind of logging up there, but I know that the permits are still available for the Santa Fe National Forest.

    My supervisor grows Whipple's penstemon in her garden. It's half hardy in SF, I think.

  6. Forest management is an interesting and politically fraught subject. There has certainly been abuses of logging for profit on federal lands but if the forest is managed properly the older diseased trees are cut down fairly regularly. Looking at the cuts these trees were felled within the last year or so. They haven't gone completely grey yet. The stumps I had in my yard from trees we took out ten years ago are completely gone now so these guys aren't 50 years old.

    Occasionally if there is an invasive bug or plant involved the wood may not be allowed out of the area for fear of spreading the invader. I know you are no longer allowed to pack in or out wood of any kind in the Adirondacks due to a beetle invasion. My future BIL who owns several hundred acres in the Adirondacks hires people to come in and maintain the woods via selective felling. It increases the health of the forest in general, allowing trees the room to grow into large healthy adults. The healthier the trees the more resistant to fires.

    Logging is an ugly business. They leave crap behind because it costs money to truck it out. Why take unusable stuff when it will just decompose and become good soil? It is better that it is on the floor of the woods than in a landfill somewhere. At least here it will do some good.

    Probably to learn anything in your area you would have to seek out specialty magazines on forest management. This is how I started learning about it. I happened across a forestry management trade publication at a friend's house. Interesting stuff and while it is frequently abused it isn't all evil.

  7. After the first world war great swathes of wilderness in the UK were blanketed in ugly, monotonous blocks of conifer, I think to ensure we would be self sufficient in timber if there was another war. Some of these woods are only now being clear felled. I walked through one such a few months ago in Ennerdale, in the English Lake District. Much of the timber is just being left to rot, I guess because it isn't economic to extract but, as Janet says, it will decompose in our climate faster than in yours. Ennerdale will in time revert to open fell side again - heather and grass and bracken. Sadly there are no bears at all in the UK anymore, though I can see they would be an inconvenience!

    Sadder still, I'm not called Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple.


  8. GirlSprout, I'm fairly certain that permits are issued in the Cibola National Forest, too, though maybe not this year because it's been so dry. I think the wastefulness is what really gets my goat about all the cut trees.

    The Whipple's penstemon is such a deep color--I bet it makes a gorgeous garden addition.

    Baffled, no, no, it definitely hasn't been 50 years—I should have made the eye-rolling clearer at that point. I think it's been more than one, though, because there was quite a lot of undergrowth around the logs. I understand what you're saying about the color of the cuts, but I just don't think even herbs/forbs get lush and thick quite that quickly here, whereas the aging/decaying process does go more slowly.

    What you say about insect/disease damage makes sense, and I'm rethinking what I saw—I need to walk the trail again and take another look. I did find a Forest Service proposal to take down a pretty huge number of damaged trees in 2009 because they were falling hazards, but the info I read said they had decided against it in favor of less invasive methods (i.e., warning people to duck). Maybe they changed their minds the other way again--I could see all the neatly stacked, cut logs from trees felled near the paths being forest service work. The left-at-random ones all over the hillside, though, way off the beaten track, strike me as different.

    I'm certainly not against forest management. Some cutting would actually be helpful in minimizing fire danger, especially of the young pines that catch fire quickly and “ladder” the flames up into the crowns of the older trees. And I hear what you say about leaving the logs to decompose, but really, it will probably be decades before these rot. Heck, most of the wood chips I spread on my garden four years ago are still recognizable as individual chips, and they're just an inch thick and have soaker hoses dripping on them once a week...

    Dave, it's nice to think of a landscape being restored to its traditional self, especially from something so alien to it. (And hard to imagine conifer forests in England—do any grow there naturally?) You have to sympathize with that post-war mentality, though—trying to think defensively a long way ahead.

    Bears definitely have their inconveniences, but we set ourselves up for a lot of them. A bear at the Priory, now...I could see you getting some good blog posts out of that. On the run, maybe, but they'd be interesting.

    Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple was probably your parents' second choice for a name.

  9. When alien pines are felled to give the indigenous fynbos a chance to recover, the fallen trees are mostly left lying. Could yours have been left as part of erosion control? What is the topography like? One I see has a rotten heart, so was a hazard to hikers?

    One of the illuminating things about blogging is that it reveals to me what I think about something. You are angry about the fallen logs. Will be interesting to hear a ranger's explanation.

  10. Diana, yes, I do think in retrospect that the logs closer to the paths were cut because they were hazards; I'm still not sure about the ones farther away. Part of my anger was that I had thought that the whole mountain was a designated wilderness area, which as I understand it should show minimal signs of human intrusion. According to more detailed maps than I had on hand, though, the wilderness area doesn't begin until a little farther on into the trail. I'd really love to hear a ranger's explanation if you have access to one.

    Really, I don't know quite why I got so up in arms. It's not like me in general, and I think I jumped to conclusions. I suppose it's just frustration at wanting a "back-to-nature" experience with my limited capabilities, and then not quite having one.