Things Fall Into Place

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Tonight I will sleep in the White Mountains of east-central
California at a high, lonely place aptly called Grand View
Campground. At 8000 feet on the western flank of the range,
it provides an overview of Owens Valley, and an awesome
panorama of the Range of Light, the High Sierra. A small dirt
track leads west from the campground through the sage
and Pinon Pine to some craggy outcrops distinctly
uncomfortable for sitting. I know I will stop there, facing this
awesome sweep of altitude, granite and ice, and of

I have visited these mountains since I was a little kid. Dad
was a geologist, a teacher at the university, and for many
summers conducted field camps in this area for his
students. Visiting him during those summers introduced
me to this country. In 1971, years after dadís involvement in
the geology camps, I returned. I wrote a line of poetry so
foreign to my life at that time that I have not forgotten: “If God
is anywhere, this is the place.”

I’m not a religious man, though I had my share of it in my
twenties through forties. Those decades of experience are
probably why Iím not a religious man today. Back in 1971, in
the high Whites, religion wasn’t present in that line of

Poet David Whyte once said, “Sometimes everything has to
be enscribed across the heavens for you to find the one line
already written inside you.” I found my “one line” sitting
among the ancient Bristlecone Pines, native to the high
reaches of this desert range. These trees are wind swept,
sand blasted, living beings of immense age. They were
both the inspiration and the only audience for the words I
wrote that day. It took the harshness of this place and the
almost inconceivable stretch of time these trees have lived
to nurse open a broken spot in the hardness of my young
life. And God showed up. I remember that feeling, that initial
breath of spirit coming to consciousness.

Tonight I will be there again.

The road up Westgard pass is steep and serpentine. This
is sun broiled country, and the sand and the rock radiate
heat upward. The canyon narrows, and around a northern
bend, an incongruous eruption of green appears. As we
approach the spring, memories stir in me. In the early
evening, after a day in the field and a good camp meal with
his colleagues and students, Dad and I would walk up the
hill to the old flat-bed Ford. On the bed of the truck, like a
blob of melted tar, was a great rubber bladder, an Army
surplus relic. This held the water supply for the geology
camp, the headwaters of a system of pipes that fed two
outdoor showers among the Pinon Pines. Each afternoon
there was a silent competition for the first water out of those
pipes, which had heated during the day. The bladder
needed re-filling every three days or so. Dad liked that duty,
and when I was in camp, it was my job, too.

After unfastening the fittings, we climbed into the cab of the
truck. It seemed an enormous vehicle to me. My chin could
rest on the sill of the open passenger window. Dad put it in
first gear, and we moved slowly down the sage covered hill
to the dirt ruts leading out of camp and onto the Westgard
road. The trip to the spring took about 30 minutes. I can’t
remember what Dad and I talked about, but it is a sweet
memory, knowing that it was just him and me. I imagine he
had plenty to think about after a day in the field with his
students. But maybe thatís why he liked this particular
errand. There is something settling and simple about the
high desert; perhaps Dad and I didn’t talk much. Perhaps
silence was Dad’s way of courting solitude and teaching his
young son to do the same.

The water from the spring up on the hill was captured and
guided into a pipe that brought it down near the road. We
would park the truck next to the stone and cement trough
holding the water that bubbled out of the pipe. Dad would
tap into the supply higher up the hill so the bladder would fill
by gravity. I always liked to sit on the bladder where the hose
attached. I could feel the bladder gently swell as it filled with
the cool water. It took about two hours.

In the mild cool of the evening, as the light lowered in the
canyon, bats would rise from the dense Cottonwood foliage.
They were silent soaring shadows creating amazing
designs in the sky. Dad said they were eating mosquitoes,
and that he was glad there was something that liked eating
mosquitoes before the mosquitoes would eat us. I think he
found a joy in that thought. He said it every time we came to
the spring for water.

I liked trying to hit the bats with rocks. This was far less
possible than I liked to think. But I remember Dad
encouraging me as one of my tosses came close, and then
laughing at the futility of the effort. In these simple things, I
remember a childlike joy in my father. He loved the natural
world; he loved unfolding it in knowledge for others, and
there at the spring, his joy, and his love for the natural world
were planted in me.

On this trip to the White Mountains, I travel with my cousin,
Dave. He and I have become close over the past several
months. Dave is a landscape photographer. His love for
wilderness beauty and his quality of seeing draws me to
him. This was the first time he has come to this area,
although he knows of it through family stories and friends.
He is planning on photographing the Bristlecone Pines for
the first time.

In the morning, Dave and I drive out from Grand View
Campground, and head up hill. The first access to the
Bristlecones is at Schulman Grove, at about 10,000 feet, but
we opt to go higher. The pavement ends at Schulman
Grove; twelve miles along the dirt road we come to Patriarch
Grove, at just over 11,000 feet.

Foliage at this altitude is small and low-growing: a few
clumps of sage, mostly lichen and tiny, brilliant wildflowers.
From a distance these little flowers give the white dolomitic
soil and rock a dusting of pastel color: pink, blue, yellow.
The only other foliage are the Bristlecone Pines. Though
they are not tall as trees go, they dominate my

Neither Dave nor I speak much as we drive down the rough
spur leading to the Patriarch Grove. These trees have a
presence much larger than their physical being. Words
almost seem inappropriate. I sense in their presence a
patience, an acceptance, and a wisdom that is as tangible
as the rarefied air the trees grow in.

Dave and I walk down a trail to the tree after which the grove
is named: The Patriarch. It is the largest of the Bristlecone
Pines, with a trunk circumference of about 37 feet. I estimate
its height to be about the same. As we approach The
Patriarch, I notice how it has grown. The highest reach of
this magnificent tree is formed from long-dead trunk and
limbs. They are beautiful tan, brown and wine-colored
spears pointing into the depth of space. Out from the center
horizontally and below the vertical rise of the old, dead trunk,
the branches, needles and cones form a lush doughnut of
living tree.

I walk up to the tree. I’m breathing deeply with the altitude. I
gently touch one of the needled boughs above my head. I
walk beneath the tree, into its space, into its embrace.
Emotion rises freely. I am greeting an understanding,
compassionate seer. I touch the living trunk. I feel its rough
texture. I say “Thank you.”

Dave has thoughtfully given me space for my experience,
but I walk around the huge trunk and see that he is having
his own moment of greeting with the tree. I can see Dave’s
eyes see – not what he sees, but his intense focus, his
noticing of detail, his connected heart, his love. He moves
slowly, looking at all angles; then he moves quickly with
some silent intuition of another image that captures a small
slice of soul of The Patriarch.

Dave and I walk out across a large flat meadow of white
rock and lichen, and ascend a hill south and east of The
Patriarch. We slow our pace as we move up the slope
allowing our lungs to keep up with us. From the top of the
hill we look directly east and down to Cottonwood Basin, a
lush oasis of granite, aspen, grass and sun. The eastern
horizon draws our sight across the vast Great Basin. John
Muir described this view as “ridge upon ridge, as great
layers of ash dropped from a burning sky.” To the north,
White Mountain itself glances over the intervening ridges. It
stands as high as the highest of Sierra Peaks.

How can anything grow here? Let alone survive for almost
5000 years. These trees do. It is the unique qualities of the
Bristlecone Pine in concert with the harshness and difficulty
of this place that actually contribute to such longevity. Dr.
Edmund Schulman, after whom the Schulman Grove is
named, wrote, “…on the driest and most adverse sites it is
easier to find a very old tree than a very young one.”

I enjoy picturing Schulman who, in the mid-1950’s came
here on a whim and a rumor, and he found the culminating
discovery of his lifeís work: the world’s oldest known living
thing. His love and wonder for these trees is palpable when
he writes: “There is something a little fantastic in the
persistent ability of a 4,000-year old tree to shut up shop
almost everywhere through its stem in a very dry year, and
faithfully to reawaken to add many new cells in a favorable

I imagine him walking among these trees over forty years
ago. I like to think that the trees drew out his heart the way
they do mine. I see him asking permission of the tree to
take a core sample, and the gentleness of his intrusion. And
I see him in his small lit trailer, late in the evening, counting
dense rings under a microscope. I feel his excitement and
awe as it begins to dawn on him: “That evening I had our
long cores … under the lens, and as I dated the outer
centuries of rings and then went on to a quick count of the
earlier rings, unusually crowded even for Bristlecone, I felt
excitement rise, for we were rapidly piling up the centuries.
And when I got to within one inch of the inner end of our
cores, I fairly shouted at my colleague working across the

I have already lived more years than Edmund Schulman. He
died early, at 49, which I find an irony in light of his work with
the Bristlecones. Many times in my life I have questioned my
own purpose and work: what my life means. At times this
questioning has seemed as intrusive as a core sample
must be to a tree. I feel as if I have counted the rings of my
life, identifying the growth, the hard and lean years, the
times I shut down.

Dave and I spend the evening atop a wide ridge watching
the sun drop and the full moon rise. He is absorbed in his
art; I allow my thoughts to move. It occurs to me that
personal meaning is a very present experience. Meaning
draws on history, but doesn’t live there. We bring meaning
to this moment alone.

Edmund Schulman’s work and love for these trees. Dad
and me at the spring on Westgard Pass over forty years
ago. That one line of poetry that came to me as an opening
to something greater in life. Being with the ancient Patriarch
today. Dave’s passion, focus and engagement in wanting
the world to see what he sees. All these bring meaning to
this moment, and I sense, in the presence of all that has
come before, a grand design complete now, but still
forming. From this vantage point in the high Whites, among
the ancient ones, I know that things fall into place.

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write by Dermot

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