A few days ago, my niece Becca fell under the fragrance spell of giant, red-gold ponderosa pines along the upper Imnaha River in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Casually, I’d suggested she might want to to sniff a deep crevice in the sun-warmed bark of a centuries-old pine. She leaned in, her long gold curly hair flowing outwards from the tree. I joined her on another spot, both hands pressed upon the wide girth of a pine that grew high into the sky. When Becca emerged, she appeared stunned and exuberant.
“This is the best smell ever, like cookies baking in the oven but even better,” the 17-year-old said with a smile to match the grandeur of the pine. “I want to live with ponderosas all around me so I can breathe this in all day.” Becca called for her mom, dad, brother, sister and my son Ian to join in.
Ian has grown up sniffing big pines, yet he doesn’t tire of the sensory pleasure. He happily joined the discussion of why it was that this perfume could never be duplicated and only is found in the big ancient pines, not the young ones with dark bark. Like a fine wine that grows better with age, so does the scent of a ponderosa.
Some say the smell is vanilla. Others butterscotch or rum. The truth? It’s just better than any of those. Rich, deep, sweet, and tropical. Untamed. Enter a big old ponderosa pine grove on a sunny day and the fragrance wafts through the air. To inhale the scent to its fullest takes putting your nose right up on the bark. What’s even more amazing is that the pines differ. Individual pines vary in their scent. Breathing in one is not enough.
When ponderosa pines reach about 120 years or so, the black darker bark like jigsaw puzzle pieces sloughs and in its place? The red-gold bark catches the light, the color that gave rise to lumbermen calling the trees “yellow bellies” or yellow pines. One secret to telling the age of a big pine is to look at the width of the bark plates. The wider they are at the base, the older the tree. On the upper Imnaha, some trees likely are 500 years old at least. The thick bark helps them survive fires that burn the understory and create a park-like feel with lush grasses that attract elk and other wildlife.
Some have called the yellow belly pines “old growth.” My friend Brock Evans has long advocated replacing that term for the older trees with “ancient.” He succeeded and today “ancient forests” convey their magnificence and command respect and reverence. I’m smitten with ancient trees of any kind. I love to touch them and imagine the centuries falling away until I’m standing in that place in a time before roads.
But when it comes to ponderosa pines? The ancient ones are by far my favorite of all. When I inhale the scent, so many memories stir – of the people I’ve loved, the wild places I’ve lingered, and the feeling that I’ve come home. What scent in the wild may give you that feeling?
For more on ponderosa pines, my dear friend Sandra Murphy wrote “Graced by Pines” that’s also beautifully illustrated by Bob Petty. Take a look. And finally? I’ll end this blog with gratitude for the conservationists who have saved the big and ancient ponderosa pines of Hells Canyon and everywhere the trees still grow, escaping the saw and offering their sweetness to all who are willing to step in close.