Land in the Sky: Looking for Four Thirty-Three

We had been traveling through the high country for several days. Mountains and canyons and too much sun. Somewhere along the way we skirted a lonesome treeless tarn. Beyond that rose a steep gravelly slope crowned with a large grove of ancient foxtail pines. Bill had his sights set on those trees. Years ago he had conducted a passing investigation of this place. Something about it captured his imagination. He made a note on his map and resolved one day to return and camp there. He told others about it. When we heard the story, some of us got caught up in it too.


In California’s Sierra Nevada, foxtail pines occur only at the highest elevations in the southern end of the range, between nine and twelve thousand feet. Beyond that it’s just the barren rock of the highest peaks. Foxtails grow in pure stands, or in some places mixed with lodgepole pine. The open structure of these forests and the bare soils they are rooted in inhibit the migration of fire. The groves don’t burn. Foxtail pine is one of the longest lived of any tree. The principal cause of death among individuals is lightning, avalanche, and rockfall. Where a living grove of foxtails comes to an end, something else begins: weathered snags, dead and down trees, bleached slivers of wood scattered across mineral soil. Dead foxtails are very slow to decay. Research studies indicate that pieces of wood lying on the ground can be more than four thousand years old. Scientists call this a “ghost forest.”


We followed Bill in a slow trod up the steep, gravelly slope toward the foxtail pines. When we reached the lower edge of the grove, we thought we had arrived so we dropped our packs. This looked to be as good a campsite as any. But Bill kept going, alone, climbing higher and higher. He was looking for something and wasn’t going to stop till he found it. From where we were watching downslope, his image grew more and more distant—until it became a weather-blasted foxtail that walked like a man. Then we lost sight of him.


Horticulturists have never been keen on foxtail pine. Few even know of its existence. The growing conditions in botanical gardens and suburban yards are insufficiently severe for such trees to thrive. One horticulturalist who did appreciate the foxtail was Nellie Lester Rowntree. She was born in 1879 and lived to be more than one hundred years old. Beginning in the 1930s, when she was already in her fifties, Rowntree wandered the California backcountry all by herself, collecting the seeds of wild plants. She brought them back and cultivated them in her Carmel nursery and helped popularize the use of California native plants among gardeners. She continued her solo backcountry wandering and collecting well into her eighties and published a couple of fine books on wildflowers and shrubs. A manuscript she wrote on landscaping with California native trees —including the foxtail pine—was lost in a house fire. First editions of her published books are now highly collectible.


Time passed. Bill had not returned from the upper reaches of the foxtail grove. Someone asked: “Should we go see what he’s looking for, maybe tell him we found a perfectly good campsite right here?” Someone else said that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Bill had something in mind. Until it moved on, best to remain where we were. That’s when we noticed that nailed into the base of many a big old foxtail in our vicinity was a small aluminum disk about the size of a Charon coin. Bill had told us about these disks. Hundreds of them could be found throughout this particular grove. The remnants of somebody’s science project—perhaps a study to assay the longevity of foxtail pines. From the look of things, the disks had been there a long time. Weathering had popped many of them out from the trees where they had been affixed. Disks lay scattered on the bare soil along with the nails that once secured them. The foxtails had outlived their function as data points.


Foxtail pines do not grow in Woodstock, New York. But the composer John Cage is famous for his three movement composition that was first performed there on August 29, 1952 in the Maverick Music Hall. It was titled 4’33” but Cage himself always referred to it as the “silent piece.” It had been years in the making. The audience, however, did not know what to make of it. They were estranged from what is most familiar. They expected something else and wound up just sitting there. They heard coughs instead of notes. At one point, rain could be heard falling on the roof. The audience grew more agitated. Many of them walked out. Some remained and became verbally abusive. In the end, somebody stood up on his chair and shouted: “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these villains out of town!”


Bill finally abandoned his quest and came back downslope. He arrived at our spot with a discouraged look, dropped his pack, and sat down against the biggest foxtail in the grove. “I can’t find it,” he said. “I’ve looked everywhere on this slope. It must have fallen over.”

“Find what?” we asked.

“Foxtail 433. That’s what I wrote on my map all those years ago: ‘Best campsite ever. Next to 433.’”

“Hey, Bill,” someone said, pointing at the tree he was sitting against. “What number is that?”

Dangling from a loose nail in the reddish bark was a weather-worn aluminum disk with a number stamped on it. Bill turned his head to see. He squinted to read. The smile on his face said “433.” And we set up camp.


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