One Day in the Very Old Forest

September 06, 2018 Posted by: ©George Jacobi 2018 - Illustration ©Liz Byrley 2018
Three stylized, hand-painted trees against a pale yellow background. Illustration by Liz Byrley

At the Grand Canyon (and elsewhere) trees have jobs. Today when the sun rises over the Echo Cliffs far to the east, the Forests of each rim will go to work. Their job is to breathe, to regulate oxygen by moving water from earth to sky, keeping the planet’s atmosphere in the magic zone conducive to life. Even in winter, the slender needles of conifers inhale carbon dioxide through microscopic slits and combine it with water from below, using the Sun’s energy to convert it into the sugars that are their only food. Oxygen gets released as a byproduct. How convenient for us! Without the Forest, without photo-synthesis, the earth would not transform the power of the Sun into the chemical energy that fuels life. At the North and even the South Rim, the Forest inhales every day, and exhales each night.

Trees once looked far different; eons ago they were mostly great ferns. Scaly and feathered monsters walked here in a rich humid land. That was millennia ago, but the DNA from those very plants and animals lives here still, continually reused in today’s Forest. Nothing is ever lost; it’s just changed. Quick-growing aspens and the many conifer species continue a never-ending life cycle. 

The trees talk. Ponderosa Pines, Engelmann Spruces, and Douglas Firs all whisper to each other. Stories of long ago pass among them, tales of ceaseless rains and deep snows and prolonged droughts. They tell of great seas that rose ages ago, making the Kaibab plateau an island, then sank away, only to return once again. Junipers recall times when conditions were cold and they all moved south, migrating back northward as the weather dried and warmed. Pinyon Pines speak of how flames rose into the sky and burned their Coconino Forest to the ground, over and over. The very old Forest lived on, sprouting anew from cones opened by the fire each time, with all its treasured knowledge and memory intact. Though you and I may listen as we walk through the ancient Forest, chances are we won’t hear. But in this morning’s cool deep shade we are still surrounded, above and below, by soft primeval murmurs.                    

While the trees work and even while they sleep, the rest of the Forest is active. Beneath the ground the hidden half of this ecosystem never stops. Rhizomes, the tiny fungal passages beneath the duff on the forest floor, connect all the roots of all the species of trees and plants and integrate them into the one Forest. They conserve and pass knowledge on to new trees as they sprout. Messages pass constantly through this white cable, thousands of miles long and astonishingly only one cell wide. Edible mushrooms and truffles act as transformers in this structure. The only part of this fungal system that is above ground, they get eaten by animals, but their indigestible spores are deposited later, enriching and extending the network.

Trees are sacred. For a long time, American Indians and other peoples close to the Earth have heard the voices of the trees, and they still do. Names for the various trees were chosen from the sounds each species makes in the wind. Some folks still carry on a close relationship with everything in the world around them. Do you talk to your house plants? Conversations with fauna have always been understood to be part of the human experience, even in European legends. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that once a similar communication with flora also took place. And still does.

Most of us think of ourselves as individuals who belong to various groups. Indigenous people believe instead that they are part of something greater than themselves, not even just their group or tribe but a divine world of animals and plants that succors and enriches them. Individual self is secondary. Each person belongs within a natural organism composed of every kind of living thing, all working together to sustain itself, accepting of the inevitable competition and struggle and death. Not much different from what we now know scientifically of the Forest – except for the absence of us. In fact, the Forest is one of the most valuable parts of the planet itself. It would be impossible for all animals; including the intelligent biped group we belong to, to exist without the Forest. Thus it should come as no surprise the Forest is thought of as sacred.

The trees remember. Fires are soon gone. Floods are gone even faster. Lives like those of squirrels and people pass almost as quickly. The very old Forest endures, and has evolved with fire and flood. It requires them both. The North Rim Forest has co-evolved with the Kaibab Squirrel, just as the South Rim Pinyon/Juniper community has with Abert’s Squirrel. The Forest has co-evolved with bees, moths, bats, and many other creatures – they nurture each other. They all need each other to survive. 

Trees coexist with each other as well. As each Pine or Fir competes with others, it also cooperates. A tree wants the same things its neighbor does, so together they benefit the Forest itself. The fungi networks take carbon from the trees and return the favor with minerals, sending them to where they are needed most. Intelligent chemical decisions are made, even charitable ones. A wounded tree may be kept alive by its neighbors – if the network determines that the Forest as a whole will benefit more this way than if the tree dies, leaving a hole in the canopy. Remember, the Forest you see is only half of it – the rest is below ground, and it is a huge community that cares for itself.

The Forest has a long, long memory. Try to listen to its wisdom. Walk out this evening and listen hard. You might hear it explain how the individual spirits of all its plants and animals, from huge trees to the tiniest insects, and even the fungi (especially the fungi) work together in harmony, an example for humanity to appreciate – and endeavor to follow. The story it tells is how a philosophy of interdependence leads into the future, and that it is the only path that does.

Return to the Inspiration Point Blog Index Page 

This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource.

These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2018

Tree, Plant, Grand Canyon

Last updated: September 6, 2018

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

PO Box 129
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023



Contact Us