Then, the train is literally racing down hill — with the trucks bumping heels like the wheels of a wagon on a sluggish team; and a new tang comes to the ozone — the tang of resin, of healing balsam, of cinnamon smells, of incense and frankincense and myrrh, of spiced sunbeams and imprisoned fragrance — the fragrance of thousands upon thousands of years of dew and light, of pollen dust and ripe fruit cones; the attar, not of Persian roses, but of the everlasting pines.
The train takes a swift swirl round an escarpment of the mountain; and you are in the Forests proper, serried rank upon rank of the blue spruce and the lodgepole pine. No longer spangles of light hitting back from the rocks in sparks of fire! The light here is sifted pollen dust — pollen dust, the primordial life principle of the tree — with the purple, cinnamon-scented cones hanging from the green arms of the conifers like the chevrons of an enranked army; and the cones tell you somewhat of the service as the chevrons do of the soldier man. Some conifers hold their cones for a year before they send the seed, whirling, swirling, broadside to the wind, aviating pixy parachutes, airy armaments for the conquest of arid hills to new forest growth, though the process may take the trifling aeon of a thousand years or so. At one season, when you come to the Forests, the air is full of the yellow pollen of the conifers, gold dust whose alchemy, could we but know it, would unlock the secrets of life. At another season — the season when I happened to be in the Colorado Forests — the very atmosphere is alive with these forest airships, conifer seeds sailing broadside to the wind. You know why they sail broadside, don't you? If they dropped plumb like a stone, the ground would be seeded below the heavily shaded branches inches deep in self-choking, sunless seeds; but when the broadside of the sail to the pixy's airship tacks to the veering wind, the seed is carried out and away and far beyond the area of the shaded branches; to be caught up by other counter currents of wind and hurled, perhaps, down the mountain side, destined to forest the naked side of a cliff a thousand years hence. It is a fact, too, worth remembering and crediting to the wiles and ways of Dame Nature that destruction by fire tends but to free these conifer seeds from the cones; so that they fall on the bare burn and grow slowly to maturity under the protecting nursery of the tremulous poplars and pulsing cottonwoods.
The train has not gone very far in the National Forests before you see the sleek little Douglas squirrel scurrying from branch to branch. From the tremor of his tiny body and the angry chitter of his parted teeth, you know he is swearing at you to the utmost limit of his squirrel (?) language; but that is not surprising. This little rodent of the evergreens is the connoisseur of all conifers. He, and he alone, knows the best cones for reproductive seed. No wonder he is so full of fire when you consider he diets on the fruit of a thousand years of sunlight and dew; so when the ranger seeks seed to reforest the burned or scant slopes, he rifles the cache of this little furred forester, who suspects your noisy trainload of robbery — robbery — sc — scur — r — there!
Then, the train bumps and jars to a stop with a groaning of brakes on the steep down grade, for a drink at the red water tank; and you drop off the high car steps with a glance forward to see that the baggage man is dropping off your kit. The brakes reverse. With a scrunch, the train is off again, racing down hill, a blur of steamy vapor like a cloud against the lower hills. Before the rear car has disappeared round the curve, you have been accosted by a young man in Norfolk suit of sage green wearing a medal stamped with a pine tree — the ranger, absurdly young when you consider each ranger patrols and polices 100,000 acres compared to the 1,700 which French and German wardens patrol and daily deals with criminal problems ten times more difficult than those confronting the Northwest Mounted Police, without the military authority which backs that body of men.
You have mounted your pony — men and women alike ride astride in the Western States. It heads of its own accord up the bridle trail to the ranger's house, in this case 9,000 feet above sea level, 1,000 feet above ordinary cloud line. The hammer of a woodpecker, the scur of a rasping blue jay, the twitter of some red bills, the soft thug of the unshod broncho over the trail of forest mold, no other sound unless the soul of the sea from the wind harping in the trees. Better than the jangle of city cars in that stuffy hotel room of the germ-infested town, isn't it?
If there is snow on the peaks above, you feel it in the cool sting of the air. You hear it in the trebling laughter, in the trills and rills of the brook babbling down, sound softened by the moss as all sounds are hushed and low keyed in this woodland world. And all the time, you have the most absurd sense of being set free from something. By-and-by when eye and ear are attuned, you will see the light reflected from the pine needles glistening like metal, and hear the click of the same needles like fairy castanets of joy. Meantime, take a long, deep, full breath of these condensed sunbeams spiced with the incense of the primeval woods; for you are entering a temple, the temple where our forefathers made offerings to the gods of old, the temple which our modern churches imitate in Gothic spire and arch and architrave and nave. Drink deep in open, full lungs; for you are drinking of an elixir of life which no apothecary can mix. Most of us are a bit ill mentally and physically from breathing the dusty street sweepings of filth and germs which permeate the hived towns. They will not stay with you here! Other dust is in this air, the gold dust of sunlight and resin and ozone. They will make you over, will these forest gods, if you will let them, if you will lave in their sunlight, and breathe their healing, and laugh with the chitter and laughter of the squirrels and streams.
And what if your spirit does not go out to meet the spirit of the woods halfway? Then, the woods will close round you with a chill loneliness unutterable. You are an alien and an exile. They will have none of you and will reveal to you none of their joyous, dauntless life secrets.
THROUGH OUR UNKNOWN SOUTHWEST
By AGNES C. LAUT