Grand Canyon – The Tusayan Forest

A WEEK at the Canyon may suffice to exhaust not only one’s adjectives but also the keenness of one’s appreciation. The imagination perhaps lags and does not rise along the perpendicular walls as on the first day. The aesthetic sense becomes a little dulled and we cease to wonder or stand amazed or lose ourselves in a dream of beauty. Possibly it is time to vary the scene and renew sensation by change.

There is but one change of scene at the Canyon, but happily that is a complete one. It is the forest that lies back from the Rim. A few steps within it and the panorama of the Canyon has disappeared and you are among the cedars and pinyons, as shut out and away from the “view” as though in an Alaskan wilderness. Your circle of vision is now fifty or a hundred feet in diameter—no more. If you move back a quarter of a mile you encounter the Western yellow pines, the forest opens up a little in aisles and parkways, but your range is still limited. The “view” in fact now counts for little, and your interest must be centred upon the intimate things of plant and animal life. Therein lies the contrast to the Canyon.

If you start back into the forest without making a mental note of your general direction you may become confused and lose your way. Once in the woods all the cedars and pines will look alike to you, the rocks and swales will offer no guide-posts; the trails—well, they are somewhat mixed with cattle-runs and may lead any way but the right way. You must remember the points of the compass and be able to locate them by the sun. Then if you get geographically askew you can consult the sun for east and west, and know that if you are east of El Tovar, walking to the west will surely bring you out on the railway, as walking north will just as surely bring you out on the Rim.

The forest back from the Rim is not an isolated region. It is part of the great Plateau Country—the Coconino Plateau. Drive a spade into the ground anywhere and it will soon strike the lime-stone. Both the limestone and the forest once stretched across where the Canyon now yawns and joined their kind on the Northern Rim. The soil is usually bone-dry and only a few inches in depth. It supports no exuberant growth, for the rainfall is not great, and such as there is drains off quickly into the arroyos and small canyons. Only the hardiest life can exist here, though down in the Canyon, where there are springs and streams, all kinds of plant life may flourish. The plateau vegetation is more or Iess desert in character. If you are not used to wood travel you are made sharply aware of this by your feet coming in contact with the spines of ground cacti and your head and shoulders with the dry branches of the cedars. Everything here is dry, hard, and sharp.

The cedar (it is not a cedar but a juniper) is a characteristic growth. It is twisted of trunk, octopus-like in spreading roots, chary of foliage and berries. Dry and shredded in the bark, resistant of wind, fighting off the elements, keeping its green in spite of winter storm, it holds fast with tenacity and endures with fortitude. One can hardly guess its age from its twenty or more feet of height, though the bulk of the trunk near the ground suggests a clue. Many of them, no doubt, are centuries old. After they die, years elapse before they fall and perish through decay. The plateau is covered with their gnarled skeletons still standing, with bleached arms and broken branches, against wind and storm.

The pinyon, sometimes called a nut-pine or stone-pine, is a dwarf, too, growing no higher than the cedar, and is perhaps less hardy in growth. Wind, fire, and mistletoe harry it, but it grows readily and makes up in breed what it lacks in toughness. One finds it everywhere along the Rim. The Indians gather the nuts and make a bread from them—that is, if the jays do not arrive before them.

The Arizona or Western yellow pine grows back from the Rim and is the largest tree on the plateau. It has a thick trunk, stout branches, reddish bark, and an irregular round top that lifts at times a hundred feet or more in the air. When old these pines show the ravages of wind and lightning. They do not grow thickly near the Canyon., and standing alone are liable to be blown down by heavy winds. Even in gentle breezes they sway considerably, and are usually whispering and sounding in their tops. They make up the bulk of the Tusayan Forest.

Very beautiful are the open aisles of the forest as one walks there late in the afternoon when the sun-shafts, striking the tops of the yellow pines, turn their green to gold. That greenish gold against the blue of the sky with the reddish yellow of the bark beneath make up a color-harmony that you might think quite wonderful if the Canyon were not so near at hand. And how stately the pines I Every member of the family stands erect, is arrow-headed, arrow-shafted, and shoots directly at the zenith. They always command admiration. Here in the forest they grow singly, or in groups of three or four, but each one lifts its shaft and shakes out its needles independently of the others. A noble tree is the Western pine.

The conifers are about the only trees that can be looked for at this seven thousand feet of altitude, and yet there are others. A few scrub-oaks, some frail ashes, and some locusts grow here and there. The acacia family will occasionally creep up from lower levels, but it requires heat and does not flourish on the Rim. The Douglas and the white spruce do not grow above the Rim, while the aspen and the live-oak appear across the River on the Kaibab Plateau but not in the Tusayan Forest.

Of course there are many bush growths, some of them standing so thick that they take on the appearance of chaparral. They are usually gnarled and twisted in stem, shaggy in bark, and hard in point. The cliff-rose, sometimes called the quinine-bush (cincona) or “mountain mahogany,” is one of the most prominent of them. It often grows in thickets, and when its white flowers are in bloom, scents the air with its perfume for long distances. Next to it one finds in the open spaces, especially to the west of El Tovar, many acres of sage-brush, peppered with bunches of Mormon tea. The so-called “mescal” grows in isolated spots on the plateaus, but it prefers the Canyon terraces as warmer and more protected. Just so with most of the yuccas, Spanish bayonets, and cacti. Here in the woods, especially among the dwarf growths along the Rim, one often finds the pincushion cactus growing down close to the ground, and in July putting forth a beautiful magenta-hued flower. Other varieties blossom out with white or yellow or purple petals.

None of these desert growths, however, flourish well in the forest. Down on the Tonto slopes, rooted in a dry mineral soil, they take on the strange hues of the hydrangea in our Eastern dooryard. There they are at home and unique in both environment and development. By way of contrast the forest in the spring grows many flowers in its open spaces, and all summer long there are relays of anemones, mountain-pinks, Maricopa lilies, larkspurs, lupins, pentstemons, paint-brushes, sunflowers, asters. The variety is much greater than has been generally recognized. After the showers in July there are legions of swaying scarlet pentstemons under the rock ledges and innumerable beds of small close-lying flowers in the forest spaces—blue-eyed, star-shaped growths that have an affinity with the mosses and lichens, humble growths that do not flare or startle but charm by their lowliness and their simple patterning. The floral display is often quite puzzling, even to the botanist, so numerous are the varieties, so odd the forms and colors. And almost all of them scentless. The great masses of them are born to blush unseen; but so far as I have observed they waste little sweetness on the desert air.

Beautifully as these flowers grow in the aisles of the forest, they have not the absorbing interest, perhaps the sentimental appeal, of those that grow on the rock ledges of the Canyon. The mosses that lie in beds along shelving rocks and droop down over precipices, the flowers that blow along narrow platforms, the thin golden grasses that sway in the wind from a cranny in the wall, seem so pure in type, so pale in hue, so graceful in form ! Insufficient soil and moisture have made them willowy in stem and bleached in flower and leaf, but fighting the elements for life has given them a lithe quality, a tenacious grip on the rock, a patient endurance. How fear-free and care-free they appear to us as they nod and sway in the breezes from their eerie heights ! These are the true cliff-dwellers. What patience, serenity, and silence they might teach us if we would only pause and ponder!

The forest naturally gives some protection to animal life, and time was when there were cougars, timber-wolves, bear, and deer here in abundance; but they have nearly all slipped away, and are now to be found only in the more remote woods of the north side. Some deer remain and are occasionally seen at sunset, in bands of three or four, near a cactus patch or a cattle “tank.” They make trails down to the River, over very precipitous heights, for in the summer months they must have occasional water, but their natural runways are in the forest. The mountain-sheep—there are a few left in the Canyon—rather outdo the deer in trail-making, though they do not come up to the Rim and are not found in the forest.

The flexible coyote roams the woods, if there is any food to be gained thereby, but he prefers the open. He is a past master of roaming, and usually makes himself at home wherever he happens to be. Any place that lends to sneaking and skulking is quite to his fancy—provided always that there is a chance of something to eat. His appetite is extremely good, but it seldom meets with complete liquidation in this forest region. The Painted Desert is a happier hunting-ground for him, though over in the Aztec Amphitheatre country he occasionally does a prosperous business digging wood-rats out of their mounds. The energy and shrewdness of the coyote are never to be underestimated. He is the genius of his family and can pick a living where his relatives would starve.

The wood-rat is found almost everywhere, and he, too, has energy if not shrewdness. The marvellous mounds of rubbish that he accumulates quite outdo those of the muskrat. His wood-piles in the forest furnish fuel for campers and interest for tourists; but in spite of that he is something of a nuisance, especially if near a ranch-house or camp. For he does not discriminate in accumulating building materials and will carry off a monkey-wrench, a bottle, a bar of soap, a glove, as quickly as a stick of wood or an ear of corn. The kangaroo-rat, the chipmunk, and the various ground-squirrels are less meddlesome, and perhaps more edible, for the bob-cat likes them and the rattlesnake finds them acceptable diet. Everything hereabouts has some-thing prowling on its trail and knows how to watch, listen, run, or fight with poison. The jack-rabbit and the cottontail set the pace in running, but even such small people as the lizards are excellent sprinters for short distances.

As for the poison-carriers, Mr. Dellenbaugh tells us there are nine kinds of rattlesnakes in this south-western desert region, but in the immediate Canyon I have met with only two species—the diamond-back and the side-winder. The side-winder (so called because of his wriggling to the side in going forward) is the more common of the two, though he is not frequently met with. In color he is a dirty reddish brown, in size not large, in attack not very fierce. Of course he is poisonous enough if he hap-pens to hit you, but usually he is rather sluggish in coming into action. A coral snake, so called, with white rings about his body, is more venomous in look, but whether so in fact I cannot say. I have found them only on the Tonto platforms, where even the lizards are few and far between. In the Tusayan Forest the reptiles do not seem to flourish. Apparently they love the open better. But the visitor at the Canyon is not likely to meet them in either place.

The birds are everywhere—at sunrise in the Can-yon perhaps, at noon or afternoon in the woods. There are not many of them in number or in species, though from day to day one meets with stray members of almost every family. The pine forest is not the best place in the world for the mocking-bird, the catbird, and the Western robin; but they, with the bluebird, the orchard oriole, the pewee, king-bird, thrush, grosbeak, flicker, turtle-dove, are frequently seen. They have no peculiar fitness for the Canyon or the forest, and perhaps just “happen” here. The cedar waxwing goes with the cedar or juniper berries, and one sees him along the Rim with his fellows in small flocks. He is less brilliant, is grayer in plumage, and not quite so large as the Eastern bird; but his appetite is just as keen and he is always interested in cedar berries.

The jays, both in numbers and in noise, monopolize attention in the open places of the forest and along the Rim. They are usually wrangling and jangling with each other, probably over the supply of cedar berries or pine-nuts, both of which they eat. They are found in pairs, or in flocks of half a dozen, and from their penchant for the pinyons, they are known collectively as “pinyon jays.” There are two varieties usually in evidence. One of them is similar, if not identical, with the Wood-house jay. The plumage is dove-colored or grayish blue, with blue tail-feathers. Even more frequently seen is the beautiful crested jay. He makes much chatter in lieu of song. His crest in flight is flattened back upon his head, but as soon as he alights on a limb the crest is instantly elevated and he begins scolding, perhaps at a graceful, long-eared Kaibab squirrel or some lone porcupine lumbering along the trail.

The hairy woodpecker is not so abundant that one sees him every day, but other varieties are seen in quantities unlimited. The poor-will is oftener heard, in the night and early morning, than seen. He belongs to the night hawk family, and when not in the air rests on the ground, with some of the instincts and a little of the color of the burrowing owl His call is apparently an abbreviation of whip-poor-will. Its reiteration at night is monotonous, not to say irritating, to the sleepless camper.

The owls and the bats are usually down under the Rim. The Canyon walls, with their fissures and caves, offer excellent harborage for them, and it is there that they pass their days, coming out in the early twilight to explore for food. In the daytime I have seen the small gray-green humming-bird go bustling into these cracks and openings, as though daring the inhabitants to mortal combat, but nothing came out save the humming-bird. He is the same quarrelsome little ball of feathers here as elsewhere. But he is not peculiar to the Canyon any more than the pretty horned larks that one sees down on the Tonto platforms, or the rock-wrens that one meets along the trails. There is a Canyon wren, very demure in gray and very inquisitive, that is supposed to be native to this place; but the specimens I have seen seem little different from the cactus-wren of the desert that builds a nest in the suhuaro or the cholla.

Of swallows there are several varieties, and all of them are very much at home along the Rim. One is a small telegraph-wire swallow that flies in narrow circles with a rather leisurely wing. At evening they gather in numbers on some point of rock extending out in the Canyon, and then, apparently by signal, they all plunge down the Canyon together, like small-boy bathers jumping from a raft. Another species flies on a strong, rapid wing, like that of the chimney-swallow. His swiftness is extraordinary. As you stand on the edge of the Rim he dashes by your ear with a beat of wing that sounds like the quick crumpling of heavy paper. He plunges down into the Canyon for perhaps a thousand feet and then rises straight up toward the xenith, soaring and circling with supreme ease. His flight is remarkable and his dash over the Rim surprising in its disregard of abyss and precipice. Yet why should we be surprised? Why should a swallow look for danger in the air? Is not that his element?

These birds of the air, what a background the Canyon is for them ! The golden eagle is at home here, making a nest on the ledge of some outstanding pinnacle—some huge rock spine cut off from the main wall—and there, secure from man and coyote, rearing the young. At dawn and sunset the pair go forth on air cruises. The flight is slow, more like that of a sea-gull than any other bird, and with little circling. But at times the male bird goes up in the storm-clouds, stands still like a box kite just ahead of the storm, and seems to defy the lightning. No vulture or buzzard ever goes so high or looks so speck-like against the blue. Most of the eagles seen by tourists are vultures. The mistake is natural, for the latter is the better flyer.

The brown-backed vulture, often seen circling easily under the Canyon walls, is the supreme embodiment of flight. Nothing could be more free, more careless, and at the same time more certain. The stiff-set wings do not beat the air; they manipulate it, turn it, catch it, and bend it into service. Hour after hour, in all winds and in all directions, those stiff wings keep balancing and readjusting themselves to the wind, but do no initial propelling. Yet how that black spot wheels around an amphitheatre, glides across a canyon, soars up into the blue, drops like a bolt into the depths. He does no looping of loops or tail-spins, neither does he crumple up and fall to the earth with a crash. He does not move with a roar to be heard twenty miles down the Canyon; he slips along almost as silently as his black shadow under him. When within a few feet of him you can sometimes hear the cut of his flight feathers, like the slight whiz of an arrow, but that is all. He drifts through the air with apparently as little effort as thistle-down. How perfect the working of that flying machine!

Wings and the will to fly ! Sunlight and the world to roam in ! Are we more fortunate, more perfect in development, more efficient in equipment? In desert lands the bird, the beast, and the plant are reared in adversity. Every tithe of energy is brought into use and the highest development is attained. The wings are trained to the thin air as the foot to the hard rock and the root to the shallow soil. They do not quarrel with the conditions of life but accept them. They become a part of the environment, are in accord with Nature, and reflect her patience and her serenity. Are we as harmonious in our artificial environment? Are we?