“I know I’m getting a little romantic here, but I like to think of them as gardeners.” The National Park Service ranger was giving a lecture on the Clark’s Nutcracker, an ash-gray corvid with striking white and black wing and tail feathers. The birds have a special relationship (a “mutualism,” he said) with the Whitebark Pine which grows near tree-line in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. “You see, every Whitebark Pine in these mountains, every single one of them, was planted once upon a time by a Clark’s Nutcracker.”
The Whitebark’s cones do not open on their own. Its seeds are not spread by wind or fire. Only the Nutcracker can extract them. The bird will store between eighty and 100 seeds in its throat pouch and cache them away three or five or seven at a time in the shallow soil of rocky alpine slopes. A single nutcracker will make over 9,000 caches each year and retrieve the seeds in winter by memory. A fraction of these are forgotten, or intentionally spared, and so the Whitebark grows, wherever it grows, in clumps of between three and seven trees. When they mature, after some sixty or eighty years, they produce cones of their own to tempt the descendents of the Nutcracker that first planted them.
The ranger, a young man with a short beard and long hair and the earnest enthusiasm of a character from a Wes Anderson movie, drew the picture for us: Flying among the granite peaks and glacial valleys, the Clark’s Nutcracker surveys a landscape of very personal significance, not a wilderness but a family garden planted and tended by a thousand generations of his forebears, which he will tend in turn and leave for his children. Within his territory he knows, quite probably, every tree, every root.
From our campsite at Tuolumne Meadows (at an elevation of 8,600 feet), we made a day hike up to Elizabeth Lake (9,600 feet), just below the granite horn of Unicorn Peak. This was no mean feat with two children in tow, considering the gain in elevation and the thin air. But while lunching on salami, apples, and hard-boiled eggs, we saw the Whitebark growing in small patches of krummholz, trunks and branches weather-tortured into grim, Dantean statuary, all knees and elbows and twisted necks. And flapping away across the water we saw what could only have been a nutcracker, a crow-sized bird with flashing white patches visible at the distance of a quarter mile.
Back at camp, reading the old paperback I’d brought along (Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography), it occurred to me that if we can expand the definition of “tree” and consider books – made of wood pulp, after all – a sort of sub-species, then I am deep in an arboreal mutualism of my own. My library at home becomes a tended forest, inherited down a makeshift genealogy from those (readers and writers) who have come before me. The books themselves provide me necessary nourishment and I, in turn, propagate them through lending and recommendation, and by keeping them in fair enough shape to pass on while they still have fruit to bear.
Perhaps there’s a biological basis, then, and I’m not simply being a Luddite, for preferring real books printed on actual paper made of wood pulp over electronic books downloaded as digital files, to be read from a screen. Electronic books break the mutualism, sever the natural relationship, that we reading people have so long enjoyed. Some, I suppose, might see in the advent of the digital library a leap forward in the evolution of reading – another descent from the primordial trees onto the open savannah. I’ve always preferred the forest.