A night with an old friend

"Equilibrium," a whitebark pine hangs on the rim of Crater Lake by its roots, while the Milky Way spins overhead.

“Equilibrium,” a whitebark pine hangs on the rim of Crater Lake by its roots, while the Milky Way spins overhead; prints available here.


I took a physical geography class years ago, and the main thing I took away from it was that wind and water are the Earth’s primary erosive forces. And Crater Lake’s not lacking for either of them.

Crater Lake in summertime is very different than Crater Lake during any other season, mostly because the place is buried in snow from early fall through late spring (if not longer). To a certain extent, that snowy winter coat protects some of the native trees and plants. But the water resulting from 10 feet of snow melting can move a lot of soil around. Once the trees are unburied they’re subjected to Crater Lake’s infamous wind. When the wind gusts at over 30 mph, the top layer of that volcanic soil takes flight, and you can feel its sting against your shins (if you happen to be out there in shorts) or even your arms and face. In these harsh conditions, figuring out the reason why many of the rim’s whitebark pines have become denuded of their bark over time doesn’t take a lot of imagination.

Unfortunately, man’s presence further accelerates the process. We move soil (both inadvertently and on purpose), trample plants that would better secure the soil to the ground, and some of us will even climb on some of these ancient trees in order to get a good selfie. The phrase “loved to death” springs to mind, but I would never begrudge anyone the opportunity to experience Crater Lake’s beauty in the same ways that I have (although I’ve never climbed any trees in the park).

At some future point, this spot may be closed to the public so that restoration can take place. At some other future point, this tree will likely fall into the crater, a (hopefully) natural act that was to some degree partially hastened by my many trips to photograph the tree. And at some long future point, if diseases like blister rust and insects like the mountain pine beetle win out, whitebark pines on the rim of the lake will cease to exist at all.

These seem like slow-moving or outright invisible processes, but I’m always surprised at the changes I see in these trees year over year: an extra twist in the bark, a more-exposed root, a fracture in an exposed root that was likely caused by a human’s weight. It’s these little changes that motivate me to go check in with these old trees, my old friends, to see how they’re holding up. And in the process I take another photo and make another memory.

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