Inhaling the Vanilla Forest – Or, The Arboretum at Flagstaff

Before we get to the Arboretum itself, here’s a fun fact I didn’t mention last weekdendrochronology, or the scientific study of tree rings, was first founded in Flagstaff, Arizona, at Lowell Observatory.

How, you ask, did such a skyward-focused establishment stumble upon something so terrestrial?

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Ponderosa pine cross-section on display at the Arboretum at Flagstaff. Notice the particularly thick bark layer. All photos courtesy of yours truly.

While most of Arizona bakes in either the Sonoran Desert or other hot arid and semi-arid environs, Flagstaff perches within an island of sharply-elevated ponderosa pine forest—the largest such forest in the world.

In order to build the Observatory and its buildings on Mars Hill, a fair bit of forest had to be cleared. These felled ponderosa pines became the original buildings, and the original wood still forms the roofing over the 123-year-old Clark Refractor.

During this process, an astronomer named Andrew Douglass noticed that the tree rings in all these logs (all the same species and all from the same hilltop) matched one another. This couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? Douglass set about comparing the rings to Flagstaff’s existing weather records and soon put forth the theory that the rings revealed patterns of drought and plenty (as well as correlations with sunspot cycles). He’d set out to study astronomy, but he’s now known as the father of an entirely different discipline.

And that’s the beauty of wonder, curiosity, and attention at work, my friends.

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Walking a gorgeous trail through the fragrant ponderosa pines at the Arboretum. This is actually what an unhealthy ponderosa pine forest looks like. The trees should be spaced much further from each other. Well-intended human interference has put these spaces in jeopardy.

I had only learned about half of that story by the time I rattled down the rough terrain towards the Arboretum at Flagstaff last Friday morning. And what I knew, I only knew because I’m a peculiar creature who noticed and inquired about the intricate wood framing over my head in the Clark Building at the Observatory, which I’d visited the night before. (This perhaps makes me a kindred spirit to Andrew Douglass—presented with unrivaled access to stars, I still took the time to study mundane wood planks.)

My trip to Flagstaff was first and foremost work-related, but since I’d driven myself from Las Vegas (a scenic road trip of only four hours), I’d made plans for a couple personal wonderments before heading home again. The first, of course, was the Observatory. The second was the Arboretum, which promised to introduce me to the plants and trees of the greater Colorado Plateau. According to the website, I could enjoy a Garden Tour free with my admission if I arrived before 11 in the morning, and I was fortunate enough to be in Flagstaff for the final day of a summer-long outdoor art show called Botanical Blacksmiths.

So at 9:45 in the morning, I found myself juddering down the forested road praying my Prius’s side mirrors wouldn’t fall off. Quoth the website, “Adventure awaits you! …The first mile of Woody Mountain Road is paved and the remaining 3 miles are unpaved Forest Service road, but suitable for all vehicles.”

“Suitable” is perhaps an overstatement.

Nevertheless, I arrived at the Arboretum with all my car’s parts still firmly attached and with my teeth and bones unfractured, so I’ll save my city-girl complaints. Two other vehicles waited in the Arboretum’s parking lot—a pair of yellow school buses. I can only imagine the ride those field-trippers endured!

Dead ponderosa pine.jpg
A fire-ravaged ponderosa pine trunk flanked by two living trees. Naturally-occurring forest fires are a critical part of the lifecycle in a ponderosa pine forest. The thick bark protects the tree within as fire skates across the forest floor, clearing debris and younger trees that might compete for resources, and processing nutrients back into the soil. This leaves each mature tree with plenty of room for underground expansion and access to nourishing sunlight.

But I forgot my clattering adventure when I stepped out of my car and drew a deep breath of the forest around me. There’s nothing in the world like the smell of a pine forest—nothing. I half-yearned to sun myself atop my car for a couple hours and simply breathe, drawing that sharp, resiny oxygen deep into the very corners of my lungs, letting it pulse through my bloodstream and permeate my bones. Despite the elevation, each breath was heartier and more nourishing than the air anywhere else—richer, and laden with memory. Fishing with my grandfather. Hiking with my family. Camping with my friends.

I grinned into the breezy sky. I could stay here as long as I wanted before heading back to Vegas. I’d get my fill.

“There’s a field trip going on,” the woman behind the ticketing counter warned me as I handed her my card. “So there are a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds running around. It’s noisier than usual.”

“That’s okay,” I said, shrugging. “It’s just extra wildlife.”

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I took over a dozen photos within the Butterfly House, primarily of zebra longwings (seen above) and painted ladies. All but this one were blurry beyond usefulness.

During the hour before my tour, I meandered alone around the Arboretum’s many curated educational gardens: an herb garden, a willow pond teeming with frogs, a shade garden, a pollinator garden. Pieces of the Botanical Blacksmiths art show stood among the plants, sprinkled across the grounds, and these I admired one-by-one. I slipped into a small Butterfly House where local butterflies are kept safe from the weather and from predators, and I stood still in the center watching their colorful, ephemeral fluttering around me. The glorious scent of pine led me to breathe deeply and mindfully, which in turn set my body to slow, meditative relaxation.

And all around, children shrieked and laughed and ran and bellowed, competing to complete some kind of scavenger hunt.

On a hot day or a busy day, or a hot and busy day, I would have been annoyed—this is, unfortunately, guaranteed. I’m working on it. But on this cool, calm morning, I found myself laughing even as I tried to sidestep each bunch of field-trippers. Laughing, and also slipping back and forth between Aunt Crystal and Woo-woo Mystic Crystal.

New Growth I.jpg
“New Growth I” by Flagstaff artist Sonja London-Hall, standing sentinel over the Karen Haskins Herb Garden.

There’s not much difference between Aunt Crystal and Mystic Crystal. They’re both melodramatic, whimsical weirdos prone to flamboyant vocabulary usage and enthusiastic flights of fancy. The only real distinction is that Aunt Crystal is more education-focused and mindful about modeling productive behavior for the next generation, while Mystic Crystal tends towards navel-gazing for navel-gazing’s sake. (It’s Woo-woo Mystic Crystal writing this missive, by the way.)

On the official Garden Tour, I learned more about the forest and its denizens—learned the importance of fire to a healthy ponderosa pine forest, learned that the new-to-me Abert’s squirrel lives its entire life around and depends on this particular species of tree, and learned that the Arboretum at Flagstaff, like so many other wonderful places in this wide world, began with a love story.

But perhaps most revelatory to me—and I’m aware this may reveal strange things about my character—I learned that if you get right up close to a ponderosa pine tree and take a deep sniff of its thick dark bark, it smells just like vanilla.

Wonders never cease. Vanilla!

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A beautiful metal-and-glass sculpture along the Arboretum’s Firewise Nature Trail. I failed to snap a photo of either the title or the artist’s name, so if anybody happens to know them, please let me know in the comments below!

So it was that after the Garden Tour, I set off along the one-mile Firewise Nature Trail, inhaling the vanilla forest. Spaced along the hiking trail, signs described the ways the Forest Service is cautiously reintroducing fire into overgrown ponderosa groves, preventing unplanned fires from destroying the forest our forefathers mistakenly believed they were defending.

Because human beings have put the forest into an unhealthy position. Not understanding the role fire played in this forest, we fought each small fire for over a hundred years, allowing the woodland floor to grow thick with dead pine needles and matted grass. The trees are overcrowded now, and their lower branches undernourished, hanging low as ready kindling. Any fire that comes through will burn hotter and longer, will catch the lolling branches, and will climb to the canopy, taking the entire forest with it.

It was here along this trail I learned where dendrochronology began and its connection to the intricate framing I’d seen the night before. How marvelous, these endless cycles of interdependence evident everywhere. I sat down beside the trail and watched an Abert’s squirrel scampering around one of the trees, his fluffy body grey as the basalt scattered all across the region. For a moment, I and the squirrel existed in shared silence, he clearly wary of me, and I exuding, as best I could, an aura of calm respect in the piney stillness.

Then a boy in a bright yellow shirt tore around a corner in the trail some twenty feet away. The squirrel zipped up the nearest tree, vanishing into the branches.

I still can’t find a squirrel!” the boy thundered, as his chaperone and classmates came along behind him. The boy saw me sitting, then, and pulled up short, undecided about this strange little adult perched so quietly on a trailside rock.

I could not help but laugh into the fresh vanilla breeze.


Have you ever been to a local arboretum? Did you learn something new about an animal or plant or rock formation? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

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Happy witnessing!

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