When I first came to the Siskiyou Mountains, almost fifty years ago, I, like everyone I know who first comes here, marveled at the beauty of the tall, red-trunked trees throughout the woods. I thought them so beautiful! But I quickly learned that long-time residents didn’t think so highly of them. “Madrones,” I was told dismissively, “– they’re weed trees.”
Now I, too, am a long-time resident, and I see that madrones do sprout around cut trunks like weeds and that maybe if you’re in the timber business, you think they take space in a forest that would be more useful for growing Douglas fir. Some people think the only good madrone is a dead madrone, since it makes the best firewood – longer burning than fir, pine, or cedar; cleaner than oak (less ash); less deadly hot than manzanita. Nonetheless, I love madrone trees, with their four-star beauty – visual, tactile, olfactory, and audial.
No tree trunk in the forest is more beautiful the madrone’s. The shaggy old bark, found mostly at the lower end of the tree, dark brown, sometimes almost black, contrasts with the smooth skin growing under it that is replacing it, pushing it aside, leaving it behind as the tree stretches upward.
The madrone is the ballet dancer of the woods. Its elongated trunks dance around other trees and themselves; its sinewy limbs stretch into pliés and arabesques.
Sinuous limbs bend with ease and grace into chevroned shapes, stretching for the light (scientifically) or for the joy of being alive in the forest (anthropomorphically). Sometimes the skin of the madrone is stretched so tight, I can see the muscles underneath, sinewy and rippling. Sometimes the tree demands ritualistic homage for its shape, its color, its textures.
In early summer Madonna-white blossoms on female madrones emit a tropical scent. By autumn those blossoms have given way to Christmas-red berries. I have decorated a holiday table with madrone berries. I have strung madrone berries as beads. I have seen bear scat on the trail full of seeds of madrone berries.
Many trees produce music when the wind whistles through them or rustles their leaves. Sometimes on a windy day, the tall firs and pines seem to talk to each other with their creaks and squeals as they rub against one another. But the madrone is the only tree I know that produces music all on its own.
I heard this delicate serenade one hot, dry day in September, when I was standing in a wood of mixed conifers and madrones and heard a thin crackling, like a shower of very fine, broken, crystal glass or the violins at the beginning of The Rite of Spring: ch-ch-ch-ch. If the crows’ feet that break out around smiling eyes made sound, it would be like that. But nothing was moving. As though in an enchantment, the tiny music seemed sourceless. Suddenly, then, I broke through the veil of mystery as my eyes focused on the madrone trunks in front of me, with their layers of older, darker bark, shaggy and brittle, curls that had dried and hardened, and the newly split, green bark beginning to curl back, exposing the beautiful red underneath. What I was hearing was the tinkling music of madrone bark splitting.