The Digger Pine (aka the Gray Pine, or the Ghost Pine) captured my attention when we first moved onto our five-acre homestead many years ago. Wisping faintly above our monoculture of young, overcrowded blue and live oaks, the irregular, outstretched limbs of the diggers formed distinctive silhouettes on the horizon which seemed to dance in the afternoon breezes. Their elongated, twisted branches made the trees seem both awkward and poetic, tortured supplications to the sky-Gods overhead as if they were daring to reach above the canopy, above their station, above themselves, a presumptuous prayer that too often brought them down as presumptuous prayers are wont to do, with great, outward branches reaching too far from weak joints and crotches, ripping and splintering away from the trees with ominous shrieks and crashing down, and making the old crippled tree that remained even more lopsided and unbalanced and far-reaching, beyond the spread of their shallow roots, until in some subsequent winter storm their over-burdened shallow roots would be levered loose from the wet soil beneath and the whole tree would come crashing down.
We had such a tree below our house, which dominated our view down through our meadow to the north-east, dwarfing the perpetually immature oaks beneath it, twisting its large spreading branches outward and upward, laden with gargantuan pine cones, and, on some summer evenings, more turkeys than you could count, heavy ungainly things that would flutter laboriously up and grab onto the elongated wisps of branches which would sag dangerously under their weight and so they would spend the night, dozens of them, clinging heavily and awkwardly to the branches of that big old digger like ornaments on the largest, weirdest Christmas tree you could imagine. And I imagined that it might have been the weight of those turkeys that finally brought that grand old tree crashing down, taking out a half dozen stunted oaks below as it fell. We shuddered to think what might have happened had that tree been closer to our house, and so our opinion of the Diggers began to change.
They are a trashy tree, after all, with a continual litter of pine cones and broken limbs beneath them, and choking thickets of seedlings growing all around. They cast little shade and their wood burns quickly without much heat. And sooner or later, we knew, they inevitably fall, taking out fence lines or sheds or the branches of younger, more promising oaks. So we began to thin, to remove them. Like the callow old miners, we no longer saw the poetry of the trees, the way their branches danced in the breeze and scribed poetry onto the skies. We were not interested in extracting the nutritious and by all accounts tasty pine nuts from the cones, leaving them to be dropped by tree squirrels and scattered messily on the roads and rocky ground. We even lost the name, being told that the historic name of “Digger” was pejorative, from the contemptuous epithet the miners spat at the foothill Indians that worked the soil for the roots and nuts on which they survived, and that from now on the tree should be called the Foothill Pine, a name which for me has no magic or history.
But now I wish to recapture some of the magic and mystery the Digger Pines once held for me, I want to once again watch them scribe ancient patterns with their twisted branches in the sky and weave mysteriously in the afternoon breezes. I want to see them through the eyes of the Tsi Akim Maidu, and I will ask those I know in that community if, out of respect, I need to give up the name with which I first came to know them. And if so, I would hope to not lose their magic and their history in the process. If it is indeed the consensus that the time-honored name of “Digger” is no longer appropriate, I shall henceforth know them as the “Ghost Pine”, a name the speaking of which evokes for me not only the mystery of these grand old trees but the millennia of history over which they loomed, and the people who labored in their faint shadows and ate of their pine nuts and who understood, far better than I, the mysteries traced in the sky by their outstretched branches.