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Looking for Pitch (2001)
About a hundred years ago the last great fires swept through our valley, 10 miles south of Estes Park, destroying almost everything except stands of mature Ponderosa pines. In response, the burning trees had their sap driven deep into the trees’ interiors. Some remained standing for a time, but most fell and when their exteriors had rotted away what remained was the tough interior, preserved by the heat driven sap. The wood in time turned a beautiful gray and was hard and solid. The stub ends of the branches or pine knots, stuck out of the trunks like gray fingers, and they, like the trunks and roots, were full of the sap. Distilled by the heat of the fires, this thick substance we then called “pitch.”
This hard wood burned fiercely in a stove or fireplace. My mother, now 93, clearly recalls the heat, the smell, the sound of crackling and the sight of the pitch dripping, a river of fire, as the wood burned with a nearly white flame.
Fifty-five years ago, when I was young, the forest floor was covered with these remnants, and those of us who lived here could wander about and pick up the pine knots long after the trunk had rotted, or knock them out of the trunk with a hatchet, to burn in our kitchen wood stoves and cut up trunks and roots for our fireplaces. For several years one could purchase from Otto Walter an entire load of pitch for a fireplace. It was, however, a finite resource, and it is now virtually all gone. To a large extent early lodges were built of this wood. It was beautiful and nearly everlasting, requiring no paint or preservatives. Longs Peak Inn, among many others, was built of this wood. You can still see it at Meeker Park Lodge in the porch and throughout the interior. When Longs Peak Inn burned, it made quite a fire.
Today this nearly vanished wood has become a metaphor for our many other finite resources. California’s power problems are an expression of this metaphor. Our own difficulties with natural gas and our reliance on foreign oil remind us that we are dealing with the “pitch” of the planet; these are finite resources. We can drill in Alaska and elsewhere for oil and gas, strip mine all the coal in Wyoming and build dams. But they are all finite resources, as well as terrible disturbances to the system we call the environment, and there will come a day when all of them are gone and the dam lakes filled with silt, used up like the last pine knots in our stoves.
As we get closer to the inevitable day our descendants will have to face, those of us alive now are just beginning to see that finding pitch is getting tougher. In what amounts to the blink of a cosmic eye we have used much of what the planet has to offer as easy sources of energy.
The creatures that came before us survived for millions of years by living within the environment, surviving by their own energy, eating the plants and each other and doing little or no damage to the planet itself while they lived and nourishing it when they died.
We complain that the elk and deer eat our gardens, but they’re are only doing what they have done for thousands of years, and, like the vegetation they consume, they’re a renewable resource. Certainly their predations aren’t at the level of the building going on all around us that will require more water, more heat, more electricity, more oil and oil-based products, more gas, more steel, aluminum, copper, and the list goes on, all of it demanding energy from finite resources. Only Man has sought and torn energy from the planet, and it’s now obvious that not only are these sources finite, the end is in sight. Left to themselves, our wapati and Alaska’s caribou have a better chance of survival than we do.
Some million years from now our mountains will look much as they do today. But unless we find more and better pitch, our species isn’t going to be here and the forest floor will once again have plenty of pine knots.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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