Ponderosas and Junipers

An ecotone of family memory

An old black-and-white photograph showing a few small buildings and a road crossing a river, with trees scattered in the distance

Laidlaw, now Tumalo, in 1905. Image courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 58555

In my earliest childhood memories of playing outdoors, I am staring up at towering ponderosa pines in our neighborhood along Broadway Street, a few blocks from the Deschutes River in old Bend. In wonder, I pick up pine cones and feel the prickles with my soft fingertips. I gather the long needles from the ground and brush them across my arm. I press the palm of my hand flat against the hard, flaky bark of a massive tree and run my index finger through the deep furrows.

After World War II, my parents fulfilled an old dream of settling in Central Oregon. They grew up in the secure and fertile Willamette Valley, where all four sets of my great grandparents had farmed. Central Oregon is a stark contrast—a savanna-like environment where hardy ponderosa pines yield to drier junipers and sagebrush. Bend and Redmond sit in an open landscape that invites you to come in—an ecotone where desert meets mountain.

In Bend, my mother let me play on the carpet of old brown pine needles scattered with cones beneath a cluster of ponderosas in our yard. Two older neighbor kids brought an enamel kitchen pot and a big spoon that we used to dig up the rich brown soil beneath the needles. We mixed it into a batter we said would become a chocolate cake.

My family later moved sixteen miles north to Redmond, crossing the ecotone of decreased annual precipitation where the more arid-adapted junipers meet the ponderosas. There I would ride off alone on my trusty Schwinn bike east of town to explore stands of juniper trees near the recently abandoned barracks of the World War II army airbase—now the Bend-Redmond Airport. I pedaled around on dusty tracks, winding among handsome old junipers with stout trunks, strong side branches, and rounded crowns, all showing dull shades of green scaly leaves and tiny blue fleshy cones (often erroneously referred to as “berries.”) The cleared farmlands around Redmond, which flourished with the region’s irrigation projects, were dotted here and there with remaining junipers, but totally devoid of ponderosa pines.

I imprinted on Central Oregon’s junipers and ponderosas during my childhood and early teens as I was just starting to find my own direction in life. I was suspended in a liminal space, embraced by the mingling of these trees as I faced westward in awe of the snow-topped Cascade Range. I now realize that Central Oregon’s ponderosas and junipers help me understand my own story of becoming a naturalist and an ecologist.


The two trees that marked my childhood experience in Central Oregon are technically known as western juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, and ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa—both of which are gymnosperms (naked seeds) and conifers (cone bearers). However, they belong to separate lineages within that ancestral grouping—western juniper of the cypress family and ponderosa pine of the pine family. The two families comprise nearly 200 species, spread across a variety of habitats throughout the northern hemisphere. While ponderosa pine lives across a good deal of the western half of North America, western juniper is narrowly confined to central and eastern Oregon, its range extending just slightly into the four surrounding states.

Ponderosas are among the tallest of pines, frequently over 200 feet, with straight, handsome trunks. Their bark is orange or yellow and brown, with dark furrows running between plates made up of what appear to be small jigsaw-puzzle pieces. I always feel an irresistible urge to pick at pieces on the trunk and run my fingers through the accumulation of puzzle flakes at the base of big old ponderosas. Western junipers are smaller than ponderosas, but still upward of fifty feet tall. They are somewhat bushy and globular, with irregularly projecting branches and soft, fibrous bark, gray to reddish brown in color. Ponderosa leaves are dark green needles around six inches long and clustered together in fascicles of three. The juniper’s light, dull-green leaves are short and scaley, tightly arranged in twos and threes. I’ve crushed the leaves of both trees in my fingers to feel the pitch and inhale their pungent, aromatic odors.

The seed-bearing woody cones of the ponderosa are classic pine cones, up to five or six inches tall, with arrays of protruding prickly-tipped scales bearing winged seeds that drift out from mature, dried cones and flutter in the wind as they disperse. The juniper’s small bluish fleshy cones, only a quarter inch or so in diameter, are commonly called “berries” (a scientifically inaccurate term for gymnosperms, which do not produce fruits), each holding only one to three seeds. Some birds, such as robins, eat the juniper cones and disperse the seeds nearby as they pass from the digestive tract. Most western juniper populations contain separate (dioecious) female and male trees, with the small male cones producing pollen and the larger female cones developing seeds after they are fertilized with the male pollen, but some populations contain monoecious individuals, with both male and female cones on the same tree. Such academic matters as plant sex were not the curiosities of my youth, and only later, when I became a biology professor, did such things attract my attention.


I have a deeper story to tell about my family’s attraction to the land of ponderosa and juniper, a story recited many times by my paternal grandfather about his early teen summers in Central Oregon in the first years of the twentieth century.

Beginning around 1905, Central Oregon came on the map for development with projects to bring water down from the eastern slopes of the Cascades to serve agriculture on the rich volcanic soils of the juniper and sagebrush desert. A rush of pioneers came so quickly that lumber for building was scarce, so tent cabins rose up on new homestead plots and in small towns throughout the region. Soon the abundant ponderosas were being logged by a growing timber industry to meet the demand for lumber. As land was cleared for farming, juniper trees were cut for fence posts to delineate each new homestead.

In the summers of 1905 to 1907, my grandfather, as a teenager, undertook a journey by horse and wagon with his father and two older brothers to establish a homestead in the new and promising land on the back side of the Cascades. They began at the family farm near Hubbard, in the Willamette Valley, and ended their first day in Portland. The next morning, after a twenty-five-cent cafe breakfast of steak, eggs, potatoes, and coffee, they drove their wagon down to Front Avenue at 6:00 a.m. and loaded onto the sternwheel steamer Bailey Gatzert for the eastward run up the Columbia. A few hours later, they entered the old Cascade Locks to get past the Cascade Rapids. Upon arriving in The Dalles, they put their horses in the livery stable (at one dollar per horse) and slept overnight in the haymow.

From The Dalles, they headed south, toward the heart of Central Oregon, covering more than one hundred miles and climbing some 3,000 feet of elevation. The route roughly followed the Deschutes River, which flows northward into the Columbia carrying the watershed of the eastern Cascades. The wagon road passed through hot, dry country with few trees. The landscape was filled with bunchgrass and sagebrush and laced with dark basalts, some in dramatic columnar formations.

The first night they camped near Sherar’s Bridge, a toll bridge where they crossed to the east side of the Deschutes; the second night, at a cable-ferry crossing over the Crooked River, near its confluence with the Deschutes; and the third night at Cline Falls, where they crossed back to the west side of the river. Cline Falls is about five miles west of downtown Redmond. Many years later, I picnicked there in summers with my parents and brothers and swam in pools of water flowing around big emergent boulders and into deeper holes, out of which I caught rainbow trout on worm bait with a black telescoping metal fishing pole.

As they traveled south each summer, my grandfather and his brothers and father gradually encountered more and more junipers. On the last day, as they left Cline Falls behind, they entered the ecotonal mix of ponderosa pines that reached out into the junipers. My grandfather told me they located their homestead property as they headed toward the Middle and North Sisters, members of the Three Sisters trio of volcanic peaks.

Over earlier millennia, the eastern slopes of the Three Sisters served as home ground for Indigenous people who harvested wild seeds and berries, hunted deer and a variety of small mammals, made obsidian arrow points and other stone tools, and recorded their presence in rock carvings on those slopes. The North, Middle, and South Sisters—among the five tallest of Oregon’s peaks—stand out handsomely along the Cascade crest as a landmark later recognized by the earliest Euro-American explorers. Although my grandfather’s annual journey took him along the eastern edge of the Warm Springs reservation, he made no mention to me of the people of the Warm Springs, Wasco, or Paiute tribes who resided there and would, thirty years later, become the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

My great-grandfather’s homestead was a grant of eighty acres that required payment for water rights to the regional Columbia Southern Irrigation Project and a local development known as the Three Sisters Irrigation Company, promoted by a real estate developer named William A. Laidlaw. An ambitious entrepreneur, Laidlaw gave his name to the community that he promised to develop by diverting streams that flowed from the Cascades down into a reservoir behind a dam that his company constructed.

My grandfather described the eighty acres where he worked those three summers as lying west of Laidlaw (located between Sisters and Bend) and “dotted with junipers.” In the first summer they built a tent house, cleared a few acres of sagebrush and junipers, and made a garden. Grandpa said they left “a dozen or so nice, bigger junipers standing.” With the straight and slender trunks of small junipers they cut fence posts, stuck them in the ground, and strung them with barbed wire. They travelled to nearby Bend, a newly incorporated town of 500 people, to purchase lumber for the tent house and hay for their horses. The homestead included “natural green meadows with bunch grass,” which they fenced first, so it could be used as horse pasture. Fencing was one of the government’s requirements for “improving” the land granted as a homestead.

By the second summer they were able to raise a small crop of hay, some of which they sold in Bend for $9 per ton. But discouragements followed. Their horse Nell cut her jugular vein on barbed wire and died. They had to borrow a horse to get back home to the Willamette Valley.

Yet more disheartening was Laidlaw’s irrigation project. The water diverted to the dam percolated down into the basalt and could not be captured, threatening the success of the entire Laidlaw community. A scandal was also uncovered: Laidlaw had sold more water rights than could be met by the maximal flow of Tumalo Creek. As a result, in 1907, my grandfather’s final summer on the homestead, Laidlaw was hanged in effigy by irate community members.

In that final summer of 1907, my great-grandfather Emanuel and his sons irrigated with only the water they managed to divert directly onto their land from Tumalo Creek. The discouragement from lack of water behind the dam continued, and great-grandfather concluded it was time to give up. He was able to trade the Laidlaw homestead for a small farm back in Clackamas County in the northern Willamette Valley to a man who wanted to give the Laidlaw community a go. The new owner’s attempt failed as well. In 1912, “Old Man Laidlaw” (as my grandfather called him) was hanged in effigy for the second time. Not long after, the Laidlaw community renamed itself Tumalo, which today remains an unincorporated area within a triangle formed by Sisters, Bend, and Redmond.


I never knew my great-grandfather, who attempted to better his family’s life with the dream of forging a new existence out on the unproven land where junipers meet ponderosas. He died nearly twenty years before I was born, and of his personal character I have only these words from his obituary: “…kind in his counsels, reserved in his deliberations, yet courageous in his convictions.”

When I return to Central Oregon now, all these years later, I feel the power of my grandfather’s story—of his adventure into the junipers and ponderosas as a boy. I remain attentive to the voices of these trees that continue to speak to me across the arc of three previous generations. I wonder if the beauty of this place in nature is a consolation for the failure of Great-Grandfather Emanuel’s homestead.


Family, History, Place, Ecology


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