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Engelmann Spruce in Yellowstone National Park

36 x 23.75 in | 91.4 x 60.3 cm

According to the Yellowstone Park website, “Forests cover roughly 80% of the park and lodgepole pine comprises nearly all of that canopy.” There is a little lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) peaking out of the lower right hand corner of this painting, but the focus of the painting is on a less common resident of the park—an Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmanii).

Click for detail.
Click for detail.

The Engelmann’s ragged appearance and complex pattern of branches caught my eye, while the brilliant yellow wolf moss provided a lively contrast to the dark chocolate brown bark. Its isolation against the sky allowed me to observe its beautifully complex structure. In contrast, had just hiked up from the valley where trees were so densely packed that they presented a uniform wall of green. I recently read an article in American Forests magazine (Summer, 2016) by Richard Higgins in which he quotes Henry David Thoreau “A tree seen against other trees is a mere dark mass, but against the sky it has parts, has symmetry and expression.” Old trees like this have so much character. I have no idea exactly how old it is because Engelmann spruce at high, wind swept elevations like this tend to be very slow growing. Some stunted trees can be 1000 years old.

The tens of thousands of spires poking up from the mountains in the distance are mostly young lodgepole pines. Living in New England, Thoreau may not have been familiar with lodgepole pines, but they are the perfect example of the “dark mass” in his description. Frequent fires kill the lodgepole pines but some of their cones are sealed and stay on the trees until a forest fire heats them, after which they burst open and drop their seeds onto the newly burned area. The new seedlings grow so thick you can’t squeeze between them if you are wearing a pack.

For me the most important feature of this particular tree is the fact that my daughter and son-in-law wanted the painting for a wedding gift.

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