High winds shake the ponderosas. Golden pollen pours from male cones. Thunder growls above lava fields. Skies frown in nimbus clouds that lumber in from the west.
Pow! Lightning. Thunder buffaloes toward our home. Hail stomps the tender green plants. Ice plinks off our roof. Pace quickens. The full herd rumbles in a staccato of flying hooves. Flayed leaves.
Pollen dusts the passage. Silence. Not over yet. Treetops shimmy. Limbs flounder. Lightning strobes. Hail punctures. Rain floods. A great crescendo of pounding, surging, rushing, chorusing sound overtakes every niche of refuge.
One raven streaks by. Quiet. The air clears. Sunshine winks. Pine siskins ruffle wet feathers. A western tanager shines like an exotic fruit gusting in from the tropics. I pick up a marble-sized hail stone from the rubble. Not white. Flecked in gold.
The day began with a suspicious haze creeping through pines. Smoke? The sulphury hue is wrong. No wind. Breathe the dust of renewal. Like fine ash , the pollen filters through screen windows onto every surface in our house.
Before the hint of storm in the sleepy blue eye of morning, I trace the fog to its source. Study a cluster of male cones. Startled. For a moment, I’m looking at a maroon starfish with 19 arms radiating up from a tide pool of green needles. Each cone scale harbors a precious sack of pollen, and each grain possesses a pair of miniscule air bladders to balloon in the air as long and far as possible.
Flick the cone. Pooof! Magic steams away. So what is going on? Many ponderosas are bursting with male and female cones in a jubilance that reaches this level only every few years. The male staminate cones are a short-lived, late spring phenomenon. The female or ovulate cones grow higher up, a strategy to avoid pollination from a male cone of the same tree.
While the male cones remind me of starfish, the female scales are sea urchin-like, but not prickly. Each slightly open scale is a seductive invitation for pollen to tickle her sticky fluid that she absorbs to draw the grains deep to the base of the scale. Here, two ovules await pollination. When her whole cone is filled with the pleasure of pollen, her scales seal tight. The protected seeds grow in cones that will ripen a year and a half later.
This morning, I walk through our backyard forest of pines to the lava shore. The air is shorn clean. The sky a forget-me-not blue. Canyon wren song flutes down from the rocks. The forest floor is laced in green needles. Single male pollen cones curl like caterpillars.
Climbing up on basalt rocks patterned in lichen, I can stand higher to a nearby pine, close enough to inspect a fresh female cone. Her sticky ooze glitters in the brilliance of after-storm. The cone is the size and color of a ripe raspberry. Fingers on the succulent cone, I touch the promise of a sky-scraping tree that dances to hooves of hail.