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Photo by Laura Camp | CC BY-NC 2.0

 The Sugar Pine

Mary Hunter Austin

Before the sugar pine came up in the meadow of Bright Water it had swung a summer long in the burnished cone of the parent tree, until the wind lifted it softly to the earth where it swelled with the snow water and the sun, and began to grow into a tree. But it knew nothing whatever of itself except that it was alive and growing; and in its first season was hardly so tall as the Little Grass of Parnassus that crowded the sod at the Bright Water. In fact, it was a number of years before it began to overtop the meadowsweet, the fireweed, the tall lilies, the monkshood, and columbine, and under these circumstances it could not be expected to have much of an opinion of itself. 


 During those years the young pine suffered a secret mortification because it had no flowers. It stood stiff and trimly in its plain dark green, every needle like every other one, and no honey-gatherer visited it. When all the meadow ran over with rosy and purple bloom, the pine tree trembled and beads of clear resin oozed out upon its bark like tears; and the trouble really seemed worse than it was because everybody made so much of it. Even the hummingbirds as they came hurtling through the air would draw back conspicuously when they came to the pine, and though they said politely, "I beg your pardon, I took you for a flower," the seedling felt it would have been better had they said nothing at all. 

 "Well, why don't you grow flowers?" said the meadowsweet; "it is easy enough. Just do as I do," and she spread her drift of blossoms like a fragrant snow. But the sugar pine found it impossible to be anything but stiff and plainly green, though every year in the stir and tingle of new sap he felt a promise of better things. 

 "I suppose," he said one day, "I must be in some way different from the rest of you."   

 "Ah, that is the way with you solemn people," said the fire-weed, "always imagining yourself better than those about you to excuse your disagreeableness. Any one can see by the way you hold yourself that you have too much of an opinion of yourself." 

 The little pine tree sighed; he had not said "better," only "different," and he began to realize year by year that this was so. 

 "You should try to be natural," said the meadowsweet; "do not be so stiff, and then every one will love you though you are so plain." 

 Then the sugar pine reached out and tried to mingle with the flowers, but the sharp needles tore their frills and the stiff branches did not suit with their graceful swaying, so he was obliged to give it up. It seemed, in fact, the more he tried to be like the others the worse he grew. 

 "If only you were not so odd," said all the flowers. None of the young growing things in the meadow understood that it is natural for a pine tree to be stiff. 

 The sugar pine was not always unhappy. There were days when he caught golden glints of the stream that ran smoothly about the meadow, in a bed of leopard-colored stones, and, reflecting all the light that fell into the hollow of the hills, gave the place its name; days when the air was warm and the sky was purely blue, and the resinous smell of the pines on the meadow border came to the seedling like a sweet savor in a dream, for as yet he did not understand what he was to be. He was pleased just to be looking at the summer riot of the flowering things, and loved the cool softness of the snow when he was tucked into comfortable darkness to dream of the spring odor of the pines. Then, when it seemed that the meadow had forgotten him, the little tree would fall to thinking the thoughts proper to his kind, and found the time pass pleasantly. 

 "I suppose," he thought, "it is not good for me to flower as the other plants. If I began like them I should probably end like them and I feel that I could not be satisfied with that. After all, one should not try to be so much like others, but to be the very best of one's own sort." 

 Very early the young tree had noticed that he was the only one of all that company that kept green and growing the winter through. He would have been secretly very proud of it, but the flowers took good care to let him know their opinion of such airs. 

 "It is simply that you wish to be considered peculiar," said the columbine; "one sees that you like nothing so much as to be in other people's mouths, but let me tell you, you will not get yourself any better liked by such behavior." After that the little tree wished nothing so much as that he might be the commonest summer-flowering weed. 

 "But I am not," he said; "no, I am not, and I would do very well as I am if they would let me be happy in my own way." 

 That summer the seedling grew as tall as the meadowsweet, and could look across the open space to the parent pine poised on her noble shaft, her spreading crown gathering sunshine from the draughts of upper air. She seemed to rock a little as if she dozed upon her feet, and the great sweep of limbs with pendulous golden cones made a gentle sighing. Then the despised little seedling felt a thrill go through him, and felt a shaking in all his slender twigs. He bowed himself among the lilies, and was both glad and ashamed, for though he could not well believe it, he knew himself akin to the great sugar pines. After that he gave up trying to be one of the flowers. Once he even ventured to speak of it to the meadowsweet. 

 "Well, if it is any satisfaction to you to think so; but do not let any one else hear you say that. You are likely to get yourself mis-understood. I tell you this because I am your friend," said the meadowsweet, but really she had misunderstood him herself. 

 Then a rumor arose in the neighborhood that the sombre, stubborn shrub conceited himself to be a pine, and the rumor ran with laughter and nodding the length of the meadow until it reached the old alder on the edge of Bright Water. The alder had stood with his feet in the stream for longer than the meadow-sweet could remember, and saw everything that went on by reflection. 

 "Do not laugh too soon," said the alder tree, "I have seen stranger things than that happen in this meadow," for he was indeed very old. 

 "We have known him a good many seasons," said the fire-weed, "and he has not done anything worth mentioning yet." 

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Photo by Laura Camp | CC BY-NC 2.0

 All this was very hard for the young pine to bear, but there was better coming. That summer the forest ranger came riding in Bright Water and a learned man rode with him, praising the flowers and counting the numbers and varieties of bloom. How they prinked and flaunted in their pride! 

 "That is all very pretty, as you say," answered the ranger as they came by the place of the pine, "and I suppose they perform a sort of service in keeping the soil covered, but the trees are the real strength of the mountain. Ah, here is a seedling of the right sort! I must give that fellow a chance, and he began pulling up great handfuls of the blossoming things around the tree. 

 "What is it?" asked his companion. 

 "A sugar pine," he said; "probably a seedling of that splendid specimen yonder," and he went on clearing the ground to let in sun and air. 

 "But you must admit," said his friend, "that a seedling pine cuts rather a poor figure among all this flare of bloom." 

 "Oh, you wait fifty or sixty years," said the ranger, "and then you will see what sort of a figure it makes. It really takes a pine of this sort a couple of hundred years to reach its prime," and they rode talking up the trail. 

 Word of what had happened was carried all about the meadow and made a great stir. When it came to the alder tree he wagged his old head. "Ah, well," he said, "I told you so." 

 "I will not believe it until I see it," said the fireweed. "They might have known it before," sighed the young pine, "and they ought to be proud to think I grew up in the same meadow with them." 

 But they were not; they went on flaunting their blossoms as if nothing had occurred, and the young tree grew up as he was meant to be, and the pines on the meadow border sent him greeting on the wind. He still kept his trim spire-shaped habit, but he could very well put up with that for the time being. He felt within himself the promise of what he was to be. After fifty or sixty years, as the ranger had said, he began to put out strong cone-bearing boughs that shaped themselves by the storms and the wind in sweeping, graceful lines, and spread out to shelter the horde of flowering things below. Squirrels ran up the trunk and whistled cheerily in his windy top. 

 "He grew here in our neighborhood," said the tall lilies; "we knew him when he was a seedling sprig, and now he is the tallest of the pines." 

 "Suppose he is," said the fireweed. "What is the good of a pine tree anyway?" 

 But the sugar pine did not hear. He had grown far above the small folk of the meadow, and went on growing for a hundred years. He gathered the sun in his high branches and rocked upon his shaft. He talked gently in his own fashion with his own kind. 

"The Sugar Pine" from The Basket Woman: A Book of Indian Tales, by Mary Hunter Austin

austin bio

Mary Hunter Austin

A writer and naturalist born in Carlinville, Illinois (1868 – 1934). She lived in the desert, the south of California for many years, and she wrote about what she observed and experienced there in her novels, essays, poems, children’s books, etc. While she was living in Owens Valley which is a small valley along the east slope of Sierra Nevada she moved from one small town to another, and learned much about the wilderness, wild life, plans and weather of this area, and got familiar with Indians, shepherds and miners who lived there.  The most well-known of her work is “The Land of Little Rain” (1903).

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