Home & Garden Columns

Ghostly Tree of Many Names Feeds Us and the Trickster Alike

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 31, 2006

One fair day in mid-October, near dusk, Joe and I were strolling the first mile of the Mitchell Canyon trail on the east side of Mount Diablo. The sun was low; the shadows, long; only the west-facing ridgetops were glowing in the red-gold sunset, and we’d just about decided to turn back, when Joe whispered: “Coyote!” 

Sure enough, barely discernible from the dry grasses and brush along the roadside, there was a coyote. We froze in place, then cautiously lifted our binocs. The coyote ignored us, trotting toward us in a zigzag walk, alert and stopping to attend to things stirring out of sight. When I realized that the wind was at out backs, clearly carrying our scent coyote-wards, I swapped my glasses for the camera and aimed and snapped a picture.  

Our camera has an hilariously authoritative fake shutter sound; sometimes, as then, I wish I’d turned that off. But the coyote never blinked, just kept making the rounds, sniffing for dinner. She made a nonchalant circle around us as we stood there and I snapped off shot after shot. Some few yards past us, she pounced at something, probably a vole, and fetched it out, dropped it once, picked it up and ate it: snap snap.  

As we followed, she stopped again, nosed at something brown on the road, and snapped up bits of that too. I assumed it was a horse turd until we got a closer look. It was a big shattered pine cone, with one or two nuts left under the scattered scales. Coyotes eat pignoli!  

Well of course they do. Coyotes are adventurous generalists, and pignoli are delicious and full of nice fats and protein. They’re tasty in Spanish and Italian main dishes, in salads, in candies—I like them raw or pan-toasted myself. Italian stone pine is the usual source of the classic European commercial nuts, but pines of all sorts can be persuaded to yield their tasty seeds, by birds’ beaks, squirrels’ incisors, or coyotes’ opportunistic noses and tongues and fangs.  

Or, if you’re human people, by boot heel, stone, mill, or fire. The First People here in California were connoisseurs of pine nuts, and a favorite along the Coast Range (were the fat brown-hulled nuts of Pinus sabiniana, currently called “gray pine.” That’s what our coyote acquaintance was eating. 

Thereby hangs a tale. 

Once upon a time, back when shoveler ducks were “Jew ducks” and Brazil nuts were “N****r toes” (Huh. My folks raised me right, all right. I can’t even type that word without choking.), this tree was known as “digger pine,” or, I suppose, “Digger pine.” This name was in dubious honor of the local indigenous tribes, who feasted from a plentiful land and practiced the kind of farming that uses controlled fire and smart cutting instead of plows. Europeans myopically or conveniently missed this subtlety, and called the land “pristine and untouched wilderness” and declared that the local people didn’t work for a living, but merely dug stuff out of the ground to eat.  

In the last couple of decades it dawned on a critical mass of people that the name was insulting. So the tree is now “gray pine,” for its graceful, sparse grayish foliage. Sometimes it’s “bull pine” because it tends to fork into a Y or pair of horns, or “ghost pine” for its less-than-solid appearance. 

It grows in scattered stands in open country or chaparral, its misty color standing out from summer dun and winter green, its height from its plant neighbors’.  

Its foliage makes only light shade, so it gives meager relief from heat. But that also lets one spot its big cones from a long distance: a great convenience for the wild-groceries shopper.  

One amusing habit of gray pine is its tendency to lean. In some places, like some of the stands along Mines Road east of Livermore, they lean in unison, seemingly caught in a ponderous if airy dance. In others, they tilt more randomly, “creating,” as Ronald Lanner said, “a suspicion of a drunken forest staggering as it ascends the oak-studded foothills.” (I recommend his book Conifers of California.)  

If you plant one in garden soil, it’ll grow denser foliage and smaller cones. I’d call it good company, but I personally prefer to see it in its graceful native shape on its lean, demanding native ground.  



Photograph by Ron Sullivan.  

Sparse foliage give an airy, insubstantial look to a native landscape “ghost,” Pinus sabiniana.