Day 28: Trees
We’ve all got those childhood stories — those lighthearted, slightly embarrassing stories of things we did as kids, that we cringe as our parents re-tell again and again. For me, the story is about trees.
I was a big-headed 5 years old as we set off on a long family road trip from New Mexico back up to Alaska. We decided to detour into the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, winding our way up into the hills where the big trees live. Despite my parents’ promise of Giant Sequoias, trees so big that it would take a dozen people holding hands to make a ring around them, I was unimpressed — the long drive and the winding road were making me grouchy, and I whined and howled. Finally, arriving in Sequoia National Park’s remarkable Giant Forest, I got out of the car, a tiny 5-year-old with crossed arms and wet cheeks, looked up and proclaimed, “I’ve seen lots bigger trees than these!” And with that immortal phrase (because my dad just won’t let it die!), I got back in the car and slammed the door.
I like to think that I’ve matured a bit since then, that I’ve learned to appreciate majestic things like massive trees, and the last few days have satisfied me that it’s true. Walking through Redwood National Park was pure, un-alloyed pleasure. I daresay it was my favorite stretch of the trek so far. Although I walked it on a weekend, it seemed that I had the place completely to myself. Perhaps it was the rain showers that came and went and constantly threatened that confined all the traffic to Highway 101, leaving the trails and beaches deserted. But I was undaunted. Rain, after all, is what makes this forest what it is: lush and incredibly tall. Whatever the reason for the park’s emptiness, walking in solitude through virgin redwood groves was a remarkable privilege.
It’s only possible to walk these groves today because of the amazing dedication of some prominent environmentalists in the early 20th Century that spared them from the saw. The northern California coast has been logging country in earnest since the gold rush, when San Francisco and other California ports and cities grew like bonfires — many of the trails I’ve walked are former logging roads, many of the campsites are former mills. About 95% of the virgin redwoods were cut (of the 2 million acres alive in 1800, only about 100,000 still stand). But I don’t want to paint logging with the black brush of evil — walking through miles and miles of logging country, it’s inescapable that logging is a way of life that good people cherish with all the righteousness and vigor of a native tribe in danger of being kicked off their ancestral homeland. Loggers believe they are doing good damn work, God’s work. And far from being crude and ignorant, they really know their stuff, because they live in the woods, and they work in the woods — their knowledge doesn’t come from books, but from experience. They’re understandably touchy about “armchair” environmentalists coming to tell them their way of life is wrong — just as Inupiaq families in northern Alaska can’t be told that hunting whales is wrong. They reply, “Have you ever actually been in these woods? Have you ever stood and watched? Have you seen the critters?“
Still, logging in Northern California in the late 1800s took off on a scale and pace that was just overwhelming. I truly do believe that if environmentalists hadn’t stood in the way (often quite literally), every last virgin redwood tree would have toppled. The destruction would have been complete before we could even pause for a breath and wonder what other values these unique old-growth ecosystems might once have had. And in that sense, while I have great respect for loggers and their livelihood, these early environmentalists, led by John Muir’s gospel of nature, I admire to the utmost.
Old-growth redwood trees are the tallest things that have ever lived. Some reach nearly 400 feet into the air. That’s so tall that if you sat in the front row of the Red-Zone student section at Stanford football stadium (chosen because our mascot is a redwood tree, not only out of school pride!), and if the tree stood in place of the far downfield goalpost, and if a couple of loggers (their saw and skill sufficiently sharpened) cut through its mighty girth, and the tree tipped over, slowly, bodily — cracking and groaning, its needles whooshing, the crowd gasping — it would land squarely in the near goal post with room to spare, its upper branches knocking off your nerd glasses and spilling your beer.
The sheer size of these trees, viewed with a craned neck, whispers of great antiquity. Back in Fort Bragg, I passed a mounted cross-section of the largest redwood ever known to have grown in Mendocino County. Felled in 1943 before the chainsaw, it took 60 man-hours to slice through its phenomenal diameter. Bending to run my hands over the cross-section, I saw its annual tree rings laid out concentrically, beautifully, seemingly endlessly, like the ripples of a rock dropped in a still pond — or better yet, thrown into the pond with enough force to keep rippling for centuries. I saw that they had added labels along the axis of the tree rings, showing when major historical events happened in the life of the tree. It germinated around A.D. 100 — Jesus! Whole empires rose and fell, wars were waged, the map of the world was drawn and re-drawn as the tree stood quietly in what would become California, weathering storms, surviving fires, collecting century after century of dewdrops in its needles. By the time Christopher Columbus first reached Hispaniola, the tree was already well over 1000 years old.
Still, redwoods aren’t the oldest living things out there. Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of Eastern California, while tiny and gnarled by comparison to a redwood, are the real longevity champions. The oldest of the bristlecones, called Methuselah, is nearly 5000 years old, with an estimated germination date of 2832 B.C. That’s a few hundred years before construction began on the Great Pyramid of Giza. If I could put my stethoscope to its ancient grey bark and hear its beating heart, beating at its own pace as many times as my heart will in my lifetime, it would beat once every 60 seconds. The Forest Service keeps Methuselah’s location secret to prevent people from defiling the ancient one.
Nor are old-growth redwoods the largest trees in the world by sheer volume, though it’s hard to believe when standing among them. That distinction goes to a third California species that we already met, the giant sequoia. Though not quite as tall as redwoods, they are nevertheless thicker and bulkier, allowing them to amass more total carbon. And as the biggest trees, that also makes giant sequoias the largest organisms of any kind to have ever lived (although there are some that would dispute this claim on the dubious technical grounds that, apart from a ring of living sapwood — the xylem and phloem we all remember from introductory biology — by far most of the volume of a living tree is actually dead). Objections aside, you could once drive a car through Yosemite’s famous Wawona sequoia tree, via a tunnel carved out as a tourist attraction. The tree has since fallen over, but anyone comprehending a sequoia firsthand won’t argue that these aren’t big damn trees. In keeping with the spirit of my last post about cars, I recommend walking through a big tree rather than driving, as I did yesterday on the DeMartin Trail in Redwood National Park.
All told, right here in California we’ve got the tallest, biggest and oldest living things in the world today, and quite possibly in the history of life. Tomorrow when I cross the border into Oregon, I’ll think of California’s forests, and send a prayer of thanks out to the early preservationists, now long dead, who put early friction in the gears of the machine, and protected a few of the massive groves from being hewn. And as for you — I’m guessing 90% of my small readership is in California — they are YOUR forests and groves! Get out there and enjoy them.
And before signing off, I want to send my love out to my wonderful lab group, and everyone aboard the USCGC Healy, who are all shivering up in the Arctic Ocean on a research cruise, and won’t see any trees — or any plants at all for that matter, except microscopic ones — for weeks. You can follow their progress through the ice at http://www.arcticspring.org/. I miss you guys!