A giant sequoia comes from this?
A log is propped up against a fallen giant. I scramble up and find myself standing on an enormous log that’s twice as wide as I am tall and hundreds of feet long. Its upended root cluster splays out 30 feet.
“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” The American poet Joyce Kilmer, killed in World War I, had it right. His words echo in my head as I walk across the trunk of a giant sequoia as big as a subway tube.
The trunk is broken halfway along, so I leap a chasm to the next section. High overhead are the interconnected branches of other huge trees that filter the sunlight, diffusing “god rays” down to the verdant forest floor.
My wife and I are in California wandering through a grove appropriately named “The 100 Giants.” It is part of Sequoia National Park where remnant stands of trees rise up in primal elegance and majesty.
Walking through this grove, we stare up, craning our necks to see the tops of trees hidden by greenery and lost in the blue sky. “Wow!” becomes a chant. “Oh, my god!” is the refrain.
There’s nothing else that can speak to the sight of a tree that was sprouting at the time of Christ’s birth, a tree that has withstood storms and fire and wind and insects, a tree whose worst and most violent predator was logging and is now climate change.
John Muir observed: “In studying the fate of our forest king, we have thus far considered the action of purely natural causes; but, unfortunately, man is in the woods, and waste and pure destruction are making rapid headway.”
Who, but the most brutish, could topple such leviathans? Perhaps, as in other climes and other times, those desensitized by privation and war were blind to the glory of cathedral forests and had lost the powers of wonder and awe.
These men, whose engineering minds contrived the devious means to cut and fell these living columns of natural history, failed to grasp William Blake’s poetic vision: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.”
Muir understood. He conveyed the sentiments of a great Druid elder who revered the scale and scope of life and, like all great naturalists, employed his powers of observation to deduce how the sequoia grow.
Studying these trees, most of them are deeply scarred by fire. Some are completely gutted up the center of their thick trunks where flames excavated whole rooms beneath a tripod of split trunks.
Yet fire is what perpetuates the species, as Muir accurately noted: “Fire, the great destroyer of sequoia, also furnishes bare virgin ground, one of the conditions essential for its growth from seed.”
In the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park, I follow a perimeter trail and gather enormous pine cones, one of which filled my pack. The sequoia cone is surprisingly small, about the size of a small child’s fist.
“These are the seeds,” instructs James, a naturalist with whom we tag along on a guided walk among the Mariposa sequoias. The seeds are specks in his open hand, tiny containers of DNA holding the invisible components and instructions of a life form that looms above us with magisterial bulk and preponderant weight, where one limb is as big as mature trees in a Colorado forest.
Every seed is a miracle of life bearing the evolutionary imprint of ingenious life forms perfectly adapted to grow and endure and stand for what we puny humans consider an eternity, trees that absorb water and control the flow of entire drainages, trees that slow evaporation, trees that create whole ecosystems evolving alongside them.
To finish Kilmer’s poem: “A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed upon the earth’s sweet flowing breast/A tree that looks at God all day and lifts its leafy arms to pray/Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
To plant a giant sequoia is to believe in the future of life.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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