I confess, I had forgotten about trees, the tallest of living things. So many years in cities, in offices and on airplanes had turned them into blurs on the distant landscapes. But this last weekend, I walked beneath the redwoods and was astounded again by their beauty, their simplicity and their strength.
The air was tangibly different as we entered Muir Woods. Mostly, it felt cooler, but it was far warmer where the sun broke through the branches, and the scent of pine needles crunching underfoot worked to comfort me like a kind of aromatherapy. Sounds were muffled and the impact of the other visitors was muted by the trees. Somehow, we felt like the woods were there for just us. I imagine everyone there felt the same way.
We walked along Redwood Creek into the Bohemian Grove. I stopped at a particularly large tree, and touched the velvety bark, curved and sculpted like a Frank Gehry building. I felt a thrill at its undulating grace. Looking up, the sunlight filtered down through the tender green branches that towered above us.
We came upon a cross section of a tree that showed rings that had formed throughout its lifetime. It was a sapling in 900 AD, and little arrows along the cross section marked dates, like 1492 when Columbus discovered the new world, 1760 when the Industrial Revolution began, and 1969 when man first walked on the moon. What stories could these trees tell? What had they seen? What will they see, yet?
Ancient forests like these covered much of the Northern Hemisphere 150 million years ago, before a changing climate forced their retreat. Now, only a narrow strip of redwood trees remains on the West Coast from Big Sur to Southern Oregon. They can grow to be 370 feet tall, and up to 2,000 years old. Giant Sequoias, some as much as 3,200 years old, can be found in small patches on the western slopes of the Sierras, and while they are larger in diameter than these coastal redwoods, they still do not grow as tall. Nothing on earth grows taller than a redwood tree.
Our famously foggy climate is exactly what a redwood needs to thrive. Born in a region with little rain, the trees collect water from the fog as it condenses on their needles. As the water drips down, it serves as a built-in sprinkling system. I remember driving last summer from Santa Barbara to San Francisco and noticing the oak trees dotting the hillsides. In the midst of brown, rolling hills, each of these trees stood in the middle of a round patch of green grass. They had the same sort of sprinkling system, catching the moisture from the morning fog in their leaves, and releasing it into the ground throughout the day. Ingenious, trees!
Redwoods have even evolved to include forest fires as a benefit. Fires clear out the forest floors so that the tree’s seeds can reach the soil. Fire kills the bacteria and fungi that can harm the trees, and the ashes can actually add nutrients to their soil. I think of times in my life when I have been threatened or harmed, and I only hope I can find the same ability to turn those difficulties into riches.
My grandmother, Min, was not a fan of California. She much preferred Washington, where she lived because, as she said, Washington had “the real trees.” I wish Min could have been with us last weekend. In spite of herself, I think she would have felt very much at home.
As did I.