Tabs Open #38: They Are Ambassadors From Another Time

An interesting thing about trees—one that sounds apocryphal but is, in fact, true—is that giant sequoias require forest fires to reproduce. The biggest trees in the world by volume, the sequoias need intense heat to crack open their cones and release their seeds, and flames to scour the soil and turn it into a rich mineral bed for them.

Coastal redwoods, by contrast, need no such violence to get on with the process of making new life. In fact fires don’t seem to matter much to them one way or the other. The forest can be torched and these centuries-old giants will pretty much just carry on, growing green again within a year of their outer bark being turned black.

‘One year later, even large trees where all the foliage was scorched off were covered with a light green fuzz of new foliage,’ said Berkeley Ecologist Benjamin S. Ramage, who led the research project. ‘Of trees over 1.5 feet in diameter, maybe only one redwood out of a hundred was killed.’

I haven’t had the privilege of seeing giant sequoias in a few years, since my PCT thru-hike took me through the national park appropriately named for them. But last week I got a chance to walk beneath the redwoods for a few days and marvel at their size and quiet splendor. And it occurs to me now that there is something in knowing whether you’re a redwood or a sequoia, metaphorically. How you grow—or what precipitates your growth—can mean an awful lot.

And what truths distance can tell us, too. Sequoias are fiercer competitors than redwoods and need space to thrive; this is probably evident from their need of fire to sweep away the underbrush. But the redwoods we saw were clustered remarkably close together, growing together in groves, standing together in great screens, fusing with each other in improbable connections. Two trees with separate bases might all of a sudden start sharing bark just before the first layer of branches, or two giants would grow from the same base, or one massive tree would have grown entirely from the fallen trunk of another. Our definition of what constitutes a single “tree” is complicated by the redwood. In many cases it is impossible to tell where one organism ends and another begins. To walk among sequoias is to bear witness to nature’s slow, ruthless crucible. To walk among redwoods is to feel as though world peace and cooperation must be imminent.

I wish I could do a better job showing you what this all looked like. But a tree that’s 300 feet tall in a forest of other trees approaching that same height is difficult—impossible, really—to capture appropriately in a single photograph. The day before we got to the redwoods we saw an influencer in a big hat with three(!) guys taking pictures of her at Thor’s Well, a wild and hypnotic natural sink on the Oregon coast that is quite the spectacle at high tide. But pictures of our true selves are impossible to get, for the most part—I doubt her Instagram is going to show the moment she underestimated the distance the waves were going to launch out of Cook’s Chasm next to the Well and had to high-tail it with a hand on her trendy brown lid.

It’s the same for a redwood tree. To photograph it is to show a part of the truth, but never the whole truth. Someone previously said this better: John Steinbeck, who I’ve been reading and quoting from a lot recently, because these logjams of inspiration tend to happen from time to time in my life and this newsletter.

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

I’ve mentioned previously the bird identification rule that says if you see a crow, it’s a crow, and if you see a big crow, that’s still a crow, and if you see a holy shit that’s a big goddamn crow, it’s a raven. I feel like the same rule applies to trees. Everyone reading this has, I assume, seen a tree before; everyone reading this has probably seen a big tree before. I thought I had too until I spent three days walking around in groves of holy shit that’s a big goddamn tree trees. We saw trees that would’ve taken six or seven adults at least to link hands around. We saw trees that had gotten hit by lightning 70 or 80 feet up, splintered, and then kept growing another hundred feet out of one of the splinters. We saw trees that had burned out at the base, hollowed completely by fire, that I could’ve easily walked into and curled up for a nap. Many of those trees were still alive and growing.

The views among the redwoods are—I know of no other way to describe them—decadent, and I am a glutton for them all.

In some of the fallen trunks we could see the zigzag tunnels of termites that had made their home in the wood. It felt good, seeing that. A termite doesn’t worry about whether or not a redwood is too big to chew through. It just chews. There are worse lessons one could take into the new year that’s barreling toward us. Coastal redwoods live, on average, 500-700 years, but can live more than 2,000 if everything goes right. These numbers do not matter to the termite, either.

There are few better places to see the diversity of the compounded effects of years and ages than the redwoods, I think. There are the giants of the forest that take centuries to grow, yes. But in the redwoods you are never more than a few minutes from the coast, where you can watch as the waves pummel the rock formations of the shoreline, a violence that shapes and breaks and twists it all as the ages roll past. At Point St. George, the third-most-western point in the contiguous United States, there was a keyhole rock out in the shallows—the water had sliced a hole through the middle of it. With each new wave the water pushed through, spouted up, and retreated, thundering. This, too, we must remember: persistence can create strange and beautiful things, against even the most immovable forces.

We watched the sun begin to set from there, the whole coast bathed in a shade of golden light that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Once the sun was gone we went back to our rented cabin and I minced the needles of a redwood to make tea with. It was faintly lemony tasting but it smelled like Christmas. Another fitting tribute to the season, just like the herd of elk we saw each day, which look like reindeer if you’re squinting a little.

This will be the last newsletter of 2019. Working at this project each week has been among the most fulfilling, necessary things I’ve ever done, and I’m grateful to each and every one of you who has taken the time to read, to subscribe, to reach out when a particular issue or sentiment moved you or challenged you. It means the world to me to have my writing become a two-way street, rather than a brain dump into the void.

I hope the end of this year is a peaceful time for all of you and that the new year brings you (and me) some renewed hope, some renewed strength, and some renewed love for things. I’ll talk to you soon.

-Chuck