“Like a flea hugging its dog” Richard Powers writes about touching a Coastal Redwood in The Overstory, I am certain no more accurate a description for anything has ever been written. Had I picked up this book prior to my visit to see these behemoths in person I may have thought this sentence pure hyperbole. After visiting I know now this phrase is as accurate as any scientific description.
Unlike Powers, I could not come up with the words to accurately describe what I witnessed exploring the beaten paths through Redwood National and State Parks in northwestern California. I ran out of seemingly fitting adjectives in the first 100 yards, eventually becoming speechless, neck craning back as far as biology would allow to try and take in the entirety of the tallest living organisms on the planet.
I can only describe the feeling of walking in this forest for the first time as similar to that I feel when walking into a cathedral. While I do not have religious beliefs and have never attended church for services other than weddings, I have been nearly overwhelmed with a sense of reverence and awe when walking into the great cathedrals of Europe and America. The beauty, the silence, the craftsmanship, this history takes your breath away and there seem to be no words of beauty and grace and magnitude adequate to describe what surrounds you. And this is exactly how I felt walking the path into the redwood forest. Not only does the forest leave you speechless, it actually absorbs speech. Once you are 25 feet or so away from the next group of hikers their sounds disappear. Children’s laughter is absorbed into the chest-high sword ferns carpeting the floor . Couple’s chatter is soaked up into the damp mosses, lichens, huckleberries dripping from branches far overhead. Dog barks are absorbed into the foot-thick sponginess of the tree bark. Entire groups of conversation are muffled by the feet of soil building in the connections of branch to trunk, wrapped in wren song and delivered in burbling packages down the streams so essential to this ecosystem.
Part of the significance of these trees is how small they make you feel. Perhaps this is a function of growing where where the trees get a measly 150′ tall and 8 feet wide. Maybe those who grow up among the redwoods, do not feel as small. It is important to be reminded of our insignificance, of our short lifespan, of our smallness. It is humbling to realize these trees, some more than 1000 years old and more massive than anything else on the planet (3 times the length of the longest whale, wider at the base than two Volkswagon beetles) exist. We are just a blip on its lifespan. Blips of lifespans are shown in the tree’s rings after it falls, or has been fallen.
Evidence of drought and fire and flood and lightning can all be read in the rings of a tree stump. Except in this case, in this case the influence of man on these trees causes the stumps – so the damage we have wrought is never evidenced in the rings. We can see the rings because of our influence and interpret other details of its millennium of life, but we humans and our tiny masses and minuscule lifespan make no appearance at all. It is scary to learn what we tiny, infant humans have done to the populations of this ecosystem.
You may think that when a redwood topples over naturally everything about the remnants would be enormous. And some of it is – the crater left in the landscape from the tonnage falling to earth from 30 stories above makes an impression. However, the pieces that are left, in many cases are firewood sized. This is because the tree is so massive when it hits the ground it shatters in a way the locals call ‘toothpicking’.
When these trees are harvested for that desirable redwood for our back decks and long-lasting outdoor furniture the soft undergrowth of rhododendrons, salal and understory trees, as well as all the huckleberries and ferns are bulldozed into the fall zone creating a mattress for the tree to land on, preventing the toothpicking and ruining of the lumber.
When the trees topple naturally the root masses that emerge are curiously alike. There are no long dangling roots, or half-fallen trees connected to the earth still by sinews of long anchoring roots. They are uniform and rootless. Much smaller than you would think. This is because under the surface of the soil the trees have formed a network of roots. Interconnected and interdependent. If one tree were to fall and take all of its roots with it – it would upend the entire forest. And so they have evolved weak points in their root zones, near the root flare, where the mass of roots disconnect from a tree. The tree falls leaving its roots for all others using it resulting in the uniform root mass now exposed.
These small seeds sometimes settle in to the folds and furrows of the fallen elders. A small new life nursed by the nutrients still found in the trunk. If you look closely you will notice many trees growing in straight lines. A pattern more typical of the pine plantations of the south than of this remnant old growth forest you would think. But in this case these lines are perfectly natural. They show you just how many new trees the former tree helped survive. It’s something you can count unlike the millions of spores, invertebrates, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, that had called this tree and call the new trees home.
Even the large fauna feel small in this landscape. While I was laser-focused on the big trees, I was not even thinking about the wildlife we might encounter, even when we weren’t specifically looking for it. We happened upon a Roosevelt Elk just munching on ferns next to a well-travelled road. We saw a black bear cub and a fawn. We saw small birds, harbor seals and sea lions, river otters and many many snails and slugs.
Accidental Perfect Location
You may be wondering how it is we saw sea lions and star fish on our trip to the redwoods. Our visit was to the Coast Redwoods, to visit Sequoia sempervirens. These tallest living beings on the planet live along the Pacific coast of southern Oregon and Northern California. They need the ocean mists to provide supplemental water and the fogs to keep the humidity up and the soils moist. They will not live outside of these conditions. They may survive This is in comparison to the Giant Redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum which are not quite as tall but wider than the Coast Redwoods, known as the most massive trees on Earth, and thrive inland limited to the Western Sierra Nevadas in California.
What I didn’t know when I selected our amazing cabin using VRBO for the first time, was that it was in the perfect location for a plant-nerd like me and an off-road enthusiast like my hunny. Turns out the 15 acre property with the middle fork of the Smith River running right through it, is surrounded by thousands of acres of the Smith River National Recreation Area. There are no tourist shops there. There is no place to get a t-shirt or any branded cardboard cutouts for your instagram selfie. Where we were there were just various ecosystems, crowdless trails and enormous trees and tiny wildflowers.
We could day trip from the top of a mountain to the sands of the ocean in a day. We hiked, a most amazing hike, from the coast into the redwood forest, hiking 9.9 miles of a 10 mile hike before we saw another human being. Eating lunch on a bridge over a creek surrounded by 300 foot tall Coast Redwoods. And this type of exploring we did, each day.
We had a 4-wheel drive rental car because it was recommended by our cabin owner just to get in the driveway. We put it to good use. We traversed dusty switchbacks into the Six Rivers National Forest taking in the scenery from the mountain tops. Looking out at snow covered peaks and finding amazing wildflowers we had not seen int he redwood forests. Here, we found ourselves in a serpentine barren. Serpentine barrens have soils high in magnesium and low in other nutrients and are generally high in nickel. This combination makes for a unique plant community with many plants found only there.
As I was planning this vacation, I was concerned with just one thing – seeing these trees! Imagine my surprise and delight when, as we trekked various trails, I realized we were there during spring wildflower bloom time. This made for longer, slower hiking and an ever-growing appreciation for the endless patience and understanding of my hunny as I photographed E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G in bloom.
Serpentine Barren Wildflowers
These we found along the winding gravel and dirt roads the lead up into the mountains. 4-wheel drive required from river bottom to wind-swept trees we traveled up. The landscape changed dramatically.
Not all of these flowers occur on the coast. We encountered them on our 10 mile hike from the coast into the redwoods and back.
Darlingtonia californica – Cobra Lily or California Pitcher Plant
I had only ever heard of these and did not realize we would be in the the few spots on earth where these carnivorous plants grow. When we asked a national park ranger what we may find in the area marked by a road-side sign as a “Botanical Trail” she said a Darlingtonia bog and I turned gape-mouthed to my love and danced a little happy dance. He wasn’t sure why I was so excited but I quickly explained about these rare plants and how I had only ever heard about them and how WE MUST GO. And then we were there, not 100 yards off the road, on a boardwalk over a Darlingtonia bog. In flower. Amazing.
These are carnivorous plants, thriving as others do, in nutrient poor soils supplementing their nutrients with insects captured in their pitchers. This pitcher traps the insects and then confuses it by having many translucent panels in its tubes that look like exits, when the insect hits one of these panels it falls down into the water trap below and then is digested by the plant.
Some of the blooms we noticed when we managed to turn our gaze from the Redwood crowns 350 feet above to the forest floor.
I have mentioned transformative experiences in past blog posts, exploring how time in nature changes a person. This trip was transformative. I still cannot speak about my trip coherently and without getting goosebumps.
I started with a quote from Richard Powers’ book The Overstory. I am still in the process of finishing this book. Down to the last 25 pages or so I am savoring them, not wanting the book to come to an end, similar to how my hunny and I walked a bit more slowly and hung around the most beautiful spots longer as our dream trip drew closer to an end. How we wandered into dusk, how we returned to certain places again and again, not wanting the trip to end, not wanting these memories to fade, wanting to continue to be witness to this impressive impossible natural display.
This trip was humbling, an essential reminder that we are tiny. That we are a blip on the timeline of earth. That we have the potential to make great change for the worse and for the better. Every person should visit a place that makes them feel small, where they do not have all the answers for the problems they see in front of them, where they do not have names for everything in their view, where they do not have the words to describe what it it they have become a part of.
People aren’t the apex species they think they are. other creatures – bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful – call the shots, make the air, and eat the sunlight. Without them, nothing.” ~Richard Powers, The Overstory