I haven’t posted photographs on this blog before; I save what photographic talent I have for my other blog, ScottishHeart.net because there I write about the visual experiences of being in Scotland as well as the emotional ones. Here, as I weave my words to tell the story, I haven’t felt that photos would necessarily enhance it. Until now. And, quite frankly, I am not certain that they will be as effective in enhancing what I write as I hope they will be. The experience of what I’m writing about right now barely fits into words, just as the beauty of what I saw barely fits in to the frame of the photographs.
I have been yearning to visit the forest. This year has been full of turmoil and stress, both political and personal. There’s nothing left to say about the political, except that I am very, very afraid of how things are going to be for the next four years, and the damage that will be inflicted and may possibly last forever. In my personal life, I have just been given a clean bill of health after a CT scan two months ago showed a cyst in the center of my brain. According to the MRI that followed, there is nothing there at all. The two months of waiting until things got figured out were ones during which I did a lot of inner work, both emotional and spiritual. For the past year, I have been working through the aftermath of having been betrayed on a deep level by someone whom I have trusted for many years. No need for particulars here, but the depth of the betrayal struck me to my spiritual core and forced me to re-evaluate how I approach my spiritual life. Thankfully, I have come to the place that I have been most of my life and where I am most comfortable: my spiritual life is mine to live, and it is between me and the Universe.
And so, I followed my yearning to be in the deep forests of the Sierras and went up to the foothills to the Big Trees, specifically Calaveras Big Trees State Park. This particular area is home to the Sierra mixed-conifer forest and, unlike the great coastal redwood forests that grow in pure stands and are the tallest living trees, the redwoods here live in community with four other giant tree species. The State Park here protects the huge conifers from the logging that has decimated most of the original habitat for the Sugar Pine, the White Fir, the Incense Cedar, the Ponderosa Pine, and the glorious Giant Sequoia Redwood trees which are the largest things to ever live on the earth. Originally a widespread species, Calaveras Big Trees is now one of only seventy-five groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada where the Giant Sequoia grow naturally.
I was happy that I followed my nose and started out walking the trail in the opposite direction from how it was numbered. Even on this mid-week, early winter day there were a few people heading out on the trail. I did not want to walk in the echoes of their chatter. I walked alone, hearing only the crunching of my boots on the ice-crusted snow and the occasional bird. When I did hear the approaching voices of the few others who were walking the trail, I was able to stop to greet them and let them go by me, and then continue on in my silence. I was able to have the last half of the trail all to myself. I walked it more slowly, and only the setting sun kept me from lingering. By the time I returned to the parking lot, mine was the only car there.
I paused to commune with various trees that touched me with their energy; I found a boulder that served as an altar for ceremony—all without having to take more than a step off the trail, thereby respecting the fragile nature of the forest floor. Those few minutes with each place in the forest were as healing as I hoped they would be, and are for me to hold in my heart and spirit. Laced in between them, were the mindful walking and the observations of the forest. In just a few minutes I reached the “Pioneer Cabin Tree” * which had a tunnel cut through it in the 1880’s in competition with the “Wawona Tunnel Tree” that was cut in Yosemite. There is only one live branch on this tree due to the fact that the cut prevents it from growing a top. It is not dead, but it is barely alive. Similar to trees I have seen growing out of rocks and a daisy growing mid-span on a highway bridge, this one branch is a testament to the desire for life to go on and to fulfill its destiny.
Fossil records date the redwoods back 180 million years, and each tree has the capability to live for 3000 years or more. The bark of the Giant Sequoias grows in a spiral around the tree to give it more flexibility in order to withstand the heavy snows and the wild winds. They have a wide base which also helps to support it against the winds, but they do get blown over if the root system has been weakened by erosion or fungus, or if there are burn scars on its trunk. The larger trees are estimated to weigh around 2600 tons (as much as 18 blue whales). The “Empire State” is probably the largest Giant Sequoia in the North Grove of the State Park. The diameter of the base is 30 feet. Even forty-eight feet above the ground, the diameter is still sixteen feet. This tree has the greatest mass of all the trees in the grove, despite others that may be taller.
One of the downed trees fell in 1965 and the force of it was likened to the force of an earthquake. The height of the trees is hard to gauge from the ground, and harder still to capture in a photograph. It was more easily grasped as I walked past the “Father of the Forest” which fell a long time before the Grove was discovered. I descended the steps and stepped inside the near end of it, and then walked past it, crossed to the other side of it where the trail goes in between the two pieces of it, and then walked some more. The use of the word “giant” to describe these trees is not hyperbole. Other trees have fallen, showing the intricate designs of the root systems.
While this looks like it’s a fallen tree, it’s actually a tree branch that fell from the nearby tree. It’s hard to grasp the scope of the size of the branches from the ground, but many of them are 6’ in diameter.
I thought that cutting the tunnel through a tree was bad enough, and then I came upon this: a huge blackened remnant of a Giant Sequoia that stands as a reminder of the stupidity and greed man can inflict upon the natural world. This tree had been named the “Mother of the Forest” because it was so huge and beautiful. Yet, in 1854, it was systematically stripped of its bark. The scheme was to take the pieces of bark and re-assemble them in exhibitions in New York City and in London. And people came by the thousands to see the empty, lifeless form (I re-named it “trump”). Meanwhile, the tree itself did not survive for very long after the bark that nourished it was removed. The only saving grace of this catastrophe is that enough outrage was voiced to heighten the awareness of the forests and the need to protect them. Standing next to it is a White Fir with a heart-shaped marking in its trunk. Love from one tree to another? Forgiveness, perhaps?
Skinning the tree alive is as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness ~ John Muir
Standing on the hillside above the trail is the “Old Bachelor”, one of the oldest trees in the grove. The top of this tree has died and when it is knocked off by wind or heavy snows, it will have the rounded crown typical of the very oldest of Giant Sequoias.
A mature Giant Sequoia may bear as many as 40,000 cones which take two years to mature and may stay on the tree for as long as twenty years. Each female cone contains about 200 seeds. Once they get knocked off by a bird, blown off, or by some other means fall to the ground, they rest there until pollen blown from the smaller males cones still in the trees lands on them. Two seedlings grew together so closely that the first fifty feet of their trunks merged and are known as the “Siamese Twins”.
I was surprised to see a Pacific Yew in the North Grove, and I learned that this is the only place where the Giant Sequioa and the Pacific Yew grow together. It is the most southerly habitat of the yew and nearly the northernmost boundary of the Giant Sequoia habitat. The Pacific Yew grows to a height of 10-15 feet and looks like a shrub in comparison to its taller neighbors. This particular yew is a female, since the little orange berries are clearly visible. Yew trees are dioecious (“two houses”), i.e.: either female or male, unlike most other conifers which are monoecious (“one house”).
I was also happy that I walked the trail from end to beginning when I finished with The Big Stump: the remnants of the human-caused death of the largest tree that was ever in the North Grove. Originally called the “Discovery Tree”, it was more than 25 feet in diameter at the base and over 280 feet tall. After the tree was cut—an act that took 5 men 22 days– it took several days for the tree to fall. The rings show that it was only 1244 years old, and so had lived only half its natural life. To add humiliation to injury, the stump was smoothed out and made in to a dance floor with a two-lane bowling alley and a bar.
I stood there, and as I have done so many times in many other places before, offered a prayer ceremony of apology for what ignorant humans have done. I thought how my walk through the Grove might have been different had I seen this first and carried anger into the forest with me. As it was, the time spent in amongst the trees had been extremely healing and I was filled with the serenity of the forest when I left. As I turned to walk away from The Big Stump, I looked down, and on this last (first) paved part of the trail was the shape of a heart melted in to the snow.
*The Pioneer Cabin Tree fell and shattered on the ground in a storm in January 2017.