Tuesday, November 03, 2009


You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from schoolteachers.
St. Bernard

How do you convey the essence of a redwood tree? No words, no pictures, can capture the experience of walking through a grove of them.

Redwoods lack the graceful stance of elms, the glorious color of sugar maples in autumn, the picturesquely twisted branches of oak trees. They don't even have the shapeliness of a blue spruce or a Douglas fir. In fact, they resemble extremely tall bottle-brushes.

Moreover, a hiker can see the whole only from a distance. Up close, you don't see much of the branches; they start above eye level. What you see is the reddish bark, the vast trunk, perhaps a few needles dipping low enough for your notice. They stand, calm and strong, alone or in great goosepens or in ranks on steep ridges. They carpet the woods with their shredding bark and their rusty, fragrant needles. But the simplicity of the great trunks has grace, and the fibrous bark -- the color of tea in sunlight -- has a subtle auburn glow.

And they are huge. The vast specimens in Muir Woods are among the greatest of the Coast Redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, which aren't even the most massive of the redwood family. The Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron gigantea, are thicker-trunked. But even a comparatively adolescent Coast Redwood tree can be magnificent long before it reaches its full growth of 350+ feet in height and as much as 26 feet in diameter. (Not circumference. Diameter.) They're big enough to camp out in when hollowed by fire or age. They grow taller than the Statue of Liberty on her pedestal. And they have a natural lifespan of as much as 2,000 years. Trees of 600 or 700 years old are common -- well, common in places where they haven't been clear-cut.

Walking among them is like walking in a great cathedral, or Stonehenge. They carry a sense of holiness, of calm contemplation. It's more than the effect of great size; I've been in buildings where humans were puny without feeling the upwelling of joy these forests give me.

Words can't do it. Pictures fail. But maybe this video will help. It shows the making of this large-scale photograph.

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