How much have your eyes seen, if they've never seen the world’s tallest trees?
It was a question that had drifted in and out of my mind through the years, and it was there as I loaded my camping gear into the green Toyota and drove north out of San Francisco. Over the Golden Gate Bridge and through steady rain for a couple of days, into the countryside of Humboldt County.
On The Avenue of the Giants redwoods grow right by the road, which weaves and meanders like it was built in the time before the world was in a hurry. Though near midday, it was dark in the thick of the forest and cars had their headlights on as they moved like beetles along the forest floor.
The redwoods are the dominant tree of the area, and they stand straight and proud. Up to thirty storeys high, the tallest individuals grow in small groves where the soil and water are just right, often on flat alluvial plains. On a drizzly afternoon I took a walk through one of these groves.
There was mist floating round the upper portion of the trees, rain dripped from pine needles in slow fat drops, a creek was bubbling somewhere nearby and all around me the mighty redwoods shot skywards, like rockets paused mid-liftoff. I was slowly wandering through this ancient scene when for the first time in three days the sun broke through the clouds. Patches of golden light illuminated a mossy green limb, a breath of swirling mist. Beams of sunlight slanted through the forest, and raindrops were caught in the rays and briefly came alight like shooting stars plummeting earthwards.
The coast redwoods relish the winter rains and are able to capture the summer fog in their lofty heights to provide moisture during the dry months.
In the canopy of these trees, way up in the sky, lives an unlikely ecosystem. Species of plant such as ferns and huckleberry and even animals like worms and salamanders can live their entire lives in the redwood canopy.
The redwoods grow only in a narrow six hundred kilometre strip along the Pacific coast, from central California to southern Oregon. Only five per cent of the original forest remains today, the timber being logged heavily since the gold rush of the nineteenth century. If left to live, they can stand for two thousand years.
In that forest of giants I wandered and pondered. My eyes’ thirst was slaked and I felt the kind of calm that comes at being reminded of my smallness and insignificance in this big old world.