Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Kings Of The Forest, Part II

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. 

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Kings of the forest, part I

I try to look for the beauty in the small things, the everyday and the mundane. It’s these things which fill our days, so I find that when I make the effort to appreciate the details of the here and now, I end up feeling better for it. Kind of unburdened and happy.

But sometimes I like to immerse myself in greatness. To leap into the extreme and to see firsthand what wonders this world holds.

It was a desire like this that broke me out of my everyday existence and took me across the seas to the redwood forests of California. The most gigantic trees on the planet.  

California is home to the tallest trees - the Coast Redwoods – and the most massive trees by volume, the closely related Giant Sequoias.

I visited a grove of Giant Sequoias in the small region they grow on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It’s hard to comprehend just how big these trees are. Like looking up at the night sky, my mind can't fully grasp what it's seeing. The base of the tree is like a massive dinosaur foot planted in the soil and the trunk hardly tapers off as it goes higher and higher – twenty five storeys up.  There was a branch lying on the ground, which had fallen from way up high, at least the tenth storey. The branch itself was a monster far thicker than the trunk of most trees I’d ever seen. 

Scientists estimate one of these trees has close to two billion leaves. They get so big because, unlike an animal, they don’t stop growing when they reach maturity. They just keep on growing year after year, and the big ones are around three thousand years old.  All these numbers help us to understand the trees but they are totally insufficient to really convey what it’s like to be near them.

In Sequoia National Park the biggest trees have names. It is agreed that the most massive tree is the one called General Sherman, and there’s a car park and a paved loop trail around it and a circus of people come daily with cameras bared.

I did the loop walk and admired the tree, and then watched the people for a while too.

I had recently injured my foot and was getting round on crutches, so that I couldn’t do the longer hikes I would normally have done. I was instead loaded up with books and a mellower holiday plan. I got out to a quieter grove of sequoias where I lay on my back and watched the afternoon sun move across the sky, as white clouds drifted past the crowns of these kings of the forest.

A couple of the books I had bought were written by John Muir, a mountaineering ecologist, geologist, conservationist and writer who had been instrumental in gaining protection for these trees in the late 1800s.

As well as having a brilliant scientific mind, Muir had a spiritual connection with the natural world. Some of his sentences stopped me in my tracks and set me to pondering. One of these was  The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

Sometimes it’s better just to be quiet and in awe of it all.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Hardly Strictly

Warren Hellman was a bit of a hillbilly. He played the banjo in a group with his friends, his fingers dancing over the strings like they’d each thrown down a quick fire whiskey. He loved that bluegrass music; the twang of the banjo and the zip and zaw of the fiddle.

Warren loved a party, and every year he gave a party for his friends. He knew a thing or two about parties, so he knew the best place was San Francisco. In the Golden Gate Park where the grassy fields and the eucalypts and the pine trees give the room to breathe and spin. Where people could come and lay on the grass in the autumn sunshine and drink and smoke and jig to the tunes.

Because Warren was a billionaire, it would be a big party and everyone would be invited. He was a generous billionaire too, not one of those greedy ones, so he couldn’t ask the people to pay anything. The word went out and the people would come. The hobos of the city would come and sell beer from eskies and the hippies would come and sell homemade hash cookies and the families would drive from the corners of the country to spread picnic rugs and eat crackers with dip and smile at each other and at other people too.

He called his party the Strictly Bluegrass Festival because that’s what he loved the most, but he knew that other people liked other things too and he was generous, so he changed it to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and let them all come. 

I found myself in the city of San Francisco early October so I took Warren up on his invitation and made my way to Golden Gate Park. Off the bus at Haight-Ashbury and along the winding path to the heart of the park. It was going to be a big party, because Warren had some famous friends coming. There was Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle, M Ward and Connor Oberst, and a long list of fiddle-bending, harmonica-blowing, guitar-twirling maestros howling in from across the land.

On each of the three days there were almost as many people at the festival, as in the entire city – around a quarter of a million so they say. Because it was Warren’s party and we had been specially invited to come, everyone was well behaved and happy. We said Thank You Warren and we looked after each other, making sure there was room for everyone to sit and food and drinks all round.

After an earlier hiking accident I was getting around on crutches and people smiled encouragement and said “You’re rockin’ it brother” or “Dedicated to the bluegrass, that’s dedicated.” A security guard saw me weaving through the crowd and said “Whyn’t you go sit yo’self in the disabled area up the front theya?”

On a sunny afternoon I found myself metres from the stage as Gillian Welch wandered out with David Rawlings and said “Gee whilly-oh, it’s hot”, and I turned around to see if the thousands of people in the field behind me were as happy as I was. For an hour I heard those two voices created to sing together and two guitars playing side by side as one. I won’t forget it.  

The people danced and cheered, they laughed and ate and drank, they slept on picnic blankets and climbed trees. Around sundown the festival halted and they walked out into the San Francisco evening together. For three days it continued like this – the park breathed the people in by day and breathed them out again at night.

That was the last time Warren would be able to come to his own party, because he died last year. He was seventy seven. But he’d planned for something like that happening and the party will go on every autumn without him. The people will still say Thank You Warren. 

View from the back of the crowd (not my photo, borrowed from google)

The crutches got me this view. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.