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.


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