I walked a dirt path at sunrise. Either side of me the gargantuan trunks of the tallest trees on earth rose so high I couldn’t see their tops.
The pillar trunks of the trees stood silent and still in the morning fog. It was ghostly quiet and nothing moved until a bird flew between the trunks, but any sound from its wings was swallowed by still sword ferns and mosses. The light was soft and fell in sure beams through the foliage.
Coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, grow from seeds as small as tomato seeds to giants the size of Big Ben. They are so immense that other big trees grow on the soil that accumulates on the branches in the canopy. The oakwoods where I live in Scotland also host epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) but they are diminutive ferns and honeysuckle. Here in the redwood forest, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock trees, as tall as forty feet, have been found growing in the canopy. It’s as if each redwood tree hosts its own forest ecosystem with all its associated species: flying squirrels, giant salamanders and spotted owls.
Sitting there I wondered at how resilient the forest appeared. With roots that intertwine with the roots of neighbouring trees, the forest is resistant to the wind, and with bark twelve inches thick, the trees are resistant to fire. The forest felt strong. It seemed reassuringly invulnerable. But that was an illusion. The immensity of the trees, their lofty maturity, hid a history of destruction.
I was sat in a fragile scrap of old growth redwood forest; only five per cent of it remains following widespread logging during the gold rush in the mid-1800s. There are people today who strive to protect it, people who were as overwhelmed as me when they first walked the quiet paths beneath these totems of natural wonder. The founder of the Save the Redwoods League, Henry Fairfield Osborn, declared in 1918 that he considered “the destruction of these trees one of the greatest calamities in the whole history of American civilisation”. The league were successful in purchasing redwood groves and saving them from sawmill companies. It’s thanks to them that I, and many others, are able to wander in what remains.
My appreciation for their work was tinged with regret that the forest still needs protecting today. Why would anyone want to pull the cord on a chainsaw and hold it against the bark of a tree that has grown, over the course of two thousand years, from a speck of a seed to a living giant? I lay a hand on one of the tallest trees I could find and looked up. It was already a giant when the first Europeans came ashore in the east. At that time the native American Chilula lived unthreateningly within the forest. The Chilula elder had a word of warning for the new arrivals:
“Destroy these trees..and you will eventually kill mankind”.
Visit www.savetheredwoods.org to learn more.