Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 1: Boulder
About five years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker about redwood trees. Botany is not my strong suit, and beyond that they were quite old and large, and that redwood burl coffee tables were popular amongst hippies forty years ago, I hadn’t thought much of anything about redwoods.
But the article, written by Richard Preston, if you’ll excuse the expression, lit a fire under my ass to find out more. In a sense, my prayers were answered when, in 2007, the article was expanded into a book, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring.
The Wild Trees was centered around a new breed of redwood researchers. Using new climbing techniques and better technology, scientists, for the first time, were able to determine the tallest among these protected groves of ancient giants. Even more amazing, those researchers enter and are, for the first time, studying the canopy of these tall, wild redwood trees (a wild tree is one that has never been climbed), some of them more than 350 feet high – that’s taller than most buildings in downtown Denver and eleven stories above the Newsgator offices, where I worked at 250 feet.
Interspersed with the botany and history, the book’s concentration on the intense, personal stories and intimate relationships of the scientists Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine and Michael Taylor were remarkable enough, but what I found even more astonishing was what Preston wrote about the trees themselves. Their ages. Lifespan. Evolution. Ecosystems.
These old-growth forests once were prevalent all along the Pacific coast and even further inland. In evolutionary terms, redwoods are extremely well-adapted. They live in moist soil near the ocean with a lot of fog and rain. They produce a substance, tannin, that most bugs detest. Though they can burn, they are mostly fire-resistant. They can stay dormant without sunlight. They grow to great heights and then, sooner of later, they fall back onto the forest floor, feeding other species and allowing the dormant trees to move to the top of the canopy, to grow tall and finally drop down.
And the canopy, once thought of as the “redwood desert,” turns out to be an ecosystem up there. In the hitherto unseen redwood crowns are squirrels and other canopy critters sharing space with lichens, ferns and shrubs, huckleberry, elderberry and gooseberry, among them. The crowns’ tops often fall into the canopy and hang until dislodged, bus sized widowmakers just waiting for the moment to fall into the forest. It’s a new world of wild trees.
The redwoods’ only real enemy is mankind, which lusted after the redwoods with a staggering thirst that remains unrelenting. Were it not for individuals in the 1920s who put up the money to start buying land and the later help of state and federal governments, these 170,000 acres would have been clear-cut, and there would be no old-growth redwood forests and several million more burl coffee tables. Only 1% of the old-growth forests in California remain, hopefully protected forever from any chain-saws, though not from the vagaries of weather and climate.
Reading and imagining all this, Billie and I determined that we had to see the redwoods, walk in their midst and bring the concepts behind the book and those incredible-sounding trees into actual focus.
Next, South Lake Tahoe.