When I was 11, I received a very large book with a very big tree on it. It was called “The great big book of knowledge”, and it was an English publication in the mild-mannered country of Romania (raised eyebrows – applause). That book was my first encounter with proper children’s books. I still remember the wiggly contours of all the illustrations, with simplified shapes and devoid of details. It was very colorful so I could be nothing but pleased, but my critical eye was already developing.
That book taught me a great deal of new things about the world of animals and plants. Most notably, it taught me about the existence of the giant Sequoia tree, the largest tree in the world! I’m unsure if it said it was also the tallest tree in the world. Perhaps it did, and I suppose it can get away with that technicality, since the tallest tree in the world is technically part of the Sequoia family… I don’t know how other people find out about these things, but that’s how I found out about the tallest tree in the world while 10,000 miles away. And then I forgot all about it until a few days ago when I was on my way to visit a whole forest of these trees – the Redwoods.
As the car entered the perimeter of the park, I started watching closely for anything resembling my faded memory of a redwood. There were plenty of pines, no giants yet. But just as the Visitor Center came around the corner, a scraggly trunk shot straight up into a narrow but bushy canopy: there it is! Inside they were even selling tender redwood saplings next to stuffed animals and park maps. On another wall, a cross-section of a trunk taken from near the roots was marked with a temporal progression starting around the 600s AD in the center, and ending in the 1800s just under the bark. There were Vikings in North America, the Mayflower, wars, history unfolded under the branches of this tree, and it was only a medium sized one.
Map metaphorically under-arm, we backtracked and found the road that headed for the coast through the oldest part of the forest.
I was ready to be overcome by the feeling of entering a sacred space, but instead it was a very gradual transition from the presence of the common pine, and underbrush among the giants, to just time-steeped sentinels standing against the sky. The first few trees we saw seemed enormous. The dirt road snaked around them, and each car that passed kicked up sacrilegious plumes of dust, shattering the silence and the awe. Further in, I saw a bright green sapling, a foot tall, fat with moisture, growing at the base of a mother-tree that had at least 4 other two-millennia-old children growing from her roots. The mother-tree was twice as large around as her “branches” but it was broken about 30 feet off the ground with a jagged tear; the trunk was lying on the slope covered in mosses and ferns. On each side of the road, the trunks of prehistoric giants became thicker and closer together, more trees grew together in tree-families, and most of them had long black burn marks down to their roots. As the tallest objects around, they were all struck by lightning at one point of another in their 3 to 6 THOUSAND year life. These trees have seen most of what we think of as human history. The fallen trees, still whole, yet covered in new vegetation, were standing even before that for thousands of years.
My mind is still unable to fully understand a living creature that can live that long. Time for us is a precious resource, non-renewable and apparently always in short supply. Time is nothing but a concept invented by short-lived creatures. For seemingly eternal redwoods, time is but their natural environment. Looking up, the trees narrowed into their branches, tipped with new growth the color of rice-grass. There was dust in the air kicked up by passing cars. The sun was filtering its light through the dusty air, barely finding space between the trees. Every tree in sight was straight, slightly bent towards their more malleable tops, visibly still growing, taller than the eye could see, taller than the mind could grasp. I did not exist for them.
These trees most definitely make a sound when they fall even when there are no humans there to hear it.