The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.
—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
Steinbeck didn’t live to see the work of a team of tree-climbing scientists who have now photographed two of the largest trees in the world: The President, a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park featured in the breathtaking video above; and, in 2009, a coast redwood in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Redwoods are spiritual beings to me; the redwood forest is my cathedral. When I need to get in touch with the universe, I go find a redwood. There is a little grove of coast redwoods in Bidwell Park within walking distance of my house; they were brought here as seedlings from Arcata. I visited the coast redwoods and the sequoias several times as a child and have returned many times as an adult. It’s like a pilgrimage to Mecca.
A picnic area in the park near my house; these redwoods are just babies.
Fifteen years ago this month, on December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill embarked on one of the most heroic direct actions I have witnessed in my lifetime. She is one of my most cherished role models. Julia ascended a 600-year-old redwood tree named Luna in Humboldt County, CA. Her intention was to take her turn at the tree-sit, an ongoing action to stop Pacific Lumber from clear-cutting the ancient Headwaters redwood forest and causing widespread environmental devastation. She expected to be in the tree for two or three weeks. But Julia decided not to come down until she was sure that Luna would not be cut down. It took more than two years. For 738 days, Julia lived on a couple of six by eight foot platforms, 18 stories above the ground, where she survived two brutal winters, helicopter assaults and intense loneliness. She said that Luna’s love kept her alive; she felt “the heartbeat of Mother Earth” in Luna’s bark. Julia discovered that Luna’s sap ran a lot more than usual when nearby trees were cut down; she said it was Luna’s way of communicating grief.
We have Julia and her fellow environmental activists to thank for providing inspiration that continues today with the Tar Sands tree-sit action in Texas. The Headwaters Forest Defense group also faced violent, oppressive tactics from their opponents; you may recall the incidents in which Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputies and Eureka Police Officers used Q-tips to apply pepper spray directly to the eyes of eight non-violent protesters in 1997. In 2005, an eight-person federal jury returned a unanimous verdict for the activists, finding the County of Humboldt and the City of Eureka liable for excessive force in violation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Now such behavior is only “objectively unreasonable.”
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Tragically, more than 95 percent of the original, old growth redwood forest is gone. But thanks to people like Julia Butterfly Hill, a lot of what remains is being protected. The agreement Julia reached to save Luna resulted in the creation of the Headwaters Forest Reserve, nearly 7,500 acres that is now public land under the stewardship of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Save the Redwoods has been raising money to pay for these priceless trees since 1918; at the moment, they need to $8 million to save some of the last old growth redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Perhaps most encouraging of all is the work that is being done by the scientists mentioned above in the National Geographic video. Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine and others from Humboldt State University figured out a way to climb into the canopies of redwood trees 300 feet in the air—a place no human had ever previously occupied. They discovered an entirely new ecosystem—enormous horizontal branches which themselves supported vertical trees the size of those in your backyard. They found moss, lichens, ferns and huckleberry bushes sprouting in the soil that collected on the huge branches. They found spotted salamanders.
They also figured out how to accurately measure these behemoths. A team of five climbers spent 20 days measuring one of the largest coast redwoods, a 320-foot-high tree they named Iluvatar. The crown of Iluvatar contains a forest of 220 vertical trunks. It is one of the most structurally complicated living organisms that has ever been discovered. Richard Preston wrote a book about the “lost world” of the redwood canopy; it’s called The Wild Trees and it’s absolutely fascinating.
Coast redwoods, which can grow to over 300 feet, are the tallest trees in the world; they live about 2,000 years. Some of them were around during the Roman empire. Giant sequoias are somewhat shorter (250 feet) but much more massive. And much, much older. The oldest recorded speciman was 3,500 years old. Some of these ancient beings sprouted during the Iron Age, at the beginning of the Mayan calendar and the 1st Dynasty of Egypt. And they’re still growing. That’s what Sillett just discovered when he set about measuring The President, the 54,000-cubic foot giant in Sequoia National Park:
“I consider it to be the greatest tree in all of the mountains of the world,” said Stephen Sillett, a redwood researcher whose team from Humboldt State University is seeking to mathematically assess the potential of California’s iconic trees to absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide.
The researchers are a part of the 10-year Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative funded by the Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco. The measurements of The President, reported in the current National Geographic, dispelled the previous notion that the big trees grow more slowly in old age.
It means, the experts say, the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb during photosynthesis continues to increase over their lifetimes.[snip]
Giant sequoias grow so big and for so long because their wood is resistant to the pests and disease that dwarf the lifespan of other trees, and their thick bark makes them impervious to fast-moving fire.
It’s that resiliency that makes sequoias and their taller coastal redwood cousin worthy of intensive protections — and even candidates for cultivation to pull carbon from an increasingly warming atmosphere, Sillett said. Unlike white firs, which easily die and decay to send decomposing carbon back into the air, rot-resistant redwoods stay solid for hundreds of years after they fall.