Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. Find out more about Neil at http://www.neilmathison.net/
I first saw a redwood in 1950. My family had just toured Yosemite and San Francisco. We were on our way home. I don’t remember much (I was only three years old). I do remember a saw-cut trunk, twice as wide as my father was tall, its growth rings labeled with events from history – the Declaration of Independence, Columbus’s voyage to America, the Magna Charta. I remember my mother explaining that this tree, the one she and I were touching, had been older than Jesus. Even then, even at three, I knew that something that old was old indeed.
The redwoods are old, some as old as 3000 years. Though we know the earthevolved from stardust and once-living things – comets and coral reefs and Cretaceous ferns, although we know it’s not eternal, by its daunting years, it seems eternal. But the redwoods are old in a different sense: they are old on a scale we can comprehend. Maybe because monuments raised by human hands – the Pantheon and Westminster Abbey –began to be built when a living redwood we can see and touch was already a hundred-feet tall. Maybe the fact that the trees lived when our ancestors lived makes our ancestors somehow less dead. Or is it a kinship we recognize with all life, a sense that we and the trees are of the same cloth?
They say to know a place you must let its soil become your bones, its seasons fall upon you, its winds chill you, its rains dampen you, its droughts parch you; you must watch its clouds sail overhead and mark its dawns, listen to its crickets, suffer its gales, savor its fragrances, recoil from its stenches, touch its rocks and trees and grasses, warm your feet in its sands. They say you must live in a place to know it. But I don’t believe it. In my sixty-some years I have driven through the redwoods and walked through the redwoods and camped in the redwoods and changed my son’s diapers under the redwoods and watched my mother change my brothers’ diapers under the redwoods, and yet in all that time I’ve spent less than sixty hours in the redwoods. But the redwoods shape me, are always with me, anchor me. Some places take time to inhabit. Others inhabit you the moment you see them.
The oldest redwoods were saplings before the first brick was laid for the Parthenon and the Coliseum, before Chartre Cathedral or the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, before Fontainebleau, and (probably) before the Great Wall of China. The oldest are older than Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Baha’i. They have outlasted the Roman Empire, thirteen Chinese dynasties, what was supposed to have been Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The oldest have lived long enough to become the tallest trees in the world, to become (along with their Sierra sequoia cousins) the trees with the largest arboreal mass, and to become, next to the gnarled and weather-beaten bristlecone pine, the second-oldest living things on the planet.
Redwoods are also among the oldest species of trees. Their kind has survived longer than the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, and the giant ground sloth; they have survived the polar ice that seventeen times since the dawn of their kind crept down from the poles; survived the clash of tectonic plates that periodically rattles the California coast; survived the rise and fall of oceans; survived volcanic eruptions that turned summers into winter; survived the comet crash that killed the dinosaurs.
They are uniquely suited to survive. Their bark is thick and spongy and inures them to fire. During rainless summers they trap moisture from fog. The tannins in their bark repel insects. They survive flooding rivers – the Chatco, the Trinity, the Klamath, and the Smith – because their roots, unlike other species, know how to grow up. They survive despite seeds that are as small as tomato seeds; despite relying on the wind to pollinate them; despite germinating less than 1 percent of those seeds; despite less than one percent of those germinated becoming seedlings. They survive because they are monoecious meaning they have separate male and female flowers and do not require the pollen or seeds from another redwood; they survive because, if no seed germinates, new saplings will sprout from fallen trunks forming rings that are called “fairy rings” (a term I love for its folkloric beauty).
Redwoods have survived the arrival of Native Americans, the Spanish Conquistadores, and the Russian fur traders. They may not, however, survive the gold prospectors, railroad tycoons, loggers, the backyard-deck builders who call themselves Americans. Unfortunately for redwoods, their wood is an ideal building material. It doesn’t shrink, warp, cup, decay, absorb finishes, leak resins, or combust easily. This has led to a conflict between lumbermen and environmentalists that has lasted a century and which, by its lack of resolution, leaves the survival of old-growth redwoods in doubt.
If we lose the old-growth redwoods we may pay a higher price than aesthetics. While the Pacific Ocean tempers the cold, sends the wet-season rain, moderates the summer heat, eases with its fog the dry-season drought and thus creates an ideal environment for redwoods, recent studies suggest that an old growth redwood forest shapes its own environment by harvesting water directly from the atmosphere through “fog drip,” which in turn augments the aquifer, which in turn fills the streams, which in the turn provides pure clear water for, among other plants and animals, the endangered Northern California salmon runs.
You kill the redwoods, it turns out, you kill the salmon.
As an adult living in California, I often found myself in the redwoods, especially, it seemed, when change was sweeping my life.
I found myself in redwoods during the dissolution of a first marriage. I set out on a solitary drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco. The highway was endless and my back ached and my hands numbed and I fell into a torpor in which I saw everything and saw nothing. When I reached the redwoods I stopped at a roadside park. The day was gray and gloomy. It had begun to rain. Redwoods rose in dark, dense groves on either side of the road, their spired crowns broken by winter storms, the bases of their trunks charred by fire. To my surprise, as I sat at the picnic table sipping a Dixie cup of cheap California cabernet, it occurred to me that these broken and burned giants offered a note of hope: that life outlasts travail; that much could be said for simply weathering the storm.
I found myself in the redwoods again in April 1979, the month I got out of the Navy. I’d driven from Washington State down US 101 south, bound for a new, if uncertain life as a civilian. Before you reach the Oregon-California border, Highway 101 flirts with the ocean. It edges away at the Chatco River, kisses the coast again at the border, then skitters inland along the Smith River. The sky blazed blue. Wildflowers dappled the median. Douglas fir lined the highway. But I hadn’t seen any redwoods. Then a dense stand ahead loomed over lesser trees as if the redwoods were mitered bishops presiding over bent acolytes. I stopped the car and set off on foot through the grove. What I felt then was what I’d felt before and would feel again: a reverence similar to what you experience in the great cathedrals of Europe. Light falls in the same soft slatted way, as if it had passed through a clerestory window, trunks rise straight and true like piers in a nave, the boughs dome like arches. The trees spire up; your spirits lift; you’re closer to whatever it is that causes such beauty to exist. And how could it be otherwise? Isn’t a redwood grove – solemn, silent, sweet-scented – God’s true chapel?
Twelve years later, married a second time and with our one-year-old son John, I passed through the redwoods with my young family. We’d just returned to America after six years in Hong Kong and, though our life in Asia had been exciting and financially rewarding, we’d begun to miss the breathing room of the American West. In the press of our trans-Pacific move, however, we’d fallen into a state of exhaustion and ennui. Baby John was throwing up. His nanny Vilma had the flu. My wife Susan and I were suffering summer colds. Our homecoming drive had turned into an ordeal rather than a celebration.
We crossed into California and stopped for a picnic lunch along the Redwoods Highway. The July sun that only minutes before glared off the highway was now softened, and the stale air of our van gave way to the clean, camphor scent of the redwood forest, and as the redwoods rose above us, they seemed to shelter us, and for the first time since we’d returned home, I felt as if we’d finally come home, and it seemed not only that the redwoods welcomed us but that during all our time in Asia they had been here, a lodestone calling us back, and now, at this change in our lives, we were here again. Was it accident? Or was it destiny?
The year I’m remembering now, my son John is eleven years old. We’re camped on the banks of the Smith River in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. John skips stones across the river, which runs fast and clear here. On the opposite bank a forest rises: Douglas fir, western hemlock, big leaf maples, laurels, alder, tanoak, sorrel. And redwoods. We see their trunks, some red, some tan, some gray – the color varies because redwood color genes have evolved over such a long time that they have a larger than-other-species variety. The understory is dense. I wonder if it’s possible to even walk through it: salal, huckleberry, thimbleberry, sword ferns, rhododendron, and azaleas crowd each other in profusion. Not far from us, perhaps less than ten miles away, are the tallest redwoods on the planet. The park officials keep the location a secret (they fear vandalism) but in this rugged country even a redwood can hide. I don’t need to see them, the tallest of the redwoods. What brings me here is the whole forest, from the lichen on the forest floor to the great canopy above us with its hanging gardens and miniature groves invisible from the ground that I’ll never see. What brings me here is continuity. What brings me here is that I’ve been here before. What brings me here is that in this place I feel a reverence for life. What brings me here is that this is an ancient and holy place.
John holds up a flat, river-polished pebble.
“Call it,” I say.
“Five.” He slings the rock sidearm. One, two, three, four … The rock sinks. He shakes his head, shoots me a sheepish look.
I pick up my stone – black, the size of a silver dollar. Where was it born? In the fire of a volcano? The icy core of a comet? “At least five,” I say. I wind up and let it rip. One, two, three, four – it’s still going – nine, ten, eleven, twelve. The rock slides underwater. In a second, the current erases every trace. “Don’t worry,” I say. “You get better when you get older.”
“Like right, Dad.”
“Race you to camp?”
John takes off, his feet kicking up gravel. He’ll win this race.
But perhaps what I said was true. Maybe age does make you better. Maybe practice can lead to perfection. Maybe longevity teaches. Or maybe in the presence of old things you slow down, fall silent, listen, until at last you can hear the steady, soft heartbeat of the cosmos.