Quiet Giants

Even as a dedicated tree hugger, I never thought going to stare at trees was particularly exciting. Arboretums, for example, fail to move me.

But, several years ago, after 6 days of backpacking in Yosemite, it was a nice respite to head to Mariposa Grove and see the giant sequoia there.

In the same inexplicable way in which the mountains evoke a quietude, these giant trees spoke to me like individual mountains standing amongst a forest of tiny hills. They are the largest living things on the planet by volume.

I once read a historical novel about the settlers of the Pacific northwest in the 1800’s. In that book, they had an intense hatred of trees. The trees stood between them and fertile farmland, sustenance, and shelter.

When I saw the sequoia looming down, as they had in some cases for over 3000 years, among some of the world’s oldest living creatures, I found myself wondering what the early settlers thought of these giants. The Sequoia survived in part because they were fire resistant, bug resistant, rot resistant, and not particularly useful for building anything.

The settlers couldn’t burn them–in fact, fires are quite helpful in promoting Sequoia reproduction and over-controlling forest fires led to a demise in their population.

Their seed cones are tiny pods that pop open and spread seeds when properly dried. The heat of fire, which has the additional benefit of clearing out most of the Sequoias’ competitors, dry out the cones and allow the seeds to disperse.

The Chickaree squirrel can also help disperse sequoia seeds. This little guy will eat sequoia cones and help spread the seeds in part by storing the cones.

Luckily for both the sequoia and the Chickaree in Mariposa Grove, controlled burns are helping to restore the natural ecosystem of the area, encouraging new generations of giant sequoia trees.

The famous “California Tunnel Tree” in the middle of the park probably serves as the best representation of how the early settlers felt about these giant trees. They cut a big hole through the middle of a tree wide enough to drive a wagon and a team of horses through it. Not exactly a sign that they had a sense of awe and wonder about the trees. Seems more like a Graceland tourist trap than a healthy respect for the diversity of life.

In any case, we are all fortunate that Galen Clark did come along with a healthy respect. He saw the testament to grace these trees represented and managed to preserve them.

I imagine life from the trees’ perspective, in which thing move at a pace proportional to a 3000+ year life expectancy. I imagine what a tree “sees” in the course of 3000 years as the make up of the air, the water, and even the very soil at its feet shifts and changes. I wonder if the older trees complain about kids these days or if evolution occurs at an altogether different pace?

2 Miles

There is a fine and delicate line when it comes to backpacking between having what you need to survive and having too much weight on your back to have any fun.

Once a backpack reaches a third of your body weight, or even a quarter, when you get a few miles into the hike, you start to question the wisdom of backpacking vs day hiking.  This has been a battle played out over years for me.  The first time I went backpacking, I barely made the ascent up a 4 mile trail that climbed almost 1 mile in elevation.  I didn’t even know how much weight I was carrying at the time, but I had packed things like an 11-cup percolating coffee pot, so I’m pretty sure it was a lot of weight.

When my husband and I were in official “backpacking training,” we went on a 3-day trip to Otter Creek Wilderness in Monangahela.  This was right after I’d read a book called “The Ultra-Light Backpacker.”  I took no spare clothes except socks and underwear, no tarp, no extra anything.  If I thought I could live without it for 3 days, I left it at home.  My pack was a lot lighter, but it rained the entire time, except when it snowed, and we came pretty close to hypothermia by the time we hiked out the 3rd day with no dry clothes to change into.

Ever since then, we’ve erred on the side of too much weight.  As we headed down the trail on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we not only were carrying too much stuff for us, but also too much stuff for our dog:  His new special diet frozen and packed so it would stay cool long enough to be fresh for his dinner and breakfast; his bedroll strapped to the outside of Pat’s pack; extra towels packed just for drying the dog; and, of course, Tisen’s special water bowl and his own water bottle.  Spoil our dog?  What are you talking about?

It’s not surprising that after about 2 miles, we were ready for our first snack break.  We stopped right on the trail as there was no where else to go.  We opened up our packs, broke out our snacks, and started munching.

As we stood there with our stuff strewn about, we heard a sound.  It wasn’t just the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.  It was the sound of an enormous sheet of rain blowing through.  Pat went for the tarp while I went for the rain cover for my pack.  I got my pack closed and covered while Pat built us a little shelter.

We felt a little foolish when three backpackers came through soaking wet and had to duck under our shelter to continue on the trail.  We started packing up our stuff and accepting that this rain wasn’t going to just blow over.  It was time to get wet.