The destiny of humans cannot be separated from the destiny of the Earth. – Thomas Berry
We have biked uphill about two three miles from the harbor town of Crescent City and just a few clicks in to the southwestern end of Jedediah Smith State Park. Shane explores up ahead of me along the service road we have discovered in our wanderings today; the rapid-fire snapping of his camera tickles the silence of this place.
As for me, I meander, like I am known to do. In fact I am not even riding my bike anymore. Instead, its wheels slowly turn as I use the handlebars to hold myself steady; I need something to anchor myself since my eyes cannot seem to stay away from the magnificence above me. I am quite unaware of my feet, of anything above my neck really, entranced as I am by the presence of a canopy of green 20 stories up. Finally, an ancient tree and a splash of sunlight calls me down to earth. I see a trunk that is a solid 30 feet around, more if one were to measure a dozen feet up, where a family of extensions jut out from the base willy-nilly, all of them shooting out limbs of their own, some as thick as telephone poles and all of them reaching up and up and up.
Thoughts Amongst Giants
Maybe they strive for the sun that can seem so very elusive to all of us down below. The fact is that no one knows the real reason why redwood trees grow so darn tall. Technically speaking, they are resilient things, these redwoods. Their tannin content makes them resistant to most (though not all) insect and fungal threats. Their height protects them from all but the most intense of fires and they house their own water system inside their internal framework; molecular bonds carry hundreds of gallons of water up from the Earth to the tops of their wind-swept crowns. Still, no one knows for sure why they are forever on a mission to get up there. Maybe they have been sending signals to other intelligences for the last 160 million-plus years. The oldest redwood still standing was around before Christ. That is a lot of weather reports.
I touch the spongy bark of the tree that originally caught my eye. Then I walk in from the road a few hundred feet until I am drawn to look up again at the familiar rumble of limbs and leaves. It is downright windy up there, amidst splotches of green and a barely-visible background of pale blue. I sit on a fallen log (it looks like it fell not too long ago in tree terms, maybe a decade or two, could be fifty?). There is only stillness down here on Earth. Not a fern leaf twitters as the sun continues to cascade around me in showers of filtered light.
Dangling my feet a few inches off the ground, I try to sense the unseen things that swirl amongst chords of interconnectedness just below me─ stumps of trees from which newer trees emerge intertwined with wiry ferns and the fallen moss-encapsulated limbs of madrones and tanoaks. It is a true network of companions and amongst them are things of equal importance─ the small, the delicate and the vital─ banana slugs, fungi, tiny finches who peep and peck in the shadows. And of course the roots of the trees themselves extend down no more than 20 feet into the earth and across 80 to 100 feet from a single tree. Mycologist Paul Stamets talks about the mysterious and miraculous mycelium mat that covers the floors of forests like this. Extending thousands of miles in every direction, they are called “the internet of the natural world.” I try to imagine that which goes unseen by human eyes. I imagine bustling cities of hair-like fibers branching out and touching each other, pressed on by energy waves of brilliant blue (why not?). They follow an inner sense. They do not rely on sight or reasoning or maps or hand-held devices. They know where they are going as they follow Earth’s neuro-net, the communication system of giants.
And that is when the answer to the question I have been asking since the beginning of this trip descends at first like a leaf drifting slowly down into a carpet of cool green. I take in its significance in relation to my own life and to the life force I feel more than see or hear or touch all around me.
Why did I feel the need to come here? What do the Redwoods have to teach me anyway?
Community. The answer crashes upon me then, like the fall of one of these giants. Slow-mo to fast action. Community, no doubt. The trees want to talk about community.
And I want to listen, because I know that these trees, well, they have seen a few things. Fires and floods and empires coming and going and strange, large-jawed, bloody-clawed creatures and common ones too who hide themselves and make their homes in their limbs and humans and their modern axes, who, of course, are currently the biggest threat of all.
And I know without a doubt then that these redwoods have the concept of community down to a tee. They know how to survive in the precarious balance in which they dwell. Once they spanned entire continents and now they are relegated to a reservation of cool, moist earth along the Pacific. But still, they remain standing and so does the living library of memory housed in their massive trunks. They have things to teach us. Gently a thought forms. Maybe we are not much different than them in the way that we rely on community and in our mysterious desire to reach up, to view the highest heights and to leave a legacy in some way.
A Tree Falls
A tree falls through thunder or fire or a chainsaw (most likely). It feels the throws and the sad miracle of death. Maybe it even senses that veil between worlds which is most evident at the time of new beginnings and falling-away endings. Then the stump stands naked and raw on the cold earthen floor. It has been diminished, one would say. Reduced from a tower of majesty to something four-foot tall at the most and pitiful, in human terms. There it bleeds, silently dripping sap, perhaps for decades. Then a new shoot, green as there ever was a green, comes from within. It climbs and reaches for the sun. The bleeding stump births a baby, a resemblance of itself, or perhaps it is itself. The new shoot grows quickly. Why? Perhaps it knows that the quicker it grows, the sooner its parent, the stump which once saw the tops of everything and now lies face down gazing at worms, will be given life again through its striving. So the new shoot grows in a mysterious yearning. It grows taller than the parent ever was. And what of that parent? It becomes a root that the juvenile gains strength from. And in a sense, that parent is born again through it.
Thus the cycle continues, and isn’t it the same with all living things? That which was at the top is now is at the bottom, nurturing and feeding the next generation as a thing barely seen under layers of fallen pine needles and moss. Is the parent still alive? Yes. It is very much still alive as it bleeds and rots and as it lives through the giving of life to others.
In our individual striving for heights yet unseen and in our collective interconnectedness with all around us, no matter how tall or small, we are like those trees. We are always striving upwards. Still, out of necessity, we must keep our roots firmly connected to the Earth and close to the network of all other living things. In reality, just like those mighty redwood, our lives depend on it.