Friday, January 26, 2007

Coastal Giants

The third Star Wars movie (Return of the Jedi) came out when I was four years old. One of my earliest memories of going to the movies was coming out of the movie theater, walking through the lit outdoor area to our car, and worrying about the Darth Vader breathing sounds - of course, it gave me nightmares that night.

Anyhow, the part of the movie where Luke and Leia are dressed in camoflage and helmets and riding on speeder bikes through the enormous trees? Looked like the walk up the road to Brian Foster's house. It never occurred to me at the time, or even until probably the 5th or 10th time I saw the movie, that most people never got to see redwoods, let alone saw them on a regular basis or lived amongst them. It's only now that I'm an adult and have lived in other places that I have been able to appreciate the beauty and rarity of the area where I grew up.

In kindergarten or first grade, we took a field trip to Armstrong Woods, and learned about how old the trees were, and got to see the cross-section of the tree where they show the different dates according to the rings on the tree. I returned to Armstrong woods about three or four years ago when I took Hulk there for his first major redwood tree experience. It was pouring down rain the whole drive there, and continued to rain while we walked the detritus-strewn paths through the park. But redwoods are so big, and crowd each other out competing for the sunlight, that not much rain got through the over canopy. There aren't good words to describe the experience of walking through the redwoods in the rain, hand in hand with someone you really care about, dodging banana slugs and puddles and soaking in the mist with your skin. But it's still one of my favorite days Hulk and I have shared together.

The atmosphere beneath the redwoods, even without rain, is completely unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Imagine being by the cold Northern California ocean, feeling the spray, without actually getting wet and without any wind. Or perhaps, imagine walking into the indoor, tropical part of a botanical garden or zoo or a butterfly pavilion, feeling the moisture in the air, but without the heat and heaviness. The air beneath the redwoods feels alive unlike anything else; there's very little else living aside from the ancient giants around you - only a small amount of light fiters through the trees to hit the ground, so there often isn't much ground cover or many small plants. The plants that fight for the little light that gets through are the best and the strongest, the most beautiful, never diseased or ugly. The air is still, and the trees seem to breathe and talk to one another as you walk, awed by their age and size, beneath them.

Some of the trees have survived multiple fires and are thousands of years old - the living layers of the trees are the very outer layer underneath the bark, so a fire can completely burn out the inside of the trunk and the tree will keep on living. (The wood is also pretty fire-resistant, which is why lots of people covet the wood for building stuff.) Redwoods are living testaments to perseverance, patience, and weathering storms - these trees have seen centuries, far more than most other creatures on earth might ever aspire to see. It's a humbling experience to see a cross section of a tree felled a hundred years ago and see the Battle of Hastings (1066) marked halfway across the diameter, and the birth of Christ marked when the tree had already lived a few years. Amazing.

If you're ever in Northern or Central California, or on the Pacific coast in some parts of Oregon, and you have the opportunity to walk beneath the redwoods, I highly recommend the experience. Sometimes when I look into the night sky when we're at the cabin or when I stand at the edge of the roaring ocean, I feel tiny and insignificant. But when I stand beneath the redwoods, looking up and up and still unable to see the tops of the trees, I just feel awe. It's the closest I ever come to a religious experience.

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