I’m a little ashamed to admit that although I’ve spent my entire forty-two years in California, I never traveled to visit what remains of old growth redwood forests until a few weeks ago.
Well, that’s not entirely true; A few years ago I visited Muir Woods with friends but was distracted from any awe by a combination of the hordes of tourists and the barriers that prohibit any aimless wandering. Recently my roommate told me about Montgomery Woods State Park in north Ukiah, home of redwood elders. We opted for the hike.
One of the many unfortunate ironies of our mechanical dystopia is that you need a car to get to places you don’t need to be around cars… or other people. It took us nearly three hours to drive up Highway 101 from Oakland and then down the winding, narrow road to the park. It was worth every second.
It was even worth the utter anger I felt when some asshole clerk at a hillbilly gas station demanded proof that I’d been stabbed at the gas pump before he’d tell me where the restroom was. Nothing beats the Negro treatment in the middle of nowhere. He finally told me after I gave the fucker a stern admonishment that saved me from having to figure out the horrific legal ramifications of pissing in an empty bottle and then dumping it over his counter. But I digress.
There’s something scary about forests. Maybe that feeling is just cement-bred bias, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think these elder trees remember their untold millennia as chiefs of the coast and are bitter that so many of their brethren were murdered. But I’ll get back to that.
After returning from the trip and talking about it with friends, they all asked the same question: How were the redwoods? I find this question difficult to answer for the same reason I find it difficult to describe what it was like to visit the Grand Canyon. How can I describe the experience of being in such an ancient, so powerful place? And how can I describe it to people who are deaf to the voices of such beings and places? Few things in life can adequately be addressed with the mundane soundbites favored by droids.
If you’ve been close enough to touch a sequoia and had the sense to observe one with your own eyes rather than through the fake eye of a camera, then no explanation is needed. For everyone else I will do my best to put the experience into words.
I’ve run through deserts in Arizona and New Mexico, waded through snow in central Oregon, hiked through tropical Hawaiian forests, climbed monkey-filled trees in China, and walked naked in the grass of the Great Plains. But no place is more magical to me than redwood forests. Just smelling it fills me with comfort and a sense of peace.
Being under the elder trees was something else entirely. These are profound beings Present. Wider than the length of a pickup truck and reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, they wield an ancient and noble gravity. Some of them have burn burrows at the base of their trunks that provide homes for bats and other forest dwellers. Many of these caves are large enough for an adult human to enter in an upright position.
The trees are huge, and they are old. In this park there are trees older than Jesus, older than democracy, older than most civilizations. And that’s just speaking of individual trees – the forest itself has essentially always been there… and it knows it.
Estimating the distance between giants is difficult; everything is further away than it seems. There is no horizon here, only ridges, hills, trunks and branches. All tracks, from humans to small furry creatures, all disappear in a boundless grove. I feel like I could wander ’til my death here, content that I’ve found a happy ending. Stepping into the ancient forest and never being seen again – what a wonderful way to end your story! So much better than dying in a broken down car or on a ventilator.
Park staff were working on a trail building project and used a motorized machine to do the heavy lifting. Even here in the woods at the ends of the earth, the sound of hellish burning besieges my ears. Thank goodness it only happened for short periods of time, but it was still long enough to remind me of my intense hatred of industrial civilization.
Redwoods are people of the rain and humidity. In the Oakland hills near where I live, the redwood forests are in a state of extreme thirst. They’ve spent too many years with too little rain; Streams and other waterways are clogged with dry, dead wood. The ground is parched and dusty. The trees groan in the wind. The plants are dried up and miserable. Although I still get relief from the specific disease when I visit these forests, it saddens me to see them in this condition. Love for the living world often feels like a piece of hopeless melancholy.
We picked a good time to visit the elders; It had rained for the past few weeks. The ground was pleasantly muddy and the leaves on the ground were spongy to our footsteps. The massive, shallow root bases of fallen redwoods were slippery and treacherous to climb. All the rich shades of green—tree and fern, grass and flower—are here in this forest, made even prettier by glittering moisture.
Newts live here, tiny creatures that walk as if they’ve never quite got used to being out of the water. I find them adorable, and I was hoping to see one (one!) Shortly after arrival we left the trail to explore a narrow creek. As we walked around one of the big trees toward the creek, I became suddenly knew, with absolute certainty that I would find a newt on the other side. And yes, there he was, dark gray with orange feet, trudging slowly across the floor. We take a few more cautious steps and see another, then another; I had never seen more than one newt in the wild at one time. The forest has blessed us and says hello. How did I know I would see this newt? who told me
In order to listen and hear, one must be silent. I wandered the world quietly for a long time. I have cultivated the art of invisibility –intonjutsu. Some of the skills are subtle – how to go unnoticed in a crowd; how to move through the shadows of perception; how to manipulate what people see. Other skills are purely physical and come from long practice, such as B. how to walk on quiet feet. I’ve been doing this for so long it’s automatic now, and I’m only reminded when I accidentally startle someone by silently appearing in their peripheral vision. When I meet strangers on streets at night, I rub my soles on the cement to warn of my approach, especially when these strangers are women; it’s all I can offer out of respect for the constant, harrowing fear that all women in this society must have of unknown men.
I’m adept at moving quietly. But in the ancient, eerie stillness of this community of elder trees, my every step sounds like an echoing chorus. The shuffling of my clothes as I walk is deafening. When I’m quiet, really quiet, I hear every drop of water falling from the branches, every flap of a bird’s wing. As we walk, weaving up and down the path, the birds call out their warnings to others – call and answer, call and answer. The mischievous crows are particularly noisy here.
From the top of the ridge, far enough away for my comfort but close enough to startle my companion, comes the sound of a young tree cracking, snapping, and falling. It’s the kind of sound you’ll never forget once you hear it, like nearby thunder or the sound of ice cracking under your feet. It’s the sound of wild danger – a reminder that nature can easily destroy you if you’re not careful. It’s a scary sound, true… But it’ll never reach the pure evil of a buzzing chainsaw.
I traveled to these woods hoping the elder trees would speak to me, hoping they would tell me something to ease my daily despair. I also came to pay my respects, similar to a hospice visit. Who knows how long these elder trees will survive our machine-torn climate? As predatory as western civilization is, it’s a wonder it’s still around. I’ve studied “environmentalism” long enough to know the death statistics; If the percentage of old trees murdered by industrial civilization were an academic grade, it would be a solid “A”. Congratulations, you are in your 90th weekth percentile of anti-life!
Knowing the numbers is one thing, but I’ve always been more of a visual learner. Near the park entrance is a (twenty year old) color-coded map showing how much of the California coast Second hand be covered with old-growth redwood forest and how much of it is left. I’ll put it this way: take a piece of paper, dip your pinky finger in some water, then stand a few feet away and smear the water onto the paper. These tiny wet patches on the paper, relative to the vast dry area, will be roughly the ratio of remaining mature trees to landscapes of death.
The extent of the destruction is taxing my capacity for horror. I saw the card and my heart dropped into my stomach. I burst into tears.
I hate this culture.
California state parks always have signs that say something like, “Native Americans used to live here, now they’re few,” and leave it at that. The implication is that they just walked away; the posters never mention their fate or even hint at it. Well, we are in Pomo country (Ukiah = Yokaya, “deep valley”); I have been to pomo ceremonies and visit a sweat lodge poured by a pomo elder. I assure you they know exactly what happened to their ancestors, just as they know exactly what continues to happen.
I know a single pomo song. I sang it to the old trees.
When the sun had long since disappeared from the forest floor and barely illuminated the topmost branches, we left the park. Even though we were only there for four or five hours, it felt timeless. If I had stayed there and never seen a sheet of plastic or a metal pipe spewing smoke into the sky again…but it’s too late for that. There is no escaping the machine.
On the way out we passed a small ridge. There a bulldozer was parked next to a ring of three giant sequoias. We walked past them and I had a feeling that I’ve come to recognize – the trees were calling to me. I ignored the feeling at first and moved on, but it was so… noisy. I asked my companion to wait, then walked back to the ridge and entered the ring of trees. One had a burn cavity and a discarded plastic tube of pink lip gloss lay in the middle. I could almost hear the trees: take that thing away. So I did. Too bad I couldn’t take the bulldozer away.
The elder trees are not silent because they cannot speak. They are silent because they are among the dead and dying. We are deaf to them because we are ill – a machine-colonized species that acts as our elders’ deadliest enemy.