There’s something about coming from a small island whose primordial forest – more traditionally known as the ‘wildwood’ – is recalled nowadays in history books, folklore, and wherever you see a pub named The Green Man. The forest that once covered practically all the Isles might be long gone, yet it lives on for some of us within our very selves. If you are painted wood green on the inside but on the outside see only postmodern shades of grey, you’ll know.
Everywhere fields of green grass, nibbled to the stubs by livestock. Dry stone walls, hedges and sleepy villages. Trunk roads and roundabouts, all converging on town after town, some charming and others in dire need of. In my reckoning, that just about characterizes wilderness-shy Britain. But none of this urban, agricultural planning can deny our hearts, hearts overgrown with thick foliage enmeshing the ventricles. Before neolithic farmers penetrated deep with their axeheads, there was once an impenetrable forest of oak and elm, of rowan and pine. You could argue it was in the ancient wildwood where the creation mythology of our now pastoral land was born. Looking on these trimmed enclosures today I’m hallucinating forest stretching away. Missing from a body it should be attached to, Britain and its absent forest is comparable to scratching an amputated leg. Or rather, it’s the ghost of the old green man I’m seeing. Picture modern humans disappearing – the crunch following the big bang – and it won’t take many seasons before a wilderness of trees will again claim its ancient realm. Bear dens in Piccadilly. Wolves stalking prey where Old Trafford used to be. There is a certain cruel romance in our eventual demise.
While the wait goes on, while twenty-first century human development, having long ago taken the cream of the landscape, can only take the crumbs of what’s left, turning floodplains into bland, uninsurable housing estates, the forest empire will have to remain no more than a seed of a thought. Which is not to say, we islanders cannot fly off to taste a bit of that wild-wooded wilderness elsewhere in the world where someone had the good grace to conserve a swathe of it. My attitude is no matter how hard we try to exterminate what was once intimate, we’ll be gone before it’s gone. Ipso facto, see it before you die.
The dull thud of the axe and the bloody screech of the saw might be heard now more than ever worldwide, but that is not to say that the loser now will not later to win and that the forests will have the final, rustling laugh. I reaffirm. So go on, ye mighty and despair! Keep bulldozing Indonesia’s tropical hardwoods for a quick buck in your greasy palm oil hand. Keep on colluding with corrupt government officials to slash and burn your way into a little Amazonian homestead in exchange for votes. Keep eking away at the fringes, bringing home the charcoal that kindles an exploding African population. Keep on keeping on, because environmental bitching is not the ultimate goal of this long read. No. The aim is to describe an experience in a very magical realm of nature not many Europeans ever see. So I invite you to persevere.
When it comes to trees, but not any old trees, to epic trees, I reckon if you’re going to see them as they were, as they will be until the end of time, you need to hit the Redwood Trail. That means heading north from San Francisco, hugging the foggy Pacific coast as you venture into a magical realm.
To preface: the coastal Redwoods, Sequoia Sempervirens, are some of the biggest and oldest living things on the Earth. Aside from their fatter cousins, the sequoias of California’s central Sierra Nevada mountains, they are. Before the American West was opened up to the gold-rushing ’49ers followed by wagon trains bringing the whites with their inveterate ways, there were millions upon millions of giant redwoods in what is now northern California. Liking the moisture from the perennial fog, the coastal redwoods grew pretty much from the north Pacific coastline to ridges many miles inland in a line unbroken for hundred of miles north to south. Scattered tribes such as the Yurok and Sinkyone, lacking either hard tools or malevolent willpower to chop chop chop, had lived ‘in timeless harmony’ (a phrase that guilt-ridden white revisionists like myself like to trot out) amid the giants. The first white settlers to San Francisco, most of whom came from the east where trees were smaller, must have gazed disbelievingly at groves of these conifers that could grow so high and so wide. By the mid-19th century California had been wrested from Hispanic rule by Americans of north European descent who sensed there was gold in them hills. With that entrepreneurial mindset, compounded by the belief in God’s providence – that natural resources were both divinely given and limitless – it wasn’t long before the lumber barons followed. Where they prospered the forests grew poorer in number day by day. The biggest and the best were the first to fall. The axe then the crosscut saw picked off the giants of the giants. Creaking as they fell one after the next, by the tail end of the 19th century an epoch in natural history was coming to end with silent screams and tremendous thuds onto forest floor.
These living sentinels, there to watch through the ages, stood no chance against the demands of capital and where time had stood still in the 250 million years since they evolved in the primordial forests of the mesozoic, a little thing called progress soon shunted along a real possibility of their extinction from forests.
By the dawn of the 20th century a crisis had ensued. Tough times call for great men, and one duly emerged all the way first from Dunbar, Scotland, via Missouri. His name was John Muir and thanks to his monumental efforts and those of the Sierra Club of conservationists the 5% of giant redwoods remaining today might well have been 0%.
I saw my first redwood off Highway 199 coming in from Gasquet, a settlement on the northern frontiers of California where it touches southern Oregon. Seeing a road that might lead to camp, I turned off Redwood Highway and into deep forest a few miles beyond the town. The South Fork Road led over a bridge and past the turning that led to some of the biggest remaining stands of redwood anywhere. The road wend its way ever further into thick forest, away from any trappings of civilisation. Following a tributary of the Smith River the road had to perform switchback after switchback to keep with the sinews of the river. The hills were high and cloaked with firs. The sky was bruised, of a intense blue you only really see in northern California. Sundown was coming.
There it was, roadside. I slowed to a stop. The tree was of a stout base that flattened the earth like a giant elephant’s foot. It was unlike any growing nearby. The trunk was rust red and the furrows deep and shadowed into bark that I later felt to be soft and none too reluctant to offer up a slither of its thick epidermis to the exotic bark trophy hunter. The bark itself was of a rare quality as trees go, cracking as the inner tree fought to expand. In places the trunk oozed deep russet tannins. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn blood was trickling down a woolly mammoth’s gargantuan leg.
At a beautiful place called the Big Flat, a campground so remote as to be fifteen miles from the highway on neglected backroads that went from smooth blacktop to grainy hardcourt and eventually to dirt, I made camp. Unable to shake the image of that one solitary redwood on the road down I doubled back, judging there still to be time in the day. Back close to the Redwood Highway, I took the rear entrance into Jedediah Smith State Park, where some of the most impressive redwoods still call a grove a home (often and elsewhere they cut lonely figures surrounded by little conifer companions). There I parked. Everyone had gone home. Along what was probably once a timber truck road, I walked, craning my neck ever up. Being human had never felt less remarkable. Now the close of day, twilight filled the spaces between redwood after redwood after redwood, each varying in size, from gigantic to galactic. To my surprise, being two-hundred feet and shallow rooted didn’t prevent them thriving on steep hillsides. It was intuitive to think that the loftier a thing rises the deeper it send its roots. Yet, everything about these ancient evergreens ran counter-intuitive. Nothing ought to be that tall nor nothing that old. Nothing that tall should grow on a gradient. As for their roots The reason redwoods reached for the sky was, I read, because the morning fog is where they tapped the moisture needed to grow the flaky bark that insulates them so well against the ravages of fire (fire which they periodically need to reproduce). They knew not to find the millions of tonnes of water needed for their capillaries in the soil, soil which was often parched and nutrient-depleted. So the root system grew shallow and outward, coiling above and below ground around whatever happened to be there.
Instantly, it became clear that what I was seeing was wondrous. A man regresses to boyhood when his eyes behold a thing of wonder. He asks how something can be, just as he did ad nauseam to himself and his puzzled parents when he was five-years old. With full moons for eyeballs he asks the tree how it came to be like nothing else he’s ever seen. He knows his kind built towers larger than nature constructed trees. Still, on this road to Stout Grove, with nothing but silent giants for company, he dismisses the mile-high towers because engineering can explain them. Much as they strive to fire human imagination, not the sky-piercing needle of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa nor the art deco finesse of Manhattan”s Chrysler Building can qualify as an eighth wonder of the world in the manner these mysterious objects can.
Any adult lucky to be a small boy when the Star Wars Trilogy hit the screens in the late 1970s and early 80s will remember Endor. Dizzying pursuits on hover-bikes through the forest of Endor left an indelible mark on mine and many a schoolboy’s imagination. Of course, all of it was conceived in the mind of George Lucas. It was his brainchild. Or so we presumed. For years I harboured that belief. Lucas could visualise worlds few others were privy to. Little did I know then that George Lucas was a native of California and likely familiar with the tall trees of Northern California. The realisation that Endor was nature’s brainchild and not his, that his inspiration was mine to share, was a consolation.
I knew there and then that evening as I glided along that timber road in a dream-like state some things were worth the effort of living for, if only to see repeatedly for the first time. Why the coastal redwoods can stake a claim – not that they care to – to being a bona fide wonder of the natural world was borne witness the following morn when in the hallowed light of a California day I looked upon those trunks again for the first time. When I thought that was merely coincidence, i stayed again at Jedediah Smith state park and this time paid a king’s ransom to pitch up inches from the base of a young redwood. On the third morning since first laying eyes on the world’s gentle giants, crawling out of that tent I gazed again in the same resplendent light and once again craned my neck to breaking point, jaw slacked both in incredulity and paralyzed joy, only to see the mighty redwood again for the first time.