I just returned from a trip to northern California, where I came to worship the redwoods. I knew all about the fight to save the remaining redwoods after most had been logged, how only 4 percent of the original redwood forest was left. And yet not until I was in the preserved parks did I realize how meager are these remaining tracts of the coastal redwoods: basically four small state parks.
In the main park, Prairie Creek, which is where most of the trails are, you can drive the length of the park in less than half an hour. Most of the designated places on the map are groves of redwoods, most of which can be seen in a half-mile loop trails.
In the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, south of Prairie Creek, it was a cool day with soft rain, making these somber forests even darker. Out of the darkness blaze the rhododendrons, startling pink among the gloom, and the ferns and redwood sorrel, which look like large cloverleafs, gleaming a bright green (below). I thought the only thing that would make this experience better was to see fog, and then I looked up to see a white blanket silently enshroud the tops of the trees, some 200 to 300 feet above me (top).
One of the things you notice immediately in a redwood forest is how quiet it is. The trees block most of the sunlight, so there’s little vegetation to support wildlife. We saw one banana slug and heard, from high above, the varied thrush, whose single haunting cry doesn’t pierce the gloom so much as add to it.
Everything moves slowly: the slug across the path, the water dripping from the ferns and tops of trees; maybe the fastest thing here is the growth of these trees, at 3 to 10 feet per year. With some trees 1,000 to 2,000 years old, there’s a sense of accumulated time, of wisdom stored for centuries in these redwoods, many of which exhibit burn marks at their bases. They’ve withstood fires, strong winds, even us humans, who tried hard to remove every single one. Can they withstand climate change?
Even here, along northern California’s coast, where annual rainfall measures 50 inches, last winter and spring were dryer than usual, with less precipitation, and redwood experts are worried about the loss of coastal fog, on which the redwoods thrive, and water, as well as the warmer weather.
The good news is that about 22 percent of the redwoods is publicly owned, thanks to gruups like the Save the Redwoods League, which has been buying harvested land and planting redwoods. Even now, as I write this, young redwoods are returning to places that had been desecrated. If there's still a world in the next millennium, the ancient redwoods should be able to tell a good story--how they nearly died out, how a handful of humans fought to save them, how they are still standing tall.