On my left thigh I have a tattoo of a California redwood tree. I got it a few years ago as a commemoration for a bicycling trip I did from Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles California. I’m sure a lot of you have heard me talk about this trip — I talk about it a lot because it affected me in ways that I’m still figuring out; and I also just like reminiscing about those days I spent cruising along the west coast.
On that bike trip, my partner and I saw a lot of landscape: the mountains of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the misty beaches of the Oregon Coast, the dramatic cliffs of Big Sur. And yet what stuck with me the most — what inspired me to permanently etch the journey into my skin — were the redwood forests of northern California.
They are forests unlike any I had ever seen. In fact, even the word “forest” fails to accurately describe them, because when I think of forests I think of thickets and underbrush and layers of growth that spread out in front of you, but also above you. Forests are trees, yes, but also the bushes and the beasts and the grasses and weeds that grow and move beneath the canopies. Forests are rays of dappled light making their way through the branches above and illuminating patches of earth where wildflowers bloom from decomposing logs. But not in redwood forests. These trees are so tall, so overpowering of the landscape that light doesn’t even reach the forest floor. The trees tower hundreds of feet into the air — if we were downtown, they would be as tall as the Merchandise Mart — and they block out the sun so completely that hardly anything grows down where humans walk. And the trunks are so massive — in fact, there are some trees that are the largest living things ON THE PLANET — that they naturally grow distant from one another: they can’t be near each other because of the space that each individual needs. Instead, their roots form an intertwined tangle beneath the earth, supporting one another and holding each other close.
When you step into such a world, the cumulative effect is one both startling — kind of like the recent eclipse: a natural phenomena, but one that feels unreal; darkness in the midst of broad daylight; overwhelming and disturbing stillness; the sense that something completely natural is also something completely alien — but it is also comforting: though it is dark, you can see for quite some distance because the trees are so scattered; you can freely wander across the leaf litter. All around you the individual trunks stand sentinel, and because they are so tall that the human eye can’t even perceive the top, they feel more like mountains than actual trees. These are forests that are not simply a collection of individuals competing for life, like some other forests or gardens feel. These forests feel like life themselves. They are shelter and they are power and they breathe into the surrounding landscape, creating their own weather. The redwoods have a spirit, and the spirit of the redwoods is tangible and real.
The eerily comforting stillness of the air, the silence that seemed deeper than simply a lack of sound, It felt like a reverberation, like a warm and welcoming presence. There was a sense of plunging into something greater than myself. The redwood forests of California have been around for longer than human civilization, and they will continue to provide shelter for whatever comes along after human civilization is gone. These groves are eternal, if ever anything was — some of the oldest living things on the planet can be found in their midst. In fact, some scientists believe that redwoods are so resilient, so long-lasting, that they actually don’t senesce — that is, grow old. They don’t die from old age, and they rarely die from fire or disease. If eternity was a tree, it would be the redwood.
When I first visited them, I felt as if time had stopped. I had nowhere to be; no agenda. I felt free for the first time in a long time. As I wove my way along what’s called the Avenue of the Giants, my bicycle passing closely by the trees hugging the gentle curves of the road, my legs pedaling the constant pace necessary to keep my bicycle moving, I heard the redwoods speaking to me — power and strength and meaning. I understood, I still understand, that, though I am small — we all are small — compared to these coastal giants, we are all a part of the story of eternity that they are telling.