Old-growth redwoods resonate with us in multiple ways, calling forth fascination, inquiry, curiosity, awe, attachment, wonder, and love.
Several years ago I stayed with a friend who lives in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. On a languid blue afternoon in late March, Jenny introduced me to a grove of ancient redwoods. Never before had I been in the presence of something quite so moving and enlarging of heart. Well over a thousand years old, those trees exceeded in both magic and mystery anything I could have ever imagined of them. Forever dependent on the dense fogs that roll in from the ocean and guard them against drought, stands of coastal redwoods are sometimes referred to as cathedrals. They claim a silence from you irrespective of your beliefs: that wondrous and respectful hush that is a descendent of awe.
Irreplaceable celebrates those imperiled places and wild species that are increasingly vanishing from our world and explores the extraordinary and vital resistance to their disappearance. Whether it’s threatened ancient woodlands or urban meadows, glittering coral reefs or relict tallgrass prairies, the book’s stories are ones of defiance rather than elegy, honoring wonder, connections, and community in the face of potentially immense loss, the sustaining ties forged between people, nature, and place.
My first impressions were tactile rather than visual. It was noticeably warmer inside the grove than out. A damp, sensual, and lemony humidity percolated about the trees that I could feel on my skin, as if a plume of hot-spring air had suddenly risen from invisible fissures in the earth. Redwood rainforests gather heat and moist vapor inside them, acting as vast organic reservoirs that release a lavish coniferous scent into the antique atmosphere. When my eyes finally scaled their heights, ascending a colossal column of cinnamon-red bark that was vertically ribbed with shaggy, flaking fibers, they just seemed to keep going and going, traversing the initial, horizontal spars of broad burly boughs and eruptions of buttressed wood, rising ever higher past secondary masts seeded midway up the trunk, iterations of the tree itself that rose beside it like a hand-holding child, carrying on beyond the tangled riot of bourgeoning dark greenery and the tensile living bridges of branches fused to adjacent trees, until, finally, small detonations of sunlight conferred sudden luster on the highest crowns. And even then, it felt as though there was no end to how far my eyes might ascend, the tree growing ever more prodigious by the day, its needled spire steepling into sky and the fine far sprays of luminous new leaves paling to gold in the sweeping light of the sea.
Old-growth redwood groves are irreplaceable for very different reasons to Britain’s ancient woodlands. While the latter are primarily cultural landscapes—living places that have been cut, worked, and preserved—the former are the largely undisturbed epitome of the virgin natural world. And while the age of old-growth coastal redwoods reacquaints us with the humbling smallness of human life (the cross-section of one cut in Northern California in 1934 is labelled with growth-ring markers denoting such iconic events that the tree had lived through as the birth of Christ and the founding of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza) it was the height of the trees that most profoundly affected me.
Coastal redwoods are the tallest organisms on the planet. The loftiest of them currently alive is named Hyperion. Only discovered in 2006 in Redwood National Park, it soars into the sky for a scarcely believable 380.3 feet, and at such a height something remarkable and equally unbelievable begins to occur around the spires of these trees: they nurture an entirely different ecosystem near their summits to that lower down. It wasn’t until tree-climbing scientists Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine began their complex and exceptionally dangerous ascents of redwoods in the 1990s that the accepted scientific assumption that the redwood canopy must resemble some kind of high-altitude desert, a cold and bitter zone that supported precious little wildlife at such exposed and rarefied heights, was disproved, a discovery that managed the difficult task of making old-growth redwoods even more fantastical and astonishing than they already were.
High amongst the tree pinnacles, where vapor regularly congeals into cloud and branches tangle and twine with the profusion of a tropical rainforest, Sillett and Antoine discovered a magical, mysterious realm, a place described by Richard Preston in his book The Wild Trees as a living “lost world.” Up there in the mists, the first people to ascend to the dizzying summits of old redwoods, the pair found ornate gardens of ferns adorning the spires, hanging tapestries and mats of epiphytes which absorb such enormous quantities of rainwater that they are the densest mass of plants growing on other plants in any forest canopy in the world. Accumulated soil, wind-blown and settled over centuries in the nooks and crooks of branches, plays host to an aerial forest of entirely different tree species, enabling a strange gallery of bonsai-like miniatures of Douglas firs, hemlocks, Sitka spruces, and California bay laurels to lay down roots hundreds of feet from the ground. Huckleberry, currents, salmonberry, and elderberry grow in profusion up there, producing a succulent harvest for foraging birds. Stranger still, colleagues of Sillett and Antoine discovered a previously unknown species of earthworm inhabiting the canopy soil, as well as a sky-borne population of wandering salamanders that, unlike their ground-hugging kin, appear to carry out their entire life cycle high in the redwood towers. Other scientists have since discovered copepods living in the water-retentive fern mats near the tips of the trees, a species of aquatic crustacean generally found in the gravel beds of forest streams and the open ocean. No one knows quite how they ended up inhabiting the canopy, or much at all about the complex strands that make up this unexpected world, a dream-space kingdom out of reach of the earth-bound human eye.
Scientific knowledge is inseparable from the aims of nature conservation. Such deliberate inquiry shown by tree-climbing biologists makes the dense intricacies of the natural world more readable for the rest of us, together with revealing additional reasons for the vigilant protection of these virgin trees and their accompanying habitats. The committed diligence of skilled scientists enlightens the general public on the complex workings of functioning ecosystems, the threats of climate change and ocean acidification to the living fabric of our planet, and the minutiae of life cycles and wild organism behavior, informing critical policy at local, national, and global levels. Alongside the science, though, it is equally important that everyday intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and psychological responses to the natural world don’t go unheard in the larger environmental discussion. Old-growth redwoods resonate with us in multiple ways, calling forth fascination, inquiry, curiosity, awe, attachment, wonder, and love. For us to have any hope of salvaging what remains of the world’s biological plenitude—and while clearly fragmented and diminished, it still remains astonishingly vibrant, beautiful, resilient, and needed—it’s imperative that those two voices complete and bolster one another when their trajectories overlap or align. Harnessing the essential energies of varied communities and elevating the abiding and indelible need that humans have for the more-than-human world will require both science and stories.
We mustn’t refrain from naming our feelings about the natural world. Especially at a time when to do so is criticized by some as sentimental and out of touch with “the real world,” as though there is another world lurking invisibly beside this one—dependably wealth-creating, largely male, and impressively self-contained—that has nothing to do with the limiting physicality and life-dependent processes of our planet. This is the only world we have, the one whose water and air we need, and from whose substance we shape our lives. If there is any sentimentality or out-of-touchness to be found in any of this, surely it belongs to the quixotic notion that we can exist outside the planet’s natural systems and verifiable parameters. In light of how rarely the environment, biodiversity loss, and climate change receive even cursory lip-service in election campaigns and debates, speaking up about our attachments to landscape and place, talking in whatever forums are available about our connections and love for the natural world, takes on an urgent political hue.
So many of the names associated with the saving of old-growth redwoods around Santa Cruz are largely forgotten outside of the study of environmental history—Carrie Stevens Walter, Andrew Putnam Hill, Josephine McCrackin, Charles W. Reed, Kate Moody Kennedy—and yet these people had a profound effect on their local environments, both then and as it exists today. From the turn of the 20th century onwards, these were individuals who either founded or helped energize such organizations as the Sempervirens Club and Save the Redwood League, gaining sufficient political traction for their cause that legislation was eventually enacted to safeguard these old-growth trees. Less than 5 percent of the world’s virgin redwoods are still in existence, found in fragments of bewildering beauty, but if it hadn’t been for the concerted voices of local citizens and scientists alike we would have none of their celestial splendor left at all.
Read “The Spiral Windings,” “Time in the Karst Country: Essay and Photographs,” and “Pelicans,” a story, as well as Hoffman’s award-winning essay “Faith in a Forgotten Place,” originally published in Terrain.org.
Header photo by welcomia, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Julian Hoffman by Jon Webber.