Thursday, May 26, 2011

Among giants

Mark and I visited Sequoia National Park in April, and I was so excited to see these giant specimens that I had read so much about. I was worried that I had researched too much, and would be underwhelmed when I saw them in person, but my worries were completely and utterly unfounded. No amount of reading and armchair travelling can prepare you to comprehend these giants. They are, in every sense of the word, awesome. 

This famous behemoth known as General Sherman, is the largest living thing on the planet.

There is so little in our daily lives with which to compare them, that even when you see them and touch them, it seems so impossible that they're real. And the fact that they live for thousands of years (some upwards of 3,000 years), is unfathomable. In our time of immediate, on-demand, disposable, quick-fix everything, it's humbling to be in the presence of something for which we are just a blip. They seem so wise in their realness, honesty, and immutability. We could learn a lot from these trees...

Sequoia National Park covers a large area of varying elevations, but the trees themselves only grow between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Within this elevation range and the park boundary there are a few areas with larger concentrations of sequoias of which we explored the Giant Forest and Grant Grove. (Also the Mariposa Grove, but it's farther north in the Sierra Nevadas, in Yosemite National Park.)  

Feeling small and insignificant in the presence of true greatness. The fog entwined through the towering heights.
As you drive from the valley into the Park, and up the winding, climbing, hairpin turns, the flora changes quickly and drastically. From the precision of the orange blossom-scented fruit orchards in the San Joaquin Valley, through arid and evenly spaced olive groves and scrub oak of the rolling foothills, into denser and wilder tree cover of an interesting variety of cacti, oak trees, and a purple-blossoming tree as the slopes steepened. Then as you climb higher and higher, various conifers and cedars start appearing. And everywhere you look it's stunningly and dramatically beautiful; granite faces jutting through the trees, and white water galloping over boulders in the deep valleys far below. 

From these modest cones they grow to dwarf everything around them
Still steadily ascending, you pass a small sign that reads "elevation 4,000" and then you enter some fog, or is it a cloud? and sweep around a few more tight switchbacks, only now you can't see how sheer the drop-off is anymore, which is probably for the best. Then suddenly you pass 5,000 feet, and snow, small piles at first, localized to the roadsides, but then everywhere, in patches larger and larger and deeper start to appear in the forest. And you think, I'm there, I'm almost there, as each turn brings you closer and closer to the giants. And the fog at times so thick you can't tell where you are anymore, but mostly just thin and vapoury enough to lend a thrilling mystery to it all. Around another turn where you spy the sign that reads "Entering Giant Forest" and your eyes are peeled (as if they haven't been this entire time) for the monoliths you've been waiting for. More snow, more turns, and then you round a corner, and there. There it is. Your first giant sequoia. Pull over! Pull over! and you stumble out, into the snow, neck craned, mouth agape, a slight tear in your eye, and you stare. Just stare. Trying to take it in. To understand. Somehow mutter some words of wonder. How can they be this big! This is unbelievable. Look to Mark to see if he's seeing the same thing. 'They get bigger, you know,' he says with a smile. No. Nope, not possible.

After marvelling for a while, you reluctantly get back in the car and find out quickly that he's right. They do get bigger. Much bigger. Each one seems bigger than the last! And if they're not immediately by the roadside, they're easy to spot in the forest. Massive walls of rich orange-red dramatic against the white snow and evergreens, dwarfing all around them, making cars and other trees look ridiculously miniature.

The star of this whole show, and for good reason, is the General Sherman tree. The biggest living thing on the planet. There are redwoods that are taller, and other sequoias that are bigger around, but his combination of girth and height make him the biggest by volume. Truly, truly awesome. A whopping 36.5 feet across, 103 feet around, and 275 feet tall.

Markers of time: rings by the thousand and fire scars.

Because of their fire-resistant bark, relatively shallow root systems and lack of a tap root, it is often soil erosion and heavy winds that topple them, rather than old age or fire. (Not comforting to think about while standing in their sizable shadows.) Each tree bears scorch marks from the many controlled burns and wild fires they will experience during their epic lifetimes. Fire plays a crucial role in the lives of these trees. Fires enrich the soil with vital nutrients, clear away the underbrush and thin the canopy to allow the sunlight in. Ring patterns from felled trees reveal periods of rapid growth after each fire. Furthermore, it is the intense heat from fires that open up the cones to release the seeds, like a phoenix rising up from the ash.

Rich-red, fire-resistant bark.

1 comment:

  1. You really can't understand just how large they are until there is a person in the picture! It's so crazy!

    Katelin xo