Listening to Strength

Sequoiadendron giganteum.
Photo by Patti M. Walsh, 2017

Come to think of it, uncommon strength is often born under duress.

Somewhere on Generals Highway, above the breath-defying switchbacks that rise more than 2,000 feet into Sequoia National Park from Hospital Rock, and beyond the intersection of Big Trees Trail and Little Deer Creek, I was overwhelmed by the massive dignity of a singular tree in a densely populated grove of mixed conifers.

“Pull over,” I commanded. My husband complied. Bob knows better than to squabble when we’re in the midst of grandeur and I have my camera in hand. I couldn’t grasp the tree’s immensity from the confines of a car. I pointed to a small apron along the shoulder of the winding road. “Here.”

Slipping my camera into a pocket, I stepped out of the rental car and into the enchantment of the Land of Giants. I headed directly for the sequoiadendron giganteum that had caught my attention. It was about 20 feet in.

Named sequoia by Stephen L. Endlicher, the tree reflects his avocations of both botanist and linguist: the genus can be described in Latin as sequi, because the number of seeds per cone are aligned in a sequence common to other genera in the suborder; and Sequoyah was his Cherokee mentor.

Dwarfed by the immensity of this particular sequoiadendron giganteum, I stood in awe, gazing first toward an unseen top, cloaked in the deepest of greens, then gingerly touching the spectacular orange-red bark. Cool and spongey, the tree seemed to invite me in. In acceptance, I pressed my full body into the trunk and spread my arms mere inches around a massive girth that easily surpassed 70 feet.

Majestic in size and robust in presence, it conveyed strength and serenity. I turned my head to the right and noticed how its distinctively regal color stood out in the grove among the greys and browns of sugar pines, white and red firs, and incense-cedars. It was as if they existed solely to magnify its elegance. I inhaled, closed my eyes, and rested my left cheek and ear against the thickly royal skin.

I sensed sap surging like blood from roots buried thousands of years—yet only a few feet—deep, to a crown some 200 feet—and hundreds of years into the future—above.

Perhaps it was the breeze rustling through the grove, the buzzing of tiny insects, or the crinklings of critters in the piney ground cover. Or maybe it was my own beating heart. But something archaic spoke to me.

Now, I’m not going to say it was the tree, but I’m not going to say it wasn’t. Dwarfed by the giant, I pressed myself closer and listened. The hushed voice spoke not of history, geology, human events, or rare beauty, but of patience, endurance, and strength.

Giant sequoias are the oldest—though not the tallest—trees on Earth. That distinction goes to the redwood. But in total volume, they are the largest living beings on the planet. They spring from tiny seeds that must win the trifecta of direct sunlight in the shaded forest, adequate moisture in the arid environment, and freedom from tough, tightly packed cones. Therein lies the greatest irony of the sequoias’ existence.

The surefire way to get the cones to release their packets of life is a devastating forest inferno. Such a cataclysmic event causes the seeds to burst like popcorn. Knowing that the chances of a seed growing into a mature tree are less than one in a billion, I pressed myself closer.

Unlike the trees named General Grant or General Sherman that draw admirers by the millions, this anonymous behemoth could claim no fame as a superlative. It was neither oldest, tallest, widest, nor grandest. It wasn’t even legendary. It was simply a silent guardian of yore.

I pressed myself closer to learn from its uncommon strength, its birth under duress, its stalwart humility.

After a moment, I stepped back, as if to stay longer would be to trespass.

“Thank you,” I said to this particular giganteum and caressed its bark once more before silently retracing my steps to the car. With the camera still stuffed in my pocket, I realized that the only images I captured were in my heart. It now beat a bit stronger.

“You talked to a tree,” Bob said as I closed the car door.

“No,” I replied. “I listened.”

2 responses to “Listening to Strength”

  1. What a fabulous memory. You write, “But in total volume, they are the largest living beings on the planet. ”

    As an unapologetic mycophile, I’d like to introduce this fungus of distinction, Armillaria ostoyae*.

    According to the October 2007 article in Scientific American,

    “The discovery of this giant Armillaria ostoyae* in 1998 heralded a new record holder for the title of the world’s largest known organism. . . [Armillaria ostoyae*] occupies some 2,384 acres (965 hectares) of soil in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Put another way, this humongous fungus would encompass 1,665 football fields, or nearly four square miles (10 square kilometers) of turf. . . .Based on its current growth rate, the fungus is estimated to be 2,400 years old but could be as ancient as 8,650 years, which would earn it a place among the oldest living organisms as well.”

    Scientists have begun to document the ways in which trees and fungi share an important mutually beneficial (mycorrhizal) connection. I first heard the term “wood wide web” about the time you took this photo.

    Aren’t we lucky to be able to experience the natural world with such reverence and joy?

    *this should be in italics

  2. Come to think of it, maybe my giganteum’s message of stalwart humility was really about his friend Armillaria ostoyae.

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