Sierra Redwoods

Photo: Saddle Horses standing  along  the top of a fallen redwood tree at Calaveras big Trees State ParkSome human reactions to natural experiences are universal. The smile elicited by seeing a new born child; the fear roused by suddenly confronting a large predatory animal; or the absolute amazement and wonder evoked when first seeing a Sierra redwood tree. It is the immense size of these plants that both initially summons those emotions and is most often the strongest memory. Although, when we investigate the secrets of the intricate life history of these giants, the story that we reveal is even more awe inspiring than their gargantuan size.

Knowing with certainty how the first human to see a Sierra redwood tree reacted, is impossible. However, as we can envision the geologic processes that have shaped our earth in millennia past by observing the processes in operation today, so too can we imagine the initial human encounters with big trees by observing our own reactions.

It seems that the most common reaction to first seeing a Sierra redwood tree is to be momentarily struck silent. It is common to see a group of park visitors chatting amiably and rather loudly as they stroll down the trail into a redwood grove. The groups' first sight of a redwood may be an immense trunk. Glimpsed through the lush underbrush consisting of ferns, roses, giant trillium, and dogwood trees, the trunk of a Sierra redwood can easily be mistaken for several trees growing close together. As the hiking party becomes aware of the fact that the nearly thirty foot wide wall of timber they are approaching is actually one tree, they stop walking and sharply evoke one word sentences. "Wait!", "Stop!", "Look!", "Holy . . . " are utterances often heard near the first trees in the groves. Then silence.

Whether the person seeing the redwood was a Miwok in the 1400's, or a European immigrant in the 1850's or a couple from Des Moines this summer, the reaction is undoubtedly much the same. In those first moments after the initial encounter thoughts tend be of a spiritual, emotional, philosophic, or religious nature. Soon, speech is restored and more practical, thoughts return.

How big is it?
How old is it?
How can I use it?
How can I make some cash from this?
How can I protect this?