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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Guardian spirits in a Sequoia grove, High Sierra

Leaning against a giant sequoia much wider than my tent

Watching the recent full moon, I was reminded of the previous one, which I spent camped under a 22-foot wide Sequoia tree thinking of the last scene of the second act of Humperdinck's 1893 Opera "Hansel and Gretel," where the guardian angels are flowing down the ramp and protecting the forest-dwelling kids.

I had parted company the day before from the other nine members of our annual Father/Son backpacking trip into the High Sierras. They had headed from Bearpaw Meadow in Sequoia National Park (7,800 feet elevation, a grueling 11-mile hike in) up to Hamilton Lake (8,200) and then Precipice Lake (10,200 feet). Boys love lakes: the fishing, the rock-scrambling.

Me? Maybe because I'm a biologist, but I love trees, and particularly Giant Sequoias, the largest living creatures on the planet--a tourist-free backcountry grove of which was a five-mile hike in the opposite direction from Bearpaw Meadow. Other than the 40 pound pack on my back, the hike was marvelous, passing through ponderosa and sugar pine and black oak forest, skirting manzanita and ceanothus shrubs, scuffing my boots on good solid black-specked granite the whole way. It didn't take much to persuade me to doff my pack (and my clothes) at Hamilton Creek, flowing down from where my son and his friends were camped two thousand feet above, for a skin-tingling swim. Then everything back on, reluctantly, through more California lower montane forest, rock-hopping across Eagle Scout Creek and Granite Creek until my eager eyes spied the first Sequoia, looming red and large (this one a mere 12 feet in diameter) amongst the other "normal" trees. Then another sequoia, and another! I was in Redwood Meadow, my home for the next two days. All alone.

Well, not really alone. As I sat pumping water through my filter, a Douglas Squirrel greeted me (the first of some dozen I'd see) with its insistent calls, asking me what in the world I was doing in his sequoia grove. Then a chipmunk (probably a yellow pine chippie, though possibly a long-eared one--they're hard to tell apart at a run from fifteen feet) dashed along a nearby fallen log. A white-headed woodpecker was quartering up a sugar pine twenty feet away--so no, I wasn't alone. And of course, I was in the company of sequoias, also.

Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and several related species of redwoods covered the planet's entire northern hemisphere as dominant elements of a dense forest sixty million years ago. They were ancient then, direct ancestors having been on the planet 120 million years ago, rubbing shoulders with the dinosaurs. This sixty million year old forest was gradually fragmented by climatic and geologic processes until its components survive today only in isolated groves. The Coastal Redwoods along the northern Califoornia coast and nowhere else; the Dawn Redwoods in a few pockets deep in Sechuan province in China and nowhere else; and the Giant Sequoias in some 72 groves scattered along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in California and nowhere else.

Many of those 72 groves are accessible by road these days and packed with tourists, with no camping of course allowed. You can walk, awe-struck through the groves, but can't LIVE there. Unless you put 40 pounds on your back and hike in 20 miles to one of the back-country groves, as I had done. So there I was, me and my giant friends, no humans for miles but plenty of company, counting the trees and the squirrels and the birds (and the mosquitos, though not so bad).

My second day I discovered I had a pine marten neighbor, also. This most beautiful member of the weasel family bounded onto a fallen log some 20 feet from where I was sitting motionless on another fallen log. Oblivious to me, he scanned the ferns around the log, looking intently for a chipmunk or Douglas squirrel for breakfast. He was a bit over a foot long, with nearly another foot of tail, all rich chocolate brown except for vibrant golden fur on his throat and chest. His ears were pointed and erect and his eyes glittered black as he scanned the ferns. He gathered his four feet together and pounced into them. Soon I saw him reconnoitering the space beneath the fallen log, having come up empty from his pounce. He followed the open space beneath the log, moving from 20 feet to 12 feet away from me. He climbed up onto his log where it rested atop the other end of my log, and suddenly jumped a foot straight up in the air--he had caught my scent. He whirled around, caught a quick glance of me, and disappeared up a nearby young sequoia.

Being a mammal and thus having a brain quite susceptible to curiosity, he soon peeked around the sequoia at me. I have meanwhile raised my binoculars to my eyes, and now have a gorgeous close-up view of him. Like Brer Rabbit's tarbaby, I don't say nothing or move no-how. He cautiously descends the tree and back onto the log. Some 12 feet from me, now--he is huge in my 8-power binocs--he stares at this strange sight in his sequoia grove. He proceeds to give a very good imitation of the Steve Martin/Bill Murray skit on Saturday Night Live consisting of nothing but various intonations and variations of the line "What th' hell is that?!?" He makes a snorting type of noise in his throat and jerks his head at me several times. I wonder if he's going to charge me. "Get a grip, Barnett. Martens don't charge people!" I mutter to myself.

Finally he decides the strange sight is incapable of comprehension, and with what dignity he can muster he turns and bounces away.

So, no--I wasn't alone, though no humans were within many miles of me.
Nights were my favorite. I dispensed with the rainfly over my tent, so I could see the stars, and the trees in the light of the full moon. Looking up from my sleeping bag, I saw an 8-foot wide sequoia towering above me to my left; a 12-foot wide sequoia on my right; and behind and straight above me my 22-foot wide sequoia soaring some 200 feet into the heavens. Talk about feeling protected! The big sequoia, my favorite, had been on the planet somewhere between a thousand and sixteen-hundred years (based on the known ages of similar-sized trees). The Taoists in China have figured out that any creature that's been through the cycle of the seasons for that long is a being with palpable presence, with force and power to it, an energy that other creatures can tap into and appreciate. So shrines were built in traditional China at the base of their Dawn Redwoods and other old trees. In Japan, the related Shinto tradition hangs white or yellow ropes (shimenawa) around the ancient trees, to acknowledge they are sacred.

I didn't hang any shimenawa ropes around my sequoias in Redwood Meadow, but staring at them in the moonlight, I surely did believe they were beneficent living creatures with power. And I thought of Humperdinck's opera, where the frightened Hansel and Gretel, lost in a forest that seemed menacing to them, asked for protection in their evening prayer. As they fall asleep, a bright light illumines the dark stage, and seven pairs of angels descend a staircase and arrange themselves in a protective ring around the children--all this to the most gorgeous Wagnerian music one could imagine. We Americans, like many humans throughout history, have managed to convince ourselves that trees and their associated animals are mere automatons with none of the attributes we sense in ourselves. So we can cut even the most magnificent forests and doom the animals in them with a clear conscience, making a lot of money along the way. During my two moonlit nights in Redwood Meadow, it again became clear to me that these trees and these animals are a lot like us, and like us are full of life and power and deserve to live just as we deserve to live.

And it became again clear to me that the forests are not threatening and dark in spirit. I was alone here for two days, but--not alone, really. The white-headed woodpeckers and pine martens and Douglas squirrels and sugar pines and black oaks and giant sequoias are, just like us, "making a living" according to their DNA-given capabilities. Malevolent, evil spirits in nature are figments of our overly-active human brains. Sort of fun to imagine, perhaps, but--get real. John Muir spent thousands of nights wandering and camping alone in these Sierra Nevada mounains and the glaciers of Alaska--and did fine. So even when I heard a quavering, soft whistle some 50 yards to the left of my tent in the middle of the night, I wasn't spooked. Even when I heard it again only 10 yards to my left, I wasn't quaking--transfixed, perhaps, but more of fascination than fear. It moved across me, sounding next close to my right, then finally further to my right. It was no Steven King creature there to do me harm. Later, thanks to the archives of the Ornithology Lab at Cornell University, I learned it was a Screech Owl (spectacularly mis-named) that was floating its haunting, tremulous song over my tent.

After two days and nights among my fellow-beings in the sequoia grove, I had to move on. Redwood Meadow is at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River (into which all those creeks flow), with the 12,000 and 13,000-foot peaks of the Great Western Divide arrayed in an arc defining the watershed. I spent two more days hiking down the Middle Fork, camping beside Mehrten creek the first night (where I scared the bejeesus out of a black bear as I approached the creek. He exploded from a creekside thicket, was across the creek in two bounds, then barrelled up a sheer granite slope and disappeared--all within five seconds or so) and Moro Creek the second. The third day I hitch-hiked some 40 miles up the main highway traversing the national park (first hitch-hiking I'd done in 40 years, and that was in Europe) and joyously rejoined my son and the others in Crescent Meadow, where we'd begun a week before.

And all those last three days, I was whistling Humperdinck's melody of those angels arranging themselves around Hansel and Gretel. I named my 22-foot wide, 200-foot high sequoia Gabriel--the arch-angel. In my backpack I carried a cone from Gabriel--an amulet, or talisman to remind me of the sequoias amongst which I was privileged to live and sleep for two days.

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