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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Redwoods, Banana Slugs, and Fog

Standing this past weekend in a wracked jumble of dead and living coastal redwoods, I whispered a prayer of thanks that John Muir had headed west when he arrived in San Francisco in 1868, rather than north. Had he hiked to redwoods rather than sequoias, we might not have any national parks today at all.

Not that an individual coastal redwood tree is less impressive than an individual giant sequoia. The redwood is incredibly tall rather than incredibly bulky, the tallest living creature on the planet at 370-some feet—about the 35th floor of a skyscraper. But the redwood resides in a much, much different forest than the sequoia. Sequoia forests on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada are open, and pierced by morning sunshine, with clouds that rise up quickly in the afternoon and disgorge an hour or two’s rain, then disappear to give you gorgeous sunsets and starry nights.

Not so the coastal forests of the redwoods. Day dawns muffled in thick fog, which persists until noon or later, draping everything in a mist. Afternoons may clear, and sunshine reveals forests not open but incredibly thick with life—and death. Long redwood trunks are plentiful on the ground, their tannin-drenched wood defying decay and incorporation back into the forest floor. These dead giants may lay intact for centuries (no wonder there’s so many of them!), during which time whole ecosystems of other plants sprout on the debris atop them, including good-sized trees such as Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, their thick roots twisting down over the fallen trunks to the soil.

Well, I can handle lots of dead trees. It’s the living trees that give me the shivers. The redwood can reproduce from the tiny seeds produced by its olive-sized cones (this tallest of trees has the smallest cones of any conifer!), but most of the redwood biomass results from vigorous “stump-sprouting.” Thick burls around the base of a giant tree produce dozens of seedlings, which upon the death of the parent tree (and the removal of its biochemical suppression of the seedlings) shoot up in prodigious growth rates.

I stood often this weekend in a circle of redwoods, shattered remains of the old parent tree jumbled in the middle of the circle, and half a dozen 10-foot diameter offspring towering two hundred feet tall in a circle of 24-foot diameter, reflecting the size of the old parent. Many of the giant offspring have grown together and fused at their bases, giving great masses of redwood hulking thuggishly around the old parent.

You may think I’m projecting too much upon the growth form of the redwood forest. If so, I am not alone. The intrepid, fearless Scottish botanist David Douglas of the 19th century (for whom the Douglas fir is named) declared that redwoods “give the mountain a peculiar—I was going to say awful--appearance.” And the Tolowa, Yurok, and Chilula tribes that lived in this area for thousands of years pointedly lived along the rivers and coasts—but not in the midst of the redwood forests.

The ever-present fog and riotous exuberance of the forest accounts for part of this human unease in a redwood forest. The silence of the forest adds to that feeling. You won’t find Douglas squirrels gamboling about and chattering at you here, as Muir did in the sequoias of the Sierra Nevada. The redwood seeds are so tiny they hardly support any squirrel life, and this paucity is reflected the rest of the way up the food chain. In a 10-mile, most-of-the-day hike along the James Irving trail from our campsite to the ocean and back, my buddy Cal and our sons saw and heard not a single mammal or bird. Cal’s inquisitive son Liam was reduced to befriending several banana slugs (Ariolimax) and land snails, the only animal life evident in the forest—and they are abundant.

A plant-lover will have more to intrigue them, of course, though Douglas’s “awful” feeling might persist. No ecosystem has more biomass of plants per area than a redwood forest (a distinction shared with the true temperate rainforests of the Olympic peninsula). Sword ferns (Polystichum), clover-like Redwood sorrel (Oxalis), Red huckleberry (Vaccinium), Douglas’s (yes, the same Douglas) iris (Iris), and California rhododendron (Rhododendron) are thick everywhere you look. And soil scientists find more diversity of mycorrhizael fungi, bacteria, protozoans, and roundworms in redwood soils than any other site on the planet, all bound in ecological interactions of incredible complexity.

There are moments of breath-taking beauty, of course. Our hike to the ocean went through the famous “Fern Canyon” along Gold Bluff beach, scene of the infamous Jurassic Park scene where the park worker is stalked alongside the canyon stream by velociraptors (again, sort of disquieting, eh?). In daylight, without dinosaurs, the canyon is stunning, its high walls thick with Lady Fern (Athyrium), Deer fern (Blechnum), and Muir’s beloved Five-finger fern (Adiatum)—a wall of green that nearly pulsates. Hundreds of tourists jamming the canyon either spoil the effect, or add to the festive atmosphere, depending on your viewpoint.

So, yes—an amazingly complex and vigorous ecosystem, well worth a first and indeed many return visits. Just not one that humans find congenial to abide in, by and large. If Muir had hiked north to these great redwood forests of the northern California coast in 1868, he may have turned into a dour and crabby pessimist, rather than the inspiring fount of joy and love of the natural world he in fact became in the Sierra Nevada.

I’m glad we spent time in the redwoods. I’m looking forward to going back, though we all agree we’ll spend more time on the charming village of Trinidad’s picturesque beach and tidepools. But next week Tammy and I are off to Tuolumne Meadow in the Sierra Nevada, where we’ll also spend time in the Glen Aulin high sierra camp. And my report on all that will be, I promise, more sunny.
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