Musings...

Robert Cotner, Editor

t is April 3, 2001. A light snow is falling in the high Sierras of central California, the temperature is in the high-20s, and deep banks of snow lie all around. As I write, mists move in, and I have a remarkable sense of awe in the grandeur surrounding me. I stand before the oldest living object on Earth—a giant Sequoia tree called the "General Sherman," which has lived here, 6,409 feet above sea level, for 25 centuries. It stands in a cluster of Sequoias, surrounded by pine trees, Douglas firs, and other conifers. In the mist, the trees appear as ancient sentinels to time itself.

The General Sherman stands in a region of the Sequoia National Forest named in 1875 by John Muir, the "Giant Forest." It is in one of 75 groves of Sequoia trees in this range. The tree stands 274.4 feet tall and has a base diameter of 36.5 feet—the width of three Interstate lanes. Although more than 2,500 years old, the tree is in good health and adds to its bulk an estimated 40 cubic feet of wood each year. Extremely ragged in its upper branches from centuries of wind, snow, and ice storms, the tree has a reddish bark that is said to be two feet thick. The base of the tree is deeply grooved—I could put the edge of my hand into the grooves, and my hand would be dwarfed by the folds of the bark. I am told that the roots are shallow and spread broadly; thus, the wide base of the tree provides necessary stability.

Contemplating this magnificent tree, I realize that it was a seedling during the Roman Empire. It was 500 years old when Christ was born. It was almost 2,000 years old when Columbus landed on this continent. What is most remarkable to me, however, is the fact of its survival through the most brutal and rapacious centuries in the history of mankind—and in a land in which we have more often than not exploited rather than preserved our natural heritage. John Muir, who is credited with saving these marvelous trees and this region—as well as many other remarkable natural phenomena in America—said of the scene before me: "it seems impossible that any other forest picture in the world could rival it."

The trees, in their massive forms, their ancient ages, and their silence, inspire a sense of the grandeur of nature rarely experienced in life. I can understand why American Indians worshipped the trees and why almost every sensitive person standing in their presence used religious metaphors to describe them. Ralph Waldo Emerson, on his visit here in 1871, is said to have "sauntered about as if under a spell." He cited the Old Testament in describing them: "There were giants in the Earth in those days."

Naturalist John Burroughs described coming upon them in this mountain panorama for the first time: "Then suddenly you are on the threshold of this hall of elder gods….All is so hushed, so friendly, yet so towering, so stupendous, so unspeakably beautiful."

My own reaction to the giant Sequoias and their setting is to recall lines from William Cullen Bryant's "Forest Hymn": "The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned/To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,/And spread the roof over them—ere he framed the lofty vault, ...in the darkling wood,/Amid the cool and silence, he knelt down,/And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks/And supplication."

I make a few notes, take a few photographs, and whisper softly a few words to NJC, my companion in travel. Few of the tourists on the mountain this cold day say much at all. It is as if the place where these magnificent trees stand is sacred. The Sequoias come as close to being eternal as anything we shall ever know on Earth. v

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Robert

Erstwhile naturalist, sometime-botanist, and peripatetic Caxtonian editor Robert Cotner is photographed touring California's high Sierras in April 2001. Photo by NJC.

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