Last month, on my way from Ashland, Oregon to the coast, I took a detour through Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. Daylight was rapidly fading by the time I got there, so there wasn’t time to hike around, but the ranger suggested an auto route that would allow a glimpse of a few big trees. I’d only seen California redwood trees once before, at Muir Woods near San Francisco, and they’d thrilled me so deeply that I was glad just to be near them again.
The facts of the California redwoods are these: They grow only on a narrow strip of Pacific coastline, mostly in California, and just barely brushing into Oregon. They used to be in Europe, Asia, Greenland and Japan, but changing temperatures over time corralled these giants into this corridor. They can grow to more than 370 feet tall, or about the height of a 30 story building. These aren’t the tallest trees in the world – Douglas firs grow taller — but they are the biggest living organisms on earth, by volume. Redwood trees live 20 human lifetimes. They don’t fall over, because their roots intertwine with their neighbors. In their shade, fairy tale giants of their species also grow. According to the park’s visitor’s guide: “Sword ferns grow as tall as a person, skunk cabbage leaves extend as long as our arm, fungus bigger than dinner plates emerge with the first winter rains…”
Howland Hills Road is narrow and windy, and the car created a swirl of dirt and dust in the lengthening shadows. I bounded from the car, camera pointing up into the sky filled with trees to infinity. I was snapping photos like mad — mostly futile, since I didn’t get anyone in them for scale. “Are we shrinking? Have we shrunk?” I exulted. If someone had told me that I was in fact, five inches tall instead of five foot six, I would have almost believed it.
And I didn’t even see the biggest trees, in fact, comparatively speaking, I saw puny ones. If there had been time to walk down to Stout Grove, which wasn’t far away, standing beneath them, I believe I may have felt five centimeters tall. And even those are nothing compared to what’s deeper in that forest – redwood Titans, gigantic trees that scientists hope mere tourists will never find. (See this Orion piece by Richard Preston.) If I’d seen a Titan, I might have wondered if I actually existed at all.
Once again, the redwoods deeply thrilled, and ever since, I’ve been pondering why that is, exactly. Here’s my theory: It’s not very easy to remember what it was like to be a child. Sure, we all have our childhood memories, but I’m talking about the visceral feeling of being small, the feeling of a being a creature who peers up at the underside of tables and is eye-level with kneecaps. It’s more common to have the sensation of being larger than one ought to be, since that’s what happens as we grow up –-we get bigger, and everything around us seems smaller. Being in the redwoods, that’s suddenly reversed. Once again, we’re small creatures in an oversized world.