As I write this from inside a cozy log cabin, outside the rain is pouring down. I can almost hear the mossy trunks slurping up the water. Every once in awhile the sun tickles the top of the clouds, giving us a glimmer of hope that before we leave the land of the Californian Redwoods tomorrow, we’ll have the chance to go for one more hike through their serene glory.
My friend, Laurie Hollis-Walker, is with me on this sojourn through these straight-to-the-sky sisters. We’ve wandered and lingered in as many redwood groves as we can, starting north of San Francisco in Mendecino County, following the Avenue of the Giants into Humboldt County, and now winding down in Jedediah/Smith River National Park in the northwest corner of California.
I’m a bush babe, but this ain’t no bush. This is a woods of silva-magic welcoming us with its tall thick souls and their multi-hued layers of soft spongy bark. Here in the Smith River area, we have been walking through lush old growth redwood forest. In the tamer, more visited groves to the south, where California is definitely parched, the understory is pure duff, thick needles and bark droppings. In most places, the stream beds were waterless indentations on the forest floor.
For much of the trip we were in the Eel River watershed and the road crossed this seafoam-coloured waterway so many times we lost count. Large pebbled beaches lined its passage and I found myself thinking of the Eel as quite serpentine, reminding me of the delicate aqua coloring of the keelback snake slithering down our stream bank back in Cahuita.
The land in the Eel watershed, however, was scarily dry considering this is all temperate rainforest. There was very little shrubby vegetation at ground level – there isn’t much greenery until you look up somewhere between forty and ninety feet into the lower part of the canopy where the redwoods’ branches begin to reach out in mutual support toward each other. Like all forests, there is much co-dependence going on. If one tree goes down here, it tends to take a few others with it. They rely on mycorrhizae, a fungus that serves as soup kitchen between the soil and the trees. This fungi has probably never been considered as important by those cutting the forest, yet 51% of the biomass of an old growth redwood forest is made up of this busy little worker that keeps the big trees healthy.
One can only imagine what is going on in the upper branches three hundred feet or more above us. There are many species that are part of the ecology of this forest – the spotted owl, the marbled murrulets (fog-larks as they are called by old-timers), flying squirrels – but as the largest and wildest stands of the redwoods disappeared, so has the habitat for healthy sustaining populations of its inhabitants and so they move permanently on to the Endangered Species List. Maybe imagination is all that remains up in the heavens at the top of the redwoods.
The bark is so thick that it protects the trees from forest fires and provides refuge for small critters like salamanders to survive as well. Although the trees are called redwoods for their rosy inner core, the bark glows with every shade of purple, pink, orange, green, brown and grey. The fact that these rugged giants have this soft skin is one of the biggest surprises for me – I can feel my mother’s tender hands responding as I caress them. It is as mystical to me as the fairy-rings, the circles of trunks that sprout out from around the base of the dying madonna, keeping the soul of the being alive, turning one tree into four or six or more.
We camped for a night in Richardson Grove, choosing a campsite that was protected from the cold wind by a downed sister, her Georgia O’Keefe-inspired root mass standing vertical while her long, wide body lay sleeping like a gentle giant in repose.
It was a chilly but gorgeous clear evening spent in the shadow of this beauty. We had time to wander through the grove which was eerily zoo-like in comparison to the much wilder old growth forest that we are near now. There is a hard tale of greed that accompanies the story of the destruction of the old growth redwoods. In the case of the Richardson grove, the struggle continues as the government wants to cut the grove to widen Highway 101 to smooth the way for the large trucks, this being one of the few areas where the road remains narrow and winds respectfully around the large trees necessitating slowing down.
Many companies have taken their turn at profiting from the lumber that comes out of these woods, but in northern Humboldt County, for over one hundred years it was Pacific Lumber. Up until a hostile corporate takeover in 1985, PL cut responsibly, selectively and sustainably. Then a Texan by the name of Charles Hurwitz and his corporate claws took over, with the intention to clear-cut and liquidate as much of the redwood forest in as quick a time as possible. The story involves incomprehensible business dealings, illegal logging and government-compliance, but ends with the evil man being charged with defrauding the forestry service though not before he had raped the land, taken down the giants, made homeless the resident wildlife, and polluted the local salmon streams with the silt released when a hillside is left devoid of root mass and vegetation. It is easy to understand why people were enraged, devoted their lives to the protection of these forests, and chose to get arrested or live in treetops – anything to save them.
As it is April and off-season, we’ve had most places to ourselves as well as very little traffic to contend with. In fact, we seem to have shared the road more with cyclists and their bike/trailer rigs than with cars, buses or trucks. They looked idyllic in that sunny dry weather, but I feel for them as the rain continues to pour down quite heavily at times.
On that rather barren golden ground to the south, redwood sorrel, brownish ferns, and verdant mosses are present, but the most prolific greenery is the poison oak. It sprouts all over and grows as ivy up the tree-trunks. Where it is dry, the oak ivy seems more successful than most other leafy forest vegetation. One shouldn’t be lured into a sense of false security provided by these giant peaceful grandmothers – instead, if they could really talk, they would no doubt warn you to consider carefully where you are squatting.
It is reassuring to be here while it is raining. We’ve watched the Smith River, directly below our cabin, rise dramatically in the last twenty-four hours. This land can definitely use this moisture before they settle in for six months of summertime dryness.
We have driven backroads that wind through the groves, the path asking permission to brush past these benevolent hosts, making long trucks or trailers unwelcome but allowing us to continue as privileged visitors. The soundtrack on the car stereo has been coming from local community radio station KHUM – as we drove down the Avenue of the Giants, they were playing The Lumberjack Song with its chainsaw solo – couldn’t have been more appropriate.
In Jedediah/Smith River National Park, we are where the last of the wild stands of ancient redwoods are, where you can see the understory is much more varied and vibrant than what we saw along the hauntingly-beautiful but comparatively barren Avenue of the Giants.
My companion on this journey, Laurie, is a scholar whose concern and calling is the living experience of non-violent activism. Her PhD research brought her here, to the hardcore activists that fought for the future of these forests. I’ve been introduced to friends of hers in the area who have been deeply involved in the struggle to save the redwoods since at least the 1980s. Laurie has fallen in love with the redwoods while doing her research, but she also works with Joanna Macy in Berkeley, the renowned teacher of “The Work that Reconnects.” Being a facilitator of that method of spiritual activism is perhaps Laurie’s strongest motivation.
Laurie and I met in 1989 on the blockade in Temagami (I’ve mentioned this in other posts or read Walking with Wolf). We know the depth of the actions we went through in that area of northern Ontario to bring some protection to the last stands of old growth red and white pine (as well as support the local native band’s struggle for justice).
I’m finding everything here in California comes super-sized – these gigantic trees, long vistas of ocean, big colourful characters, and epic tales of activism. I’ve witnessed the adrenalin rise in the story-tellers as they relate their personal experiences from that Redwood Summer of 1989, sharing stories of campaigns maintained for years, held in remote forests in the dark of night, and of the incredible power of crusaders such as Judi Bari and Julia Butterfly Hill who are legends from the time. Our friend Maryka lived in a big red pine for nine days in our Temagami story – here, near the community of Scotia, Julia lived in a tall redwood named Luna for two years! You can still see that survivor tree, graceful amidst the gash of a clearcut, standing like a beacon of justice on a high hillside.
We spent a night with Kay Rudin, her son Clovis and friend Rex, in an old recycled playboy mansion bursting with artifacts and memories from the years of redwoods’ activism. I’m always intrigued to meet another K, as I don’t meet many, and this woman – film-maker, activist, clown, artist – is a fine example of someone I’m proud to share my name with.
She shared with us her early edit of a documentary about her friend Judi Bari, who, along with Darryl Cherney barely survived a bomb explosion in her car on the eve of Redwood Summer. Much of the footage in the doc is from an interview with her as Judi lay dying of cancer in the late 90s. Watching this woman from earlier footage as she stands up to the liquidators and inspires the warriors, you know that it is a great tragedy that she died so young, in her forties, as she had the spirit and power to connect and convince. We need people like her and they so often go too fast.
It is noticeable how many women have been involved in the protection of these redwood groves. Many of the groves were preserved by women’s garden clubs early in the last century – the early activists of the Save the Redwoods League – or by the wives of forest barons to honour their husbands when they died. Their husbands may have been supporting their families by making money off the incredible amount of lumber these large woody mammoths provided, but their wives seemed to realize that the protection of these forests was more important for the future of their children and grandchildren.
To try to catch up to what has happened here, I’ve been reading Joan Dunning’s captivating book, “From the Redwood Forest”. It’s giving me the history of the struggle to protect forests throughout the area, the history of the local logging industry, some natural history of the redwood forests, and the author’s personal experiences amongst these gentle glorious giants.
But there is nothing like wandering through the silent groves, touching the thick soft bark that becomes a sponge in this rain, leaning back until you almost topple over just trying to see the tops (something that is generally impossible), recognizing faces in the burls that bubble like facial moles on the trunks, being awestruck each time you think you’ve seen the biggest tree yet.
That happened for us in the Stout Grove close to this cabin. Laurie and I, meandering slowly through this old growth redwood grove, with the first drops of rain landing gently on our cheeks, turned a corner in the path and knew we were in the presence of a great-great-great-grandmother. I was so moved by the survival of this beauty, who must be one of those who has endured close to 2000 years that I had to implore the “youth” in the forest to hold on and follow the example of this wise abuela.
Keep growing. Stand tall. Continue to prosper in your communal embrace with each other. If you don’t succumb to the forces of nature, perhaps those who stand in awe at your base will manage to keep the forces of societal greed, corporate evil and governmental stupidity at bay. Hopefully you will stay safe.
Heed the grandmother for as long as you are able.