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Size matters

February 1, 2014

It is an age-old philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

One thing is for sure; although there was no one within a mile’s earshot when the Dyerville Giant toppled in a storm in March 1991, the nearest neighbour thought he’d heard a train wreck. At 360 feet tall, and weighing an estimated 450 tonnes, the 1,600 year old redwood was the oldest and biggest in the Humboldt forest, Oregon, when it crashed to the ground, and the enormous impact it made on its surroundings can still be seen 20 years on. Stretching in a 40 mile strip from southern Oregon to southern Monterey county in California, the Coast Redwood can survive flood and fire, and centuries of history, supporting countless species and an ecosystem unrivalled in fecundity anywhere in the world. But, eventually and inevitably, even these majestic creatures must come to an end. And thankfully there’s no shortage of others to take their place.

It is on a damp fog-filled January morning that we find ourselves, necks craned, staring up at these gravity-defying behemoths, struggling to take in their enormity, barely able to see the top of the canopy. You literally cannot see the wood for the trees as each giant competes for space, shoots and burrs twisting off at odd angles, struggling for survival.

Ever since he was a child and given a picture book on the natural wonders of the world, my husband has hankered to see these trees – and one in particular. Thankfully, not the one that fell, but the Chandelier (or ‘drive-thru’) Tree, so called because of its unusual outstretched branches, and made famous by the six by nine foot hole carved through the middle, through which countless vehicles have been driven – and got stuck in – since the 1940s when an enterprising local decided to turn the majestic giant into a tourist attraction, as if it wasn’t already spectacle enough.

Remarkably, losing half its base has done the tree no harm at all, and it’s still going strong, scraping paint off wing mirrors and bumpers over 70 years later. The image inspired our 2,000 mile road trip from California to Washington State, to see these amazing trees, in the temperate rainforest of Oregon. We’ve crossed desert and highway, beach and city, thankful we chose the west coast of this vast nation as the rest of the country is gripped in a sub-zero polar vortex whilst we’ve been sunning ourselves in shorts and t-shirts.

Not that our vehicle will go through the tree. We’ve hired a 12 foot tall, 25 foot long motorhome for the journey, and I’m not sure I would be confident in taking any American car through the well-chiselled gap, and sympathise with those sweating drivers who do, urged on by grinning onlookers, ready with video camera and a gleeful smile when it all goes inevitable.

The Chandelier Tree is impressive, a giant standing regal in its own clearing, dwarfing (from the top of its own micro-climate) everything in its surroundings. But it’s actually when you see several together (even when they’re smaller) that you truly appreciate the wonder of these millennial old trees. Jostling for space and sunlight, roots intertwined and a million species relying on them for survival, these communities of trees depend upon each other, and when one goes, often a domino effect is produced – as happened with the Dyerville, which was the third to fall in a week of waterlogged weather.

But a tree falling doesn’t mark its demise – merely a change in function – as the ‘logs’ as they are then known provide a nursery for other species for up to four centuries before finally rotting into the forest floor. Space to breathe is provided for the lesser, almost dormant, surrounding trees, in order for more giants to emerge. The overall effect is one of a harmonious, peaceful existence, through centuries of history. And as long as they’re protected from that most dangerous species, humans, they’re apt to stick around for another 2,000 years.

These trees owe their longevity in no small way to a group of pioneering men who in 1917 formed a protective league to guard the forests against the loggers who were clearing vast swathes of the countryside. Their foresight is the reason we, and hundreds of thousands of other travellers, come here each year, to experience a feeling of insignificance unrivalled by any other natural phenomena, and to marvel at how amazing nature can be, if left undisturbed.

The rainforest isn’t the only amazing sight we’ve seen on this trip. Having picked up our motorhome in San Diego, and quickly realised that driving downtown was no fun at all, we decided to head away from the coast, and the sprawling urban mass that is Los Angeles, and head into the Mojave Desert, destination Joshua Tree. The vast empty space we found was not done justice by the map – in comparison to Death Valley, Yosemite and Yellowstone, this national park is tiny, but still takes a day to drive through, and considerably more when you’re given to gawp, window rolled down for pictures, at every turn in the road. The Joshua Tree is a hardy plant, ludicrously sharp to the touch, surviving on millimetres of water each year, and quite unlike any other cacti or bush. You don’t see them until you get into the northernmost reaches of the park, but as soon as you spot the first, they’re everywhere. If you’re here on a U2 pilgrimage (the band’s fifth album cover featured a tree and was named after it) you won’t Find What You’re Looking For – the tree itself has since collapsed, and was in any event located 200 miles further north, in Death Valley.

But that’s of little consequence. As with the rainforest, it’s the trees that are the star of the show, and the vast, virtually uninhabited environment they survive in. Not able to camp in one of the dozen or so full-up camping grounds in the actual park, we headed beyond the strip mall that is the town itself to a place the park rangers informed us was designated as an ‘overflow’ for ill-prepared RV’ers such as ourselves. If we’d expected a car park, we were amazed to find a desert, literally – the asphalt gives way to a dirt track, the telegraph poles stop, a solar farm is the only landmark for miles but the street sign says ‘Sunflower Road’ and it is here, amongst brush and bush, that the helpful town planners allow us to park – for as long as we want, presumably – without being bothered. As night falls we are joined (at a respectable distance) by three other campervans, but otherwise our view of mile upon mile of deserty scrub is uninhibited, and when I wake at three in the morning it is probably because my ears aren’t used to such silence. As with the redwoods, this is nature played out in XXL, and normal rules don’t apply.

Throughout the trip, the same pattern keeps on recurring – cities, highways, are all just bigger. There also seems to be more time. In this wide open space it’s easy to sit back and reflect, to admire all that’s before you, and imagine how little must have changed to the landscape over the centuries. Each day we pack up the camper and set off anew, ready for whatever bigger and better adventure is ahead. Our end destination is Seattle, and to get to which we must drive through the industrial town of Rainier, a logging port, and it is here that our tree-themed journey takes a different turn, and we see exactly the extent to which times have changed from the isolated and protected pockets of the country we have experienced in forest and desert.

America is big, and to sustain its growth, it needs materials. We drive past mile after mile of log mountains, chippings, sheets and boards. Ships wait patiently as their gunnels sag under the weight of their gigantic loads, and overalled men in machinery efficiently process this vast industry, on its way to make buildings and paper. Nature has its place, but the life it sustains has its cost, and although these trees are farmed for the purpose, the sight is sobering.

Whether or not the great Dyerville made a sound when it fell, its legacy lives on, and in death as well as life it continues to inspire.

Whether these natural wonders of the world will continue to be here in another thousand years or more is not for us to know. If our relentless pursuit of bigger and better continues, the biggest and best parts of the world may start to suffer. But hopefully there will continue to be groups of people (even just tourists like ourselves) who feel compelled to halt progress, protect their environments, and ensure these amazing landscapes stay on the map for years to come. That’s perhaps the biggest – and best – challenge of all.

 

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One Comment
  1. At least the Chandelier tree is the best looking of the 3 drive through Coast Redwoods. The Shrine tree is hanging on by a thread, and is less than 130 feet tall.

    Ciao, M. D. Vaden / http://www.mdvaden.com/redwoods.shtml

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