Toad in the Hole

June 25, 2006

Those Humboldt Redwoods

One great drive in the week upstate took us from Redcrest on the Avenue of the Giants through part of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park -- arguably the Humboldt Potemkin Forest -- and then over a road that I was interested to see does not appear in our faithful road atlas, through Petrolia and the seaside hills and forests to Arcata. We of course felt obligated to visit the "Champion" redwood, and then its now-fallen neighbor the Flatiron Tree. I suppose this was named for the shape of its cross-section, which is 17 feet in diameter on the wide side and, um, nine? eleven? anyway somewhat less through the narrow transect.

It fell a couple of decades ago. So, evidently, did a number of big trees in that grove; I'll have to go look the event up, but there seemed to be several that were of similar size and age of horizontality.

I'm not saying "death," exactly. Though they're pretty much dead as individuals now, I know this took some time to happen after they fell. Trees are possibly the best dead things on the planet, by which I mean they leave the handsomest, best-aging, most community-minded (not to mention useful to humans, of course) corpses. Looking at a fallen redwood in its natural place, you can almost believe in eternal life.

The biggest tree, still standing, shows a record of some of what it's survived, like fire. It's already supporting other life, too.


Someone's doing canopy studies up there, using the sort of rig they use to study tropical rainforest canopies. (See the New Yorker piece "Climbing the Redwoods" by Richard Preston, Feb. 2005.) They've found whole communities, including life forms new to the rest of us. Along with the red tree vole and the wandering salamander and all, there are copepods up there. A new copepod, and a new earthworm as well. The thought of a nonterrestrial earthworm is weird enough, but what the hell are copepods doing a thousand feet above ground level?

Earthworms. There are earthworms overhead. There are earthworms overhead that no one had named before this. You'd think they'd fall and get found occasionally, but evidently not much. And copepods, they swim! There's enough of a substrate up there in the closed canopy of an old redwood forest to have a consistent habitat of puddles and, um, earth? And for species to evolve and/or persist as relicts. Cripes.

This is another good reason to stop helicopter logging, too.

In its long lifetime, a big redwood charts flows I can see but can't hope to identlfy, quite:


This looks like a burl forming, but that's just my guess.

When they fall, we can read more:


as the bark peels off and the wood weathers and it's all down at eye level now.

And after they've fallen, they still support other lives.

Here's more of that natural grafitti. I think it looks a lot like wavewrack, funny thing:


This is the Flatiron Tree, if I recall correctly, with just the start of colonization happening. As happens with volcanic island colonization, ferns are often the first; there's sorrel too.


This garden growing on a couple yards of tree includes mosses, lichens (not sure if those are visible),sword fern, redwood sorrel, heuchera (see the little white flowers raised above the green?), trillium, and elderberry.


Sometimes the life-and-death thing gets a little stark.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Just by the bye, this is vanilla leaf, a pretty little understory plant whose leaves are supposed to smell of vanilla after they're dried.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

On the fringe of the same forest, on a little slump by a roadcut, a thriving plot of redwood lilies, aka chaparral lilies (per the Peterson guide), Lilium rubescens. The individual flowers start white (and quite sexily fragrant) and age through rose to that deep wine-red. Not the least bit funereal.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Those last few are stashed over at Photobucket, where I have less control over size unless I've missed something. I ran out of free space on Flickr. It looks as if the Kodak gallery doesn't permit blog-linking, but I'll have to re-read that piece of the TOS. If there's another pic host that works like Flickr, I'd be interested in hearing about it. I'm cheap and/or broke, take your pick.

Posted at June 25, 2006 09:54 PM


What a beautiful post, Ron, with simply gorgeous pictures. Thank you.

"Looking at a fallen redwood in its natural place, you can almost believe in eternal life."

The type of eternity I see in a fallen redwood is the only type of eternity in which I have ever been able to believe. Giving and taking without counting. Born in the dust of another, growing together with others, falling and becoming the gently decomposing home to other things newborn -- no seams, no finite boundaries. One long, slow cycle that weaves itself in and out of itself, strand by strand. I think that's sort of what it is to be a redwood, and it's vast.

Posted by: Sara at June 26, 2006 03:05 AM

Thanks, Sara. Me too, about that eternity, at least since I started actually thinking about such stuff.

There's a bit of Buddhist thought that's nicely ilustrated in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. vis a long-held shot of a waterfall. The idea's that we are part of a stream of life; that as we're going over the waterfall we individuate into discrete drops and that's how we know ourselves now; that what happens at the bottom of the fall is that we rejoin the stream, undiminished.

Heck, that's even more or less factual. Couldn't ask for more, in philosophy.

Posted by: Ron at June 26, 2006 07:43 PM

And yet, that very philosophy used to intimidate me so, at least when the metaphor used was something like water. For some reason, seeing it in trees makes it more bearable, and even makes what once terrified me quite wonderful, probably because it's such a slower melding, separating, and remelding.

I have been very, very attached to this incarnation. Fortunately, this is an attachment that seems to lessen with age, and with the loss of other beloved lives. I wonder if that happens for everyone.

Somewhere on my burgeoning Netflix queue is The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Really looking forward to it. Meanwhile, though I'm less grasping of this life than I once was, I do hope I don't become detached from this incarnation before I've watched all the movies on my queue!

Posted by: Sara at June 27, 2006 03:27 AM

Watch that movie and then read the book. In that order, trust me. They're really a whole lot of fun.

Joe and I got to interview Mark Bittner a couple of years ago, and he's as likeable as he comes across in the movie. The parrots are a kick, too, and we've dragged a few people to the park near the financial district in SF where they gather around dusk.

Oh, hey, we have an autographed copy of the hardback and we saw the premiere of the movie, and went to the party on opening night (where we got the book autographed).

Attachment, I don't know. Every time I think I know something about mortality I find out more and revise my thoughts. Death is natural and all, but so is getting really pissed off about it. And so is laughing at yourself for that. Et cetera.

Posted by: Ron at June 27, 2006 05:52 AM