Redwoods Are the Bluebloods of the Vegetable World
Robert Lindsey wrote on the north, Frank Prial on the wine country, and I on the redwoods. I've discovered this isn't on the New York Times archive website, which must have something to do with digital approvals. I've written to their electronic editors to make sure this piece is included - but received no reply. So to correct the omission, here's the article that ran --with a couple of updates in [ ] s. I loved researching this article, including a gorgeous February meander up the north coast. At the time, my grandmother was fighting her last in Grants Pass, at the northern end of redwood country, and had a chance to speak with her one last time from a payphone under the calming canopy of these trees. She remembered the redwood Christmas tree in their house, lit with candles in the 1920s, as well as the one-eyed fiddler on the redwood porch in Galice, along the Rogue River.
For the first time I sent in an article via modem, instead of U.S. Post. It was very strange to get a call from the editor within minutes of sending it, instead of a couple of days later. It seemed more akin to radio at the time. Part of the fun of writing this piece was to think up images that New Yorkers might recognize. --ST
From The New York Times, Sunday March, 3, 1985
Cover article, Travel Section, pages 14-16
Photos by Robert Dawson [ http://www.RobertDawson.com ]
In the Redwood Empire --
A 60-mile-long strip of the Pacific Coast preserves some of the finest stands of the great trees
by Sedgefield Thomson
Redwoods are the blue bloods of the vegetable world. These venerable trees thrive in groves along California's North Coast in a region of thick summer mists. Some redwoods are as much as 360 feet tall, 1,200 years old and 20 feet in diameter. But the facts do not prepare you for an audience with these trees. The thrill of seeing them is a bit like turning onto Sixth Avenue for the first time and gazing down the row of skyscrapers.
One of your first impulses may be to compare your size to a redwood. About half a dozen of your friends would have to join hands with you to reach around some of the old redwoods, And 50 friends would have to stand like acrobats in a daredevil tower to lift you near the tops.
Two trees are called redwoods in California and they grow in different parts of the state. The coast redwood is the one renowned for its height. Botanists identify this species as Sequoia sempervirens, or ever-living, because it regenerates from its wide-spread root system and stump. The Big Tree, or Sequoiadendron giganteum, which grows in the Sierra Nevada along the eastern edge of the state, is known for its girth.
Groves of coast redwoods stand as far south of San Francisco as Big Sur and as far north as southern Oregon in a band that is rarely more than 40 miles wide. Here summer fogs shelter the trees; too much sunlight would dry them out. Most of the 450-mile-long belt of redwoods extends through five counties north of San Francisco: Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte [and into Jefferson and Josephine counties in Oregon]. Local chambers of commerce advertise this country as the Redwood Empire.
Near Eureka and Crescent City you can walk in redwood forests that have been growing since the last Ice Age. Clumps of sword fern thrive in the dark forests. In the shade under the dominating redwood grow other ancient plants: redwood sorrel, moss, brilliant rhododendrons and Western azaleas. The oldest coast redwood yet examined lived 2,200 years, although these trees average merely 700 to 1,200 years of life.
One reason redwoods live so long is that they often survive fires that destroy other plants and trees. The resinless bark protects the tree like an asbestos shield. Black scars on living trees expose a history of ancient fires endured. One tree, when its rings were counted, showed signs of fire in 1147, 1595, 1789, 1806 and 1820. This redwood fell in March 1933, and a slice of it survives on view at Richardson Grove State Park, nine miles south of Garberville, Humboldt Country.
Such round slices of trees are displayed throughout the redwood country Some exhibitors illustrate the age of the trees by painting certain tree rings white to mark historic events that occurred during the life of the tree, such as the battle of Hastings, Columbus's discovery of America and Lincoln's birth. My grandfather [a surgeon and botanist] once enthralled a busload of tourists in Muir Woods with a deadpan description of the redwood's ESP. He explained [in lucid scientific jargon] that the tree produces a thin white ring whenever there is a significant event in history. The visitors nodded gravely until my aunt giggled and gave the game away.
Touch the corrugated bark, which can be a foot thick, and rub off a few of the delicate fibers, which are colored as if dyed in a mixture of paprika and nutmeg. Smell the decay of the spongy redwood forest floor and the pungent scent of the trees Listen for the birds in the canopy of the trees and notice that the woods are quieter than you might expect. Redwood is resistant to insects, so there are fewer bugs and, therefore, fewer birds than in fir or oak forests. The soft duff of the forest floor absorbs sound in the decaying needles, leaves and flowers. Needles the length of fingernails grow in dark green sprays and feel like a stiff broom. Cones the size of malted milk balls often grow out of sight near the tops of the trees.
Most of the animals – black bears, foxes, raccoons, black-tailed deer and elk – live nearby along riverbanks and in meadows, where they find more food and light. Herds of Roosevelt elk inhabit Prairie Creek State Park and careful observers spot them grazing in distant meadows. A short-range broadcast reports on the elk and can be picked up on a car radio within a mile at 1610 AM.
If you want to experience the mild, wet winters the trees require, travel anytime from November to March. Between storms, the winter brings the clearest days of the year. The wildflowers, rhododendrons and azaleas bloom in soft pinks and whites during April, May and June. By late spring the days become foggy or overcast near the coast, but without the muggy heat typical of East Coast cities. Inland, just a few miles, days may be hot and sunny, so garb yourself in shorts and T-shirts. But as you drive a few miles west in the fog belt, temperatures drop into the 40s and you'll need to grab a parka. September and October are months of clear days and fall foliage.
Several groves are easily accessible by highway. The Avenue of the Giants is a 33-mile stretch of road left behind when the four-lane Highway 101 was built. It is now an alternate route passing through some of the choicest redwood forests of the north coast and wayside villages trading off the tree-seekers.
Frederick Law Olmsted, son of the designer of Central Park, joined the campaign to protect the redwoods in the late 1920s. In response to pressure from commercial loggers to cut the prized redwood he drew up plans for state parks. Among the most splendid stands that were preserved by the state are Founders Grove in Rockefeller Forest of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Today, mills are operated right up to the park borders.
Redwood National Park encompasses Tall Trees Grove, along Redwood Creek, and in the summer a shuttle bus totes you to a stop that is a 1.3 mile walk from the tallest tree in the world which stands 367.8feet high. By way of comparison, the Plaza Hotel in New York is about 350 feet tall.
Trails cross flat and gently rolling forest floor. Ambitious hikers looking for rugged terrain will find it in the coastal mountains. State park maps rate the ease of the various trails and also warn where poison oak may grow. Keep in mind that the center of the redwoods, northwest of Garberville, is also a region of hidden marijuana farms. The weed is the largest cash crop on the north coast and hikers have reported unpleasant encounters with the growers.
Park rangers are knowledgeable guides to the natural curiosities. Nature programs, interpretive exhibit and visitor's centers abound throughout the redwoods and make good diversions on drippy days. Especially large specimens are singled out in certain groves, in effect helping the visitor to see the trees for the forest.
A visitor to San Francisco who wants to taste the wild redwoods and be back in town for dinner and a show can hail a cab. Muir Woods National Monument is only 17 miles northwest of San Francisco. Although the climate is drier than in the old stands farther north and the trees are only 200 to 250 feet tall, the woods still feel dark, damp and mysterious. A taxi ride from San Francisco Muir Woods can be arranged at $30 to $40 round trip. [$90-$120 in 2011]( Make sure you tell the cabby Muir Woods and not Redwood City, which is a residential area south of San Francisco.) Plan to spend at least an hour walking the trails. Brochures printed in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, French, Russian and English explain the history and the ecosystem of the redwood forest. Wheelchairs are available. No picnicking or camping is allowed here, and the gates close at sunset.
Jack London lamented the locomotive as “that ruthless invader of paradise,” puffing its way into the forest. The railroads that brought settlers and loggers in the early 20th century today carry tourists. The Skunk Line runs 40 winding miles between Willits, in the hot inland country, and Fort Bragg, on the fog-damp coast. Passenger service on another line between Willits and Eureka resumes Memorial Day weekend after a 14-year hiatus. The seven-hour trip will follow the Eel River through beautiful redwood country inaccessible by car. [As of 1991 this latter route is apparently no longer functioning, as nature, through earthquakes, slides, and oxidation, made the tracks impassable.]
Guides offer fishing, rafting and other scenic trips through this country. The Eel, Klamath, Trinity, Mad, Navarro and Gualala Rivers [and the Rogue River, in Oregon] flow through the redwoods. Salmon and steelhead run in these waters. If you want to try to catch one, you must have a California [or Oregon] fishing license; a 10- day license for non-residents costs $14.25 at tackle shops. [about $45 plus $6 reporting cards in 2011].
The landscape of the redwood forest is other-worldly and photogenic. Don't forget your camera and a wide-angle lens. George Lucas brought his to use in the groves near Eureka and Muir Woods for scenes of the planet of the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi.” Postcards, illustrated calendars and books of photographs are on sale throughout redwoods.
Not all the redwoods are straight and graceful. The trunks of some trees are lumpy from large growth called burls. A burl is budding tissue that swells into distended shapes, weighing up to 50 tons or as small as an apple, giving some trees a gnarled and cronish look. Burls also bulge from the shelves of California souvenir stands. Gift shops thrive in the redwood forests, and they stock small burls to plant in your yard or terrarium to grown your own redwood. A whole cottage industry on the north coast has sprouted from the weirdly-shaped wood. Entrepreneurs sell the sliced and polished burls as wall hangings, coffee tables and, in smaller pieces, as earrings and tie clips.
But these redwood trinkets are small potatoes for loggers who prize the trees as timber. Enormous amounts of straight, light lumber can be sawn from a single tree. Throughout northern California stand buildings constructed from just one redwood, including a church in Santa Rosa built by Ripley of “Believe It or Not” fame A few trees grew big enough for rustics to carve out a cottage within the trunk.
The characteristics that make a redwood ever-lasting also make the lumber ever-lasting. Once it is bucked, hewn, and nailed, it won't rot in fresh water or damp soil, and termites eschew it. The lumber makes good wine barrels, beer vats and California hot tubs.
The most scenic roads are off the interstate, but traffic slows on narrow, two-lane highways in the summer when trains of cars are trapped behind chugging motor homes. When you feel the urge to tailgate, pull off the road and linger in a grove. The trees encourage patience. Put your watch in your pocket and wander in a time older than our clocks, biological or digital, can measure.
There is a side bar on Getting Around the Empire which lists various redwood parks and attractions.