The Wisdom of the Redwood
The timeline on the redwood cross section said it had been born when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power, around 100 A.D. I was standing in front of a 30-foot-wide tree trunk in the Northern Californian logging town of Fort Bragg.
Tiny little monkey brains, like mine, find it difficult to comprehend what it might mean to live that long. This tree was older than the Catholic Church, one of humanity's oldest uninterrupted power structures. It was 9 times older than the United States. During its lifetime, countless empires rose and fell. A dark age came and went. The Magna Carta was written, providing the foundation for western law. The Scientific Method was born, revolutionizing human existence. 50 generations of humans lived and died, all within the lifetime of that one tree.
Then, about a hundred years before its second millennium birthday, loggers cut it down. When it fell, it probably weighed in excess of 2,000 tons, or more than 13 blue whales, the largest animals in the world. Based on its weight, it would have produced in excess of 1.67 million board feet of prime lumber. That's a huge amount of house frames, roofs, and decks.
To better understand redwoods and the local logging industry that cut giants like this down, I took the Skunk Train from Fort Bragg up through the Noyo River valley. The Skunk Train used to carry logged redwoods, but when that industry collapsed, it started carrying tourists. As we chugged up through the valley, the train engineer shared an inspiring story.
In the past 100 years, the valley had been clear-cut for agriculture on 3 separate occasions. Despite this fact, it was covered in lush redwoods and other vegetation.
As it turned out, there were actually more redwoods today than there were when humans first started harvesting them. This was due to the unique root structure of redwood trees, which rapidly sprout seedlings. These seedlings can grow a foot a year. As a result, within a couple of decades the cleared land had been completely overgrown. The only place that survived this relentless onslaught was an orchard where the owner dynamited the entire forest floor to break up the redwood roots.
Even if there are more redwoods today than there were 100 years ago, it seems wrong to think of these trees as mere commodities, when they should be national treasures or even elders. In a day and age when people are focused on quarterly profits, it seems that we could benefit from the 2,000-year perspective that redwoods can give us.
Who knows though, maybe humans will change their attitudes towards the natural world and today's saplings will be around in two millennia. Maybe humans will even navigate these unprecedented times and gather in the groves of these elders, to contemplate the endurance of their own civilizations. Then maybe, just maybe, they will appreciate the 2,000 year perspective that these plant teachers provide.
Donovan Rittenbach is the Web Manager for the California Academy of Sciences. He has a Master's Degree in Multimedia, and 12 years of web & multimedia industry experience.Tags: kqed, kqedquest, QUEST, Science