We Know So Little: 008

Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

Take the giant sequoia. First, a story: There was a time when no one believed that trees of this scope could exist, impossibilities only of the delusional. In 1852, Augustus T. Dowd documented a massive sequoia that stretched nearly 330 feet tall with a girth of over 90 feet, naming it Mother of the Forest. Dowd was fixated by the way it sprawled into the heavens: there, in the heart of the Sierra Nevadas, these trees grew undisturbed, otherworld spears from the earth that reached up, and up, and up. No one back East, he knew—back in “society”—would believe the story, or even a photograph. So he and his men set out removing its bark, surgically peeling it off in two-by-five foot strips, 116 feet up its trunk, leaving only the doughy, springy cambium baring, figuring—only then—they had enough. He’d send the samples back to New York to be aged—determined, then, to be 2,520 years old—and reassembled in the shape of a tree—a hollow, phantom tree—on display in a city museum. The public ate it up: these trees were proof of God’s existence, surely. But the Mother of the Forest…see, without the bark, its literal flesh, it was prone to disease and infection and within a few years, it was dead. Trees, especially, are an enigma to us: they grow so slowly, take lifetimes to mature. (There is, yet, a linden tree in our childhood backyard, planted in fifth grade, that’s only slightly taller than we are, after all these years.) But, do you know what we know now about trees? There is no evidence of neurons within their makeup, and yet: they protect their young seedlings and regulate their growth. They cooperate with fungi in the rich-black humus of the forest floor to create vast neural networks that contain eternities of knowledge and experience. It’s even believed that trees store some form of memories in their root tips, so when a trunk is destroyed, the tree’s being may yet live on, deep underground, waiting, perhaps—waiting. The plan, eventually, for the Mother of the Forest, was to carve a massive spiral staircase/watchtower into its leftover trunk, imagining a view of the whole forest beyond. But in 1908, a fire spread, engulfed the trunk, charring it black. Likewise, the Mother’s bark, paraded around the globe, deconstructed and put back together, this time in London, was destroyed by a rogue fire, cursed, perhaps, fated to be the property of no one. Trees may not have nerve cells, no, but research has shown they react to stress, that they, in their own way, feel and understand the world. This is it, this is the whole thing: we just don’t know, do we? Sequoias, black cherry in your backyard, a park down the street flush with chestnut and silver maple, a magnificent sycamore outside your office window—trees will outlive us all, and suddenly granting them cognizance, some inner life, is a frightening prospect. You think of the branches you ripped from trees and the leaves plucked out for fun, all the initials you carved, all the hurt, all of it. Oh, the sorrow swells, your head spins—you can’t go back, you can’t, so where do you go? Well, imagine this perfect place, this grove of sequoia: both chancel and nave at once, flush with the scent of pencil shavings, soft and evergreen, slightly sweet-sour. It’s a temple, a cathedral. You’re hiking a worn trail, surrounded by these titans spared from ecological violence. The wind is slight and warm along your cheeks. Birds call out up above, and the sky, the color of mottled-raw turquoise, is clear and promising. Here’s where you go, then: you recognize this place is alive in a way you can never fully realize, that the world moves in frequencies we’ll never fully understand. See, it’s funny: how often we talk of wishing magic were real, wondering whether giants ever walked the earth, if fantastical creatures who spoke in unknowable languages once roamed, but here in these colossal, magnificent forests of the Sierra Nevadas, under a hopeful cradle of divine woodland chaplains, we have the answer: God almighty, they’ve been here all along. — Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find his illustrations and writing at robertjamesrussell.com, or on Twitter/Instagram at @robhollywood. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.