Until I witnessed them up close on a recent visit, California’s giant redwoods had always seemed a bit of a mid-century tourist cliche. My earliest images of them came from dated encyclopedias and brochures depicting smiling families driving 50s-era cars through hollowed out trunks. They seemed more of a gimmick, the stuff of circus attractions, rather than what is arguably one of the natural world’s most impressive acts of creation.
You can still drive under canopies of Redwoods in northern California, but the unseemly act of gouging underpasses through these towering trees is long a thing of the past. And who would want to? Driving through a redwood is hardly the ideal way to appreciate these natural treasures. You need to get out of your car and walk the numerous trails that traverse the coastal parks of Northern California and witness them up close.
Granted, you can only get so close. The largest redwoods tower nearly 400 feet, having been around for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. The oldest known redwood is 2,200 years, alive at the birth of Jesus Christ and probably as close to immortal as any living thing.
Why so high and so old? Nothing overtly divine, but rather an uncanny ability to fight fire and take advantage of the local environment. Tannins in redwood bark provide formidable fire protection and their strategically high foliage minimize insect damage. Combine these with a mild and almost perpetually moist climate and you’ve got the makings of a long and fruitful existence.
Darwinian survival strategies aside, what is impressive about the redwoods is their defiant, commanding benevolence. They have outlived the loggers and developers that cleared 95% of old growth redwood forests, and will likely survive whatever new daggers we hurl at them. They stand over but do not over power the forest, basing their entire existence upon a symbiotic relation with its other life forms. They exemplify the sheer capacity of the natural world and are a powerful reminder of its gift.