The Big Trees

Two-thirty in the morning, awake, paralyzed with pain. I turned on the TV for distraction. Counting the minutes until my next morphine dose. This went badly.

Me: Hey it’s been four hours since my last dose, can I have my morphine now?

Nurse: I already gave you your morphine. You need to wait four more hours.

Me: Did you steal my morphine? You stole my morphine.

A sleepless night. In 1995, no cell phones yet to kill time. I watched the 1952 movie The Big Trees staring Kirk Douglas. The volume so low, I could barely hear. My first night out of the ICU following a bicycle accident. My roommate snored behind a curtain. I didn’t want to wake him. My brain groggy and scrambled from impact, I tried to follow the plot.

A do-gooder woman played by Eve Miller begged a logging company to spare the giant sequoias. Based on my memory, she did some math to convince them. She proved a higher return on profit when cutting smaller trees. The movie was insanely boring. Kirk Douglas hated it. I endured a miserable night.

The Big Trees—not sure why I still remember this, but Eve’s character spoke poetically, reverently about the trees, as though they have souls. This mindset was outside of my experience. Soon, I would take trips to the desert and develop this relationship with rocks. Trees never captured my imagination. Until yesterday. Now I understand what she felt.

We spent the afternoon in Jedediah Smith State Park. I hoped for a longish hike, maybe the Boy Scout Tree Trail. A moderately difficult five-mile out and back, the destination, a massive redwood ‘discovered’ by a boy scout on an outing with his troop. We got into the park late. A slow morning: we slept in, had a lazy coffee hour, ate a café breakfast, inefficiently gathered our necessities, became confused about where to find the visitors center. We didn’t start hiking until two o’clock.

We settled for the short Grove of Titans trail and the even shorter Simpson-Reed trail. Four miles of walking on groomed paths, one actually wheelchair accessible. Not the rugged fitness adventure I hoped for. I couldn’t be happier.

The easy hiking freed me up to gawk at the trees. God! What trees! Each one more astounding than the last. So huge, they’re almost incomprehensible. These trees, some of them, were already growing when Jesus was born. The Grove of Titans, the iconic, must-hike trail in the park, meandered along a dirt and boardwalk path, leading from one giant tree to the next. Fifteen-foot-high walls—fallen trees—established the trail boundary in some places. Each time we noticed the next massive tree down the path, we let out audible gasps. The only downside was the crowd. For a family from central Pennsylvania, where most hikes never cross paths with other people, encountering intermittent groups of two to five people detracted from the magic.

After an ice cream snack from McDonald’s—this area doesn’t seem to have any real ice cream shops which are a mandatory daily stop on our family vacations—we moved on to the Simpson-Reed trail. This comparatively lightly-hiked trail wound through an old-growth forest with six-foot ferns, mossy stream beds and three-hundred-foot trees. I kept expecting to see dinosaurs as I rounded bends in the trail. Instead, we saw trees even bigger than at the Grove of Titans. One, possibly the largest in the park, I attempted to measure. I counted the number of arm-spans I could reach to circumnavigate the tree. Fourteen. At a conservative five and a half feet each, the tree’s circumference measured seventy-seven feet.

Susan googled facts. “Redwoods can weigh up to twelve-million pounds.”

Thinking back to the movie, I honestly can’t imagine someone harvesting one of these trees for lumber. It would be lucrative for sure, but each tree cut down would be like killing a supernatural being. In every tree, I imagine a personality, a soul. The only other time I encountered this feeling was among the rock formations at Arches National Park in Utah. These trees, those rocks, gods-incarnate. For a non-religious person like me, the Simpson-Reed trail served as a spiritual experience. Strolling among these giants became the highlight of an already wonderful trip.

26 thoughts on “The Big Trees

  1. Yay!!! I didn’t want to hype them too much, but I’m so happy to read that you felt the Magic of the Trees!!🥳💃🏼
    So many were lost during the fires, even though they’re very adapted to fire. It makes the ones we still have more important to preserve and protect.
    With all the other plants around too… it really does feel like time stands still. It’s incredible to think of all the human history these trees have lived through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think your whole family would love the redwoods. We’re staying on the beach, but at least this time of year, it definitely isn’t ‘beach weather’. We’ve been doing beach combing and tide pooling in multiple layers.

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  2. We saw sequoia trees at KIngs Canyon/Sequoia National Park on a family vacation years ago—they were remarkable. Yosemite was close by so we stopped there also. My husband always preferred outdoorsy vacations. Sounds like you are having a great vacation.

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    • The trees were really cool. A few days ago we went to an Oregon redwood forest. The trees were much smaller but the hiking was beautiful. Really enjoyed this vacation. Tomorrow is the last day. 😢

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  3. In Māori culture, there is a concept of mauri (life force/essence) which is an expression of what you experienced. Mauri can be defined as a life principle, life force, vital essence, special nature, a material symbol of a life principle, source of emotions – the essential quality and vitality of a being or entity. Also used for a physical object, individual, ecosystem or social group in which this essence is located.

    I’m not Māori (although my grandchildren are) but over the decades I find I have less of tie to traditional Eurocentric (western) values and interpretation of experiences and more to one aligned with that might be described as animist or pagan. I experience that reverence not just with specific items of nature, but with entire ecosystems as well.

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    • Oops, sorry for the delay. Getting home and returning to life was hectic. I suppose the Maori would feel this life force in all trees. Sad that I can only feel this when trees reach a certain diameter. Personally, I’d find it almost impossible not to Anthropomorph these trees (might have made up a word usage there).

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      • My understanding, and to a lesser extent, experience, is that everything – animal, vegetable, mineral – contains a life force or mauri. How it manifests itself and how humans experience it depends on many factors.

        I think you used anthropomorph correctly, but I don’t view mauri as the assignment of human traits/qualities to other things. Instead, I understand mauri refers to a commonality, an essence, that all things share. In one sense it’s Anthropomorphism in reverse. It’s the peeling away of the uniqueness of each being/thing until we find what we have in common. That’s my personal interpretation, and what I experience. I feel this more strongly with an entire micro-ecosystem instead of with individual components of that system.

        But having said that, very occasionally I do find myself anthropomorphising particular items of nature, and trees are no exception. There’s the remnants of a lowland/wetland forest just a few minutes drive from our home, and many of the trees it contains grew up in an environment where there were no terrestrial mammals. Until the Māori arrived around 800 years ago, bringing with them the dog and rat, the only land mammals here were three species of microbats. Since the arrival of European settlers from the early nineteenth century, mammalian predators of both animal and plant life have have been wreaking havoc on indigenous animal and plant life. Of the the ancient trees in the forest I mentioned, most are now dead, merely “skeletons” devoid of bark and leaves, and will eventually topple. I can almost feel the pain of the remaining ancient trees. I think of them as feeling sad, resigned to the same fate.

        Thankfully there is now a concerted effort to eradicate all non-indigenous plant and animal life from the forest in order for it to be able to regenerate itself. Without human intervention, the forest would not have survived more than a few more decades at the most.

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    • Oops, sorry for the delay. Getting home and returning to life was hectic. It’s a really nice area. I encourage a visit for sure. Have all 5 of you ever taken a fly-away vacation. I find it hard, even with teenage/adult children.

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  4. Yay! Happy you got there and from the title of this post, was hoping for some good tree action. We got to this park 10 years ago on one of our best family road trips, that was the southern end to a loop we did from Seattle. Thanks for sharing Jeff and good job.

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  5. What a stunning photograph. I am glad that the morphine/ hospital stay is in your past; you had me worried for a minute there with this opening! So glad you are all enjoying this trip. : )

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    • Oops, sorry for the delay. Getting home and returning to life was hectic. You’re right… With my history, I probably had everyone thinking I was back in the hospital. It’s all done now and I’m back at work. Thank god I have a 3 day weekend coming up for recovery.

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    • Earth *is* a magnificent place… Except the first thing my father said when he saw that big tree photo is “well, they’re all dying now.” He’s probably right. I Know death is part of life, but it really bums me out that we’re killing everything.

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