Hugging an Ancient Tree
March 14, 2011
It is absolutely true. I have become a tree hugger. As in I hugged a tree. But not just any tree. In fact I have hugged one of the oldest trees on the planet!
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days in California. Now I will tell you the truth California is not my favorite place to visit, and I most likely would not have gone out there except that I needed to attend a training session. But I had need to learn some new skills so I packed my bags and went to visit the lands where there are fruits and nuts.
My destination was Porterville, about three hours north of Los Angeles, in what Californians refer to as The Valley. Years ago I was at a writer’s conference and Gwen Petersen (The Sow’s Ear), was on hand. She did a poem for us called “Valley Girls” and as I drove down a winding stretch of highway that I later learned had the local name “The Grapevine” and descended into The Valley, all I could think about was Gwen’s poem. If you have heard it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, by all means find a place where Gwen will be reciting and ask her to do that poem.
Anyway, The Grapevine spits you out into a flat country filled with grapevines, signs for vineyards, and ultimately Bakersfield. Now to me that town symbolizes Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakum, but I didn’t see any country stars roaming the streets. Outside town oil pump jacks rhythmically bounced up and down in a ritualistic way.
Before long the four-lane highway choked down to two, and became more curvaceous. The pump jacks gave way to orange and lemon groves and then the medium sized town of Porterville.
I’d come here to do some work with folks from the Giant Sequoia National Forest and class started early the next morning. We spent the morning and early afternoon sequestered in a windowless room (no wonder federal employees are sometimes inefficient … With no opportunity to gaze out windows to watch the rain storms moving down The Valley, or to see the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the East would be depressing and make me inefficient, too.)
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Finally at mid-afternoon our “teachers” released us and like kids on holiday we piled into vehicles and headed for the mountains and more specifically toward Belknap Campground in Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Following the Tule River, we stopped at a couple of day use areas, before winding up and up into the mountains. Our driver was a Forest Service employee who clearly loves this place. She spends free time horsepacking, following trails, enjoying all that this majestic landscape has to offer.
Since it was February much of the Giant Sequoia National Monument was not really accessible due to deep snow in the high country, but we had already learned that there are 33 Giant Sequoia groves on this land, the most of any area in the world. It was those 33 groves that led then-president Bill Clinton to set the land aside as a National Monument in 2000.
After more than an hour we reached the grove at Belknap Campground. It was late in the day and the sun was already low in the sky when we climbed from the pickup to gaze in awe – actually in rapture – at the Giant Sequoias. They are magnificent, so much larger than anything I’d ever seen before. I walked up to one and hugged it. Really! I put my arms around it and squeezed as hard as I could. Well, I didn’t actually put my arms around it all the way because this tree was so massive my outstretched arms reached only a tiny way around it. There were seven people in our group and even if we had all joined hands and attempted to hug the tree our grasp would not have been large enough.
And after hugging it and looking closely at the bark, which seemed reddish and spongy to the touch, I, like the others I was with, sat down in a small chair formed by the big, old tree. Of course, I had my photo taken beside one of the burn marks on the tree (these ancient trees survive by fire).
One of the women I was with, called the rest of us over to a tree she was inspecting. “Listen,” she said, pulling her head from a crevice made by the burning of the tree she stood beside. I did and the sound was a quiet whispering. It appeared that the tree was breathing, or talking very softly. I’m not making this up! It was an incredible experience.
Later I asked the Forest Service guide who was with us how old the tree I’d hugged might be and she told me, “probably 1,500 to 2,000 years old.” Oh my gosh! That is almost unfathomable to think this big tree might have been a baby tree about the time of Christ’s birth. She told us the Giant Sequoias are the oldest living plants on the planet.
Now that I’ve hugged one, I certainly want to see all of those that survive in the 33 groves of Giant Sequoia National Monument and others on the Giant Sequoia National Forest or in Giant Sequoia National Park preserved and cared for. Our lifespan is but a blip on the radar of these trees, but boy howdy, is it cool to touch them and look up into their branches so far above your head, spilling sunshine down to a forest floor that is primeval and spiritual.
On the drive back to LA four days later, I called a friend who lives in Burbank. When I told him where I’d been, he said, “Yes, I go up there as often as I can. That place is my church.”
And I can certainly understand why he feels that way.