Excerpt from “Song of the Redwood Tree”We look and look, but we do not see the trees. There is no place to stand to see an entire redwood. For hours we crane our necks, peering into the sky where the trees disappear from sight. We circle their behemoth trunks, stupefied. We are underwater. The light on the forest floor is murky, greenish, yet freighted with clarity. There is levity to our steps on the spongy duff. We are walking on the ocean floor. “The forest canopy is the earth’s secret ocean,” writes Richard Preston in The Wild Trees. Hundreds of feet above us, the trees collect fog from the air. Their canopies are like root systems reaching into the sky. They seem as distant as the stars from where we stand in our green-tinged seafloor environment. The trees reach into the earth and into heaven, drinking, drinking. We are blind to the work of the roots under our feet, to the slow constant pull, to the enormous suck, the seep of water upward, unceasing for centuries.
“You really can’t tell much about what’s happening in a forest from the ground,” says noted redwood expert Steve Sillett in 2009 National Geographic documentary titled Climbing Redwood Giants. So true. From the ground, we do not see the life that teems within the canopies hundreds of feet above us; we never glimpse, for example, the salamanders that live their whole lives in trees without once touching the ground. We do not see the epiphytes, fifty-plus species of mites, copepods, earthworms, bumblebees, huckleberries, lichens, voles, rhododendrons, currant and elderberry bushes, or the bonsai groves of California laurel, western hemlock, Douglas fir, tan oak, Sitka spruce, and buckthorn that perch atop the sprawling canopies that are like land masses held aloft in the sky. The canopies of the world’s forests, I learn, contain half of nature’s species. The scientists who rappel themselves into the trees, scaling redwood trunks like the faces of sheer cliffs, go into this undiscovered country. And they see.
Science has other ways of seeing. Researchers peer at the redwoods through microscopes, poring over cellulose, lichens, the structure of shrimp found snarled in trees hundreds of feet above sea level. They fly over the forests in twin-engine planes, using LIDAR, light detection and ranging, to create highly detailed maps of the topography of redwood forests, determining the heights of the tallest trees from the air. Dendrochronologists squint at great slabs of redwood cross sections, peering at the rings, counting, seeking out minute differences in annual growth. All of these are ways of seeing. And all ways glimpse only pieces of the whole.
To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.