The Trees That Stood the Test of Time

“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.” -John Muir

 

Four years ago around this time of year, I was visiting Sequoia National Park for the first time. It was certainly a life-changing experience for me, an experience that got me interested in the national parks and in learning about sequoia trees.

Giant sequoias are the most fascinating, most miraculous living things I’ve ever seen in real life. The way they are created and the way they live on for thousands of years, facing drought, snow, fire –and today they are still standing, admired by millions.

John Muir described them best. “I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death. Barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all diseases that afflict and kill other trees,” he wrote in a travel journal. “Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.”

As I’ve grown more interested in science, and specifically in the environment and agriculture, I’ve learned that the greatest threat to sequoia trees is people. But we won’t be chopping them down and using their wood, or carving a hole in them so we can drive through — the threat that we’re creating is climate change.

According to a 2013 article by science journalist Bruce Dorminey, sequoias are being threatened by a combination of increased temperatures and diminished snowpack. Nate Stephenson, an ecologist, was quoted in the article saying: “In 100 years time, we could lose most of the big sequoias.”

It’s pretty baffling to me that something as permanent as a sequoia tree — which has lived through centuries, to see countries rise and fall, to see hundreds of snowfalls and fires and everything in between — could be toppled in just one century, not by something like a lightning strike or a disease, as Muir pondered, but by something humans are causing.

And what would Muir himself think? Recently, I’ve been reading John Muir’s My First Summer in the SierraIt’s an incredible thing to read purely for Muir’s elaborate and beautiful descriptions of nature. He had so much admiration for every little aspect of nature — the wind, the sound of a nearby stream, the movements of squirrels, lizards, and birds. He had such an appreciation for the smallest, most seemingly insignificant things, that someone else might not pay attention to, and I think about all the thoughts he surely had about these grand, enormous sequoia trees that are larger than life.

Reading his accounts also made me think about my own writing, and in science journalism, how I might use the appeal to the senses and to human emotion that Muir uses so effortlessly. Maybe writing about nature in this way could drive people to go see these places and work to save them, and make people more aware of the challenges these places face and the challenges that are ahead.

I often scroll through my Twitter feed and see article after article about a new temperature record being broken, raging wildfires, ocean acidification…the list goes on and on. And I’ve heard about these problems so often that they’ve become so familiar. I feel like I could easily explain them to someone I know. That’s the impact journalism has. Sure, it can seem excessive when you keep hearing about the same things related to climate change, but then you’re aware. And it becomes part of common language. And that’s when change can happen.

There is surely much more at stake than just the giant sequoias when it comes to climate change. Yet, it would be heartbreaking to see these trees that have stood the test of time be broken by something that we caused. It gives me hope knowing that it’s a problem many are researching and working on, and that there are dedicated science journalists there covering it along the way.

 

 

The Life and Inspiration of John Muir

 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir

As spring has sprung in central Illinois, it’s become a lot more difficult to focus on projects and exams when I’d much rather spend all day outside. It also happens to be National Park Week, and today is the birthday of John Muir, the great conservationist and naturalist who helped in the establishment of two of my favorite places on earth, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

I learned a lot about Muir’s life by watching Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” documentary — which everyone should watch — and reading a biography of Muir’s life by Donald Worster.

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John Muir (image via Wikipedia)

Muir advocated for the protection of nature and spoke often about how he believed that human beings are interconnected to nature. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he said in one of his many writings, My First Summer in the Sierra. He was changed by nature, and allowed himself to use this passion to make real change in conservation efforts. He gave President Theodore Roosevelt a tour of Yosemite National Park, which led to further protection of the park that so many have grown to love.

Everyone who visits Yosemite should make it their goal to see Lee Stetson’s portrayal of Muir. After learning about Muir’s life, seeing Stetson imitate a man who almost seems like an unreal part of history was pretty surreal. In a darkened room, Stetson, with his Scottish accent and Muir-like white beard, tells stories like of his beloved dog Stickeen. You can really imagine that it’s Muir sitting in a rocking chair, telling you a story about his dog that is both riveting and heartwarming.

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Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir (image via Wikipedia)

Muir’s life was both fascinating and inspirational, and you can’t help but wish it was a life you had lived — spending summers in the Sierra, going on adventures in Alaska, and going through Yosemite with Teddy Roosevelt. But in a way his life has been an inspiration for my own. It sets the example that if you truly love what you are doing, it’s easier to put in the work to see the rewards — for both yourself and others. When I’m stressed out over studying for final exams and scrambling to finish projects, I remember that I’m doing what I’m doing because I have passion for it and it allows me to make an impact in people’s lives. It’s a different kind of impact than what Muir made, but I’m thankful to be able to do it.

 

The tree that changed my life

In the summer of 2012, I was on vacation with my family in California when my mom gave me a decision to make.

We could either visit Disneyland or Sequoia National Park, and it was up to me. I had never been to either place, but it was an easy decision to make once I imagined my sixteen-year-old self waiting in line for a Disney-themed ride with my parents alongside me. I decided I wanted to visit Sequoia, and to this day it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But the moments leading up to seeing my first sequoia tree were anything but extraordinary. As I sat in the backseat of our rental car, suffering as we twisted around the curves of the mountain road that led us to the park, I closed my eyes and cursed my uneasy stomach that was used to Midwestern flatness.

Then we hit a stretch of flat road, and I began to see them: the sequoias, with their iconic reddish bark, speckled among ponderosa pines and cedars. They were nothing compared to what I was about to see.

What I experienced next made me fall completely in love, with sequoias themselves and with the magical feeling of being in a national park.

100_3802At our ranger talk, at the foot of the General Grant tree, the ranger explained how a sequoia starts out as a tiny pinecone, smaller than the palm of your hand. The only way it can open up and germinate is through fire. Its roots grow only a few feet into the ground to hold up trunks that are over two hundred feet tall, with bark that is so fragile and delicate it feels like sponge. Sequoias need fire to regenerate and thrive, so much that the park has to hold prescribed burns.

Their whole existence is one big miracle. And like most wonders of nature, pictures do not do them justice.

Our ranger told us how these trees are just like humans in the way they overcome challenges. They start out so small, with seemingly no potential, only to grow into something larger than life. They need the fire, the fallen branches, and the harsh winters to bring something greater out of them; to bring themselves out on the winning side, with broken branches and charred bark as scars to remind them what they’ve been through.

I was amazed at the fact that this tree had stood for the longest time without any human to admire it. It had lived for almost two thousand years, to see countries rise and fall, through countless wars, through the lives of so many people I admire. It had endured endless winters and fires, silently and stoically.

Anyone else might see this same tree and be completely unaffected. Which is why I was so surprised by how it changed my outlook on life. It made me proud of my country, for saving these wonders of nature and working so hard to protect them. I consider how easily the parks could have become overflowing commercial areas, and I am grateful that they are not, but are instead sanctuaries.


“National parks are the best idea we’ve ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner

After visiting Sequoia National Park, I knew I wanted to see more national parks, not only to view the great natural wonders our country has to offer, but to just experience being in them. Being in a national park is like going on a camping trip with the rest of the world. People from all around the globe are coming to our country to see these places that most Americans do not take time out of their schedules to see.

100_3928Yet you don’t feel like these people are from foreign places, but rather that they could be your next door neighbor that you’ve known for your entire life. You could strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller without even having to introduce yourself. Everyone is in the same state of wonder and awe and happiness, which is what makes the experience of being in a national park so incredible.

“One touch of nature makes all the world kin.” — John Muir

Our national parks are something we can be proud of, but only if we continue to treat them as they should be treated. The National Park Service has undergone budget cuts that have caused parks to open later and close earlier, close campgrounds, lay off staff, and neglect needed maintenance and cleaning. These budget cuts cannot continue if we want our nation’s most spectacular historic and natural places to be preserved and restored. Adequate funding is needed so that sites can be properly managed, staff visitor centers, perform construction on roads and buildings, and hold educational programs for our youth.

The entire budget for the National Park Service is a tiny 1/15th of one percent of the federal budget; in 1982, it was 1/8th. — National Parks Conservation Association

Anyone who has ever visited a park managed by the National Park Service can recall the memories and experiences they had there. These national parks, monuments, recreational areas, battlefields and more also pass on the history of these places for the younger generations to learn about. Without these places, what would we know of our nation’s history? Would our most sacred battlefields and most beautiful landscapes be remembered by a new housing development and maybe a plaque? Would anyone be inspired to protect the beauty of our national parks or the history behind our national landmarks? Would anyone have stories to pass on to their children about their first visit to a national park or be able to share the experience with them?

Unless we start talking about it, the places that our nation can be most proud of may become just a memory. As the Roosevelt Arch, placed by President Theodore Roosevelt in Yellowstone National Park, says, national parks are “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” not to be mistreated and forgotten.

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