“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 Sierra. It’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.