WHERE VOICES FOLLOW THE HIGHWAY OF GIANTS
Just as birds are flying south we headed north this warm summery ridge morning to that coolness which sends the feathered ones in flocks past our door. Finally leaving the barn at 9:30 with less of a load than we usually have — traveling at light speeds. My own fears about starting out on a trip were with me.
school bus stop
anxious faces of children
Going through places I had recently been reading about in some old books, I tried to take notes to match what I saw with what I had just been learning.
the pen scribbles
driving by the history
of small towns
North of Fort Bragg we began to feel we were truly on our way. The long sand dunes of Cleone stopped us for lunch and a walk on the beach. All too soon we were back on the road.
one left after ours
for the gulls
As we drive along, the towns get smaller and the mills larger and the trees grow farther up the hills.
saw mill town
logging trucks we’ve followed
we now meet
As we turned inland, away from the sea, at Rockport we followed the stream named Cottonwood Creek but I thought the trees, with their mottled white bark, looked more like paper birches.
tenderly the light
We stopped the car often to walk along the creek.
inland among the birches
a gurgling stream
stepping off the road
before on-coming cars
earing the Central Valley town of Leggett we saw signs posted along the highway showing the way to the "drive-thru" tree. After going down a dirt path through some rather large redwoods we paid our $3.00 to go to look. We did not drive through the tree. Somehow it seemed a cheap thing to do to a tree.
One couple arrived pulling a trailer with a low-rider motorcycle on it. The guy unloaded the bike from the trailer, combed his hair and roared into the tree while his muscular little girlfriend shot a roll of film. Later another man I watched smiled secretly a sheepish grin as he drove through.
driving through the redwood tree 2,400 years old kids
We did find time between cars to stand inside the tree. To be in and under the center of a tree 315 feet tall as it pressed itself to the earth—a 22 foot diameter root system allowed us to do this. Awesome.
inside to touch
the heart of the tree
ah! it’s hollow
There was such a peace and wisdom flowing out of the tree we were in no hurry to leave.
lowered down to earth
In the gift shop, the biggest man-made thing there, it was comforting to get back down to the silliness of humanity on a sentimental journey. We bought a dark bowl made of redwood and Werner gave me a necklace of redwood beads. I wore the beads to please and thank him though I felt they made me look even more like an aging hippie.
While we were taking another look up inside the tree, I took off the necklace and hung the beads on a small jagged snag. I felt the tree wanted the beads and this seemed a good thing to do. So when we walked away to see if there were other big trees I was feeling good about having given my beads back to a tree.
holding itself in
It began to get late and we felt we had better leave to be looking for a place for the night. Crossing back to the car, we took one last chance to be in the center under the drive-thru tree. While just standing there and not thinking about any thing, I heard a plop sound in the dry dust. There by my feet was the string of beads. In my surprise I thought, "Well, I guess I am supposed to really have these." I bent over, picked them up and dropped them over my head – earth and all.
We kept driving in likely places to stay overnight. Some were closed for the season, some were just too awful.
looking for love
the red dragonfly alights
on a plastic straw
We drove on to the Richardson Grove State Park and there at Hartsook Inn we found a not very nice room in a beautiful setting under giant redwoods overlooking the south fork of the Eel River.
the giant redwood
a pain in the neck
from looking up
In the park was a walk under and around more huge trees than I have ever seen. Still I couldn’t forget the Chandler Drive-Thru Tree which we had just experienced.
so many light days
stored by ancient redwoods
still in black sap
We were so tired our dinner was sandwiches we made from food in the food chest. The lovely scene we could see from the porch outside of the room made up for the peanut butter and jelly. While we chewed contentedly, the sun slowly let redwood darkness blur the river cliffs.
The next morning I was writing in my journal: "It is now Tuesday, September 21st and I am warming my back in a sunny weed patch while Werner shaves. Here on a piece of land no one cares for, where brown bay leaves mix with the foxtail and rattlesnake grass there is a downed log which is just right for me. Over closer to the playground a couple in black leathers are getting on their motor cycles and talking to the yard man asking where the Avenue of the Giants is. Gee, he slept with several right here. Isn’t this enough?"
I felt I heard a voice speaking to me. I looked around not really expecting to see someone, yet hoping there would be someone. The voice I heard was similar to the one I hear inside of me when receiving a poem. But the words had no connections to what I had been thinking or writing. To better hear the words I began to write them down as fast as I could.
"I’ve made a trade-off for life and in many ways it wasn’t a bad bargain when you see how all my family (my original family, I mean the old growth trees) are gone and I am still here and every day hundreds of people are taking my photograph. True, I have to put up with the indignity of having cars driven between my roots. But you’ll notice my trunk is hollow as high up as man can reach and gasoline fumes go. Above that level, I’m all together and as healthy as sin."
As surprised as I was, I noticed that as I wrote the words down, I could hear them more clearly. I distinctly had the feeling they were coming from the Chandler Drive-Thru Tree. When I saw Werner coming from our rented porch, when my attention was diverted away, the voice stopped. "So that was it." I thought, as I closed my journal.
We walked back up to the lodge of the inn for breakfast. We were nearly alone in the room.
the blonde leans
into her coffee
Outside the automatic sprinkler system set in the curved flower beds along the driveway gave me the idea for the haiku:
where the water comes out
of the sprinkler
While at the desk reserving our same room for another night I noticed a map of the available cabins. Behind the last ones a trail seemed to lead a way to a marked tree. I asked the receptionist. "Yes, up the hill was the Hartsook Giant. An enormous tree." she puffed, "It is uphill but not far." And there was the destination for our morning.
We drove up the driveable part of the rutted road and walked up the rest. The area had been partially logged in the winter so there were still scars and slash lying all around. Not the scenic route, I thought. By the time we were hot and sweaty we arrived at the end of this logging road and the top of the ridge. Here the forest was untouched. Down a small ravine we spied the thick trunk of an old tree. Around it was a limb-rail fence and a sign saying this was the Hartsook Giant with numbeRs for its height and breadth. The breadth we preferred to experience ourselves by walking around it. The woods seemed very quiet. Hushed. Expectant.
I sat down on a rough-sawn log bench, took out my journal thinking that I might find some haiku to write in my book. When no thoughts came to me, I began reading what I had written in the morning.
I heard a chiming sound. Like a faraway doorbell. And a voice. To hear it and honor it, I began to write:
"No one drives through me but from my place here on the hill I see the logging trucks. I feel their rumbling in my roots.
Speaking of roots. I’m rather proud of mine. See there down the slope where it looks like a fallen tree is half covered? That is part of my root. Over the years the hillside washed away and I have had to add bark to cover it. See? You are looking at the wrong place! Look farther down. How far is that in your footprints? Over 100 feet? All around where your toes are now my roots have become a part of this mountain.
Back to the loggers. Yes, I fear them. Even I, one spared for these few years. Recently I was awakened one winter day by the sound of chain saws right there under my limbs. They took those three young friends of mine. After the great slaughter they had grown up in my wisdom and I must admit we had gotten rather attached to each other. I am still touching their roots underground but it is not the same as when they lived over the earth too.
And I still have the scars of the slaughter. The whole mountain was burned in those time. Yes, I lost, in some places, a limb’s span of bark and there hasn’t been enough rain since to rinse the charcoal away so I wear black. Somehow that seems right, doesn’t it? I remember the first slaughter. You should, also.
But we old trees, we know how to live. Take a walk farther down to the right of the trail and ask them for their stories and comments."
I took the advice, closed my book and started to walk down toward another large, old redwood. When I heard the first sounds I stopped, stayed standing and began to write:
"Ah, ah, ah the wind was just right and I heard Hartsook’s message to you. Glad you took his advice and c came off the path to see me. I don’t get many visitors and I have no name. I can understand that. Most people find me ugly. Do these massive burls scare you?
I suppose, if I didn’t desire contact with the earth so much, I never would have gotten started making these burls. Once the desire develops, I mean at one time I got frightened by my rapid growth upward—so much of me was so high above the ground—when the gray winds would blow I’d be afraid of tipping over. So I’ve tried to put down more root system. But I had grown so far and fast I misjudged how the ground had receded around my trunk. Thus, I put out my root making cells but they were too high up my side to reach soil.
I know this doesn’t really help to have more earth contact yet over the years my mass has kept me from being top heavy.
And we redwoods do pride ourselves on our desires. Look at what we do when we are cut. We send up 20-40 new shoots. More than enough, but in keeping with our abundant nature. Strangers find us amusing and even take home from the souvenir shops bits of burl to watch us perform or "miracles of regeneration" but that always ends in a sad molding mess and the humans get tired of watering it. So quickly.
As I wrote, I began wondering exactly how old this tree was.
"How old am I? not very old, really. I’m just eager. I don’t want our race to die but I’m scared. Hear that backhoe? They make me nervous. And add a few more star points on my burl. Ask Hartsook how old he is. Ha, ha."
"Hah, you expect me to "keep years" when your kind can’t even agree on a calendar? How many what? I can’t hear you."
As I listened more closely to see which tree was talking to me, I too could hear a crackling noise. Small like a fire beginning. There behind me where the sun slopes up the mountain. Was it an animal or a fire? As I stood and watched I could see it was a chorus of madrone bark. Shed moist and straight; in the sun’s warmth the strips curl. Pinging against the crisp fallen leaves. While identifying this ‘natural’ sound, a madrone tree began to speak:
"The stream sound song of the madrone with its tiny crystal waters moving over the hill with the golden white light. Longer lived than streams, the oldest living things on earth. Rivers are bigger and they die too. Why should trees be considered living and streams and rivers not. Rocks too are alive don’t forget.
You must be getting bored with my arguments. I see you are eating huckleberries. Those are my huckleberries, you know!"
"You eat huckleberries?" I said out loud to no one.
"Well, I don’t get bluish lips and teeth as you do, but just having them bloom, grow and ripen nourishes me. In each passing circle of the sun all of us take heart and food from the berry bushes. You pick the berries, pop them in your mouth and they are gone in that form. We vegetarians, dare I say real vegetarians, just gaze steadily at the fruit and are fed from that. In the end the deer or jays do take away the nearly dried skins full of sugar—our thanks—but empty of life force we have taken for our use."
Rather abashed and frankly, feeling a bit guilty, I returned to the peace and security flowing around the Hartsook Giant.
"I see you’ve come back to me. You humans, so busy climbing here and hill and then you come back to where you were. We trees, we are always just where we are.
We are not alone. We are connected—closely—to the other trees of our family, including those famous cousins, the sequoias and did you know we have a few long-lost, nearly extinct, distant cousins one could say, in China.
Those Chinese. They are smart. They always sent their bones back to China when they died over here. They knew history is stored in bone and it belongs back in the earth where it came from..
You white people scatter your bones willy-nilly wherever you are and there’s another book of poems broken off and set adrift with no one to listen to them after you are gone. No matter.
You’ve noticed how some old trees form rooms at their bases. We do that to keep from getting lonely. You’d be surprised how many different visitors we get, especially in wet weather. They bring us news and new dreams.
Their dreams give us pictures of places and things we might never see.
Some of their dreams are dark and frightening. Afterwards we clear ourselves of them with the tannic, as you call it, acid. Otherwise, insects would be attracted to the residues of the bad dreams and eat our insides out.
What pleases me most are the dreams with a certain quality. It’s hard to name it but it looks like light."
Could you call it love? I felt comfortable saying the words aloud, now.
"Love. Well you call it what you want. I experience it more like a thrill of electricity. As I was saying, when we old-growth trees contact with this special energy we hoard it, amplify it and shoot it out straight to the stars. That’s why we are the tallest trees. We are given the physical matter to pile up with twigs and flat needles so can reach above other vegetation with our beacons.
Those men who cut down the old trees didn’t know they were destroying bridges, or better said, beacons that truly do touch the starry worlds.
I know a word for it. I’ve heard visitors say when they come here, after the universal WOW! (is that a chant of yours or is it done involuntarily?). Later then, usually after circling my circumference (did you notice it is 59 feet?) or when they are sitting on that bench over there by the tan oak, they’ll say, "How peaceful it is here."
Even with the traffic down on the highway; when they look up at my wall-like sides. It is peace they find in the patterns of my bark."
"If I write that your bark says peace; that sounds corny." I said to the tree. I was very sure Werner was far over the next knoll and could not hear me talking to the air. It was getting warm so I took off my shirt.
"That’s right. Profound aspects are sweetened or made swallowable with laughter. When you open your mouth to laugh you have no idea what gets slipped in. Mostly it is for your own good.
Naked, you humans seem so naked, so needing protection. Seeing you without clothes I begin to understand why you’ve taken our bark for shelter, beaten, shreds of our skin for skirts and even huddled in our hearts during storms.
Those other people—the ones with dark, straight hair and skins that matched ours; they didn’t look like grubs just hatched and only hungry.
On some trees you can see the photos—the faces of the visitors we have had. When we are truly impressed with an animal (or person) we build it into shape-giving burls or knurls.
See the bear on my downhill side? He was to be born under my roots one winter. I’ve never forgotten that. Being so close to the birth of a bear. The sounds. My timbers still quake with the moans of that she-bear. Something was not right. The head came forth but the rest of the baby bear’s body was stuck. So you see, I’ve portrayed my memory of that moment. That’s what I say. I felt so helpless. Unable to do anymore than to shelter her and watch her die."
Somewhat dazed and shocked by the story, I stopped writing to get away from it. Werner saw my book was closed and let himself come closer. In our silence we walked back to the car. Drawn by the idea of a cold ice cream and fresh hot coffee we went to the store in the Richardson Grove Visitors’ Center. Afterwards we walked the Eel River to the end of the day-use area where we encountered the three friends in a family.
"Watchers at the river. That is what we are. Standing together where the river gives sound to the rounded rocks. Some would find us monotonous, the tree of us, I mean the three of us so alike we’ve actually grown together. Connected by common tissue as well as... Well, you notice our shadows are all the very same shades. Forgive, the pun. We have lived together for so very long. So very close we have our little jokes to oil the edges of existence.
When we first came here, living by the river was a lot more dangerous. Trees too eager to grow tall with plentiful water where swept away in the floods. Then, in those days the river was wider. And higher and wilder. Like young men full of hooch and hormones.
The round stones have tamed it. When boulders are jagged their edges slash the water, whipping it into a frenzy. Oh, it was something to see then. We’ve watched the river grow old and slow. Though it is still unreliable. It still takes its yearly diet of people too."
The tree shakes with laughter. When a 300 foot redwood chuckles, the branches swing and lift as if the sky is raised higher with the pumping motion. Perhaps it is.
Walking back among the smooth river flat floor I began to find haiku again:
where the giant fell
and a hundred sprouts
though cut stays in the park
Driving back into the park proper on the other side of the road, we found the Dumphy Creek trail. After hiking the autumn-dry trail for awhile, we found a place where it was easy to get down to the creek. There we sat with our hot feet in the stream. There were no big giants here as there had been along the Eel River, so I was surprised to hear someone calling out to me:
"Down here. No lower down. Where the creek has washed away to bedrock. Here under that high redwood column. We are the roots driven into tortured shapes. See where we too have put our feet in the water. Watch out for those black bugs. They’ll pinch your toes. Just tasting. Just nibbling, they are.
Under the sunny side of the cliff, if you look back under the hanging hair roots you can see us where last winter’s storm took out part of the bank. There is my fountain of youth. That little spring that runs even in the driest times. That is all mine. I share the overflow with the creek.
Look behind you. Over your left shoulder. Isn’t that sad? We trees try not to get caught up in right-wrong, good-bad but still that affects us. The first men with saws cut down that great one of us which had lived here, was at home. No, was a home for this stream. It was the upward bending part of the stream’s soul. But as I said, they, in just a few day’s work, cut it down and carried away.
Now, after a century of silence that old silver stump put forth one sprout. And it grew! Up high over the creekside. And it seemed the stream would have a heart soul sign again.
Why we don’t know. As with all wishes. There is a beyond understanding. Some say it was the huge amount of sand and gravel the drought ending rains took away. Again the good brings the end of something. Five days ago, in the driest of weather, that young perfect tree just fell over. Laid itself on the bank of the creek.
I’m too far up the hill to be the stream soul, and I have my spring to pray for, but I sure do feel sorry this desire to live has failed. I guess I feel bound to.
You see, I was once also in the stream. In those times the creek was a river and ran by up here. Now the stream has greatly lowered itself."
"The water level has eaten away the stream bed so it is a good young tree below the place my first roots went down.
From above; rocks, dirt and duff have piled up around my trunk. At one time it looked as if I rose straight—lean and smooth out of the forest floor.
As one gets older—I’m sure you’d understand why—there is a need to be rejoined to earth it its new higher levels. As you see, I’ve added new root systems at each new level of the forest floor.
The weight of the tree. Have you thought of the pressure this column of wood and water exerts on the root crown? This downward pressing is some what—perhaps only psychological (if one may borrow an expression that is not wrong; we trees do have emotions) but it does feel good to put out new roots. Even if they dry up it has been a joy. These new root burls act as a buttress to shore us up physically and emotionally.
Most trees put out new growth only in the spring. We redwoods allow ourselves this great pleasure year ‘round. Whether or not we have the water to sustain the growing.
How old am I? That’s a laugh. Those scientist-fellows try to count the rings of felled trees but the bottom wood is so compressed the rings only cross the eyes of any one who peeks into our past.
No, you can’t even count the rainfall rings. There were times so wet the sun swung arcs but still it rained from moon to moon."
As the sun sank behind the mountain, a wintry chill sent us lopping back to the car. Back to our motel room. How nice to stay in one place! How nice to not to have to search for food or lodging. As we sat in our room by the tiny electric heater, I began to hear voices. Indistinct male and female. Ha! we now have neighbors and they have voices, too. These two, filled with beer and wine, were talking of Medicare and social security. It was better in the woods listening to trees.
I’d rather have Basho’s horse
The voices droned on and on. We went to sleep wrapped in their vibrations through the thin motel walls.
Yesterday, when we had gotten the ice cream, Werner had wanted a second cup of coffee. While he drank it, I wandered into the visitors’ center where I overheard one of the park rangers describing the Dyersville Giant and the special atmosphere there. She drew the route on a map which cost $2.00 for them. I had only 52 cents in my jeans so I came away with only a mental picture of how to get there.
This morning we turned in our key after a filling breakfast and decided to see what was up north.
As we drove along our spirits sank. This was not the kind of country we expected. Where were the big trees? Here were only rough half-barren hills, burnt grass, rock dry river. We turned on the famous Avenue of the Giants. Souvenir shops and junky tourist trap places but no big trees and certainly no giants like the ones we had slept with. We drove and drove. Richardson Grove looked better and farther away. Why did we ever leave?
I said, "Let’s give up and go back." Werner hated to do this but he also was very discouraged. Just then, in a few feet, the landscape changed from desolation to redwoods and we entered the Humbolt Redwood State Park.
This IS better. But where is Founders’ Grove?" we asked each other.
No idea. The map we had didn’t show a founders’ grove; only a founders’ tree. A stop at the visitors’ center—again, another one—confirmed they were one in the same.
We found the parking area but drove on down a side road. Founders’ Grove the sign said. It was lovely place to lunch. We walked into the woods carrying our picnic basket. This was interesting, but not the place we were looking for.
On the road was a downed tree so we walked to it, making it a substitute for the Dyersville giant. It wasn’t a huge one but from its upended roots I saw people walking into the woods a little farther on. We walked to the well-marked trail to the woodscrafted sign.
"Ah, I’m so tired. I really have nothing to say. I’m still tired. It seemed that if I fell over I could find rest. Peace. Quiet.
But no. My coming to lie on the earth has only brought hordes of tourists. Did you notice? They’ve remade the path wide here enough for a tour bus. Now everyone comes by to look at me.
It is rather embarrassing. To be lying here in front of so many eyes. I wish I would have had all this admiration when I was standing up. It would be easier to handle the rather inane comments if I only had to hear them with my roots. Now these foreigners walk my whole length right up the my shattered tip and yak, yak, yak.
And the perfumes. I thought those cedar tress up north smelled strong but some of these people—whewee! And in summer with not a breath of wind. Lying here on the forest floor is not like I thought it would be.
I feel like dying but somehow I just can’t give up being a tree. I had a good-sized burl part way up on my side. I’ve tried to send sprouts out from there but they aren’t making it. The burl was cracked and now nothing works right anymore.
One place below the burl has also sent up shoots. Not like a new tree at all. So far it looks so flat. I’ve heard people say it looks more like a flower blanket on a casket. That bothers me.
I really don’t want to die. So many times I’ve strained to reach higher than all my friends. It’s hard to give up that kind of will or striving.
Maybe that’s what brought me down. No, I think I just gave up there for a while.
It is upsetting to see one’s neighbors come crashing down in the wind and gloom of rain. That one over there had fallen a week before. A whole week I stood here wondering if this was my time to go down or not.
I probably had more thoughts and feelings that week than I had in a long time. The tree next to me was thinking the same thing. We tried to keep our thoughts to ourselves, but we were both having the same feelings.
One night we both stopped thinking or worrying. There was only the wind and rain to feel. He went down first. I felt his branches brush against me. And I shook. When he crashed the whole forest shook.
I could have withstood his branches breaking off on my trunk. A little skinned bark is nothing to us. But what he did was so close to what I was thinking and feeling. When I felt the great loss of his roots ripping out of the earth right next to mine... I just did not care to live any longer.
I felt nothing at first. A quivering. As when a great wind blows. But at that moment there was no wind. No wind until my crown began to draw an arch downward. At first the downing went slow and easy.
As the top leaned over more and more, I felt roots breaking. Snapping. All my teeth pulled at once. From the wet red jawbone of earth. I’ll never forget that sound. A sucking sensation as air rushed into the depression where the explosion of my roots had been.
All this time my trunk was being pulled to one side.
See up there. On the tree next to me? All the limbs from that side came down with me. They broke off and actually hit the ground before I did. All those limbs were falling around me as I bent over. I thought they were from me.
I touched other trees -- my neighbors -- on my way down. Others got broken limbs and skinned bark.
In my path of falling laid my friend. You see what a big tree he was. Most of our lives we had stood next to each other. My tonnage drove his trunk into the rain-softened earth that deeply. I buried what I could of him. Perhaps he will decide to put down roots. I don’t know if he wants to, yet.
I don’t remember impact. The change of altitude from the crown in the sky down to the brown to the ground. I must have dozed for awhile. The rain felt good. I just rested. I still like resting best."
My hand was writing all of this down, but my mind was beginning to doubt. I thought I was perhaps projecting my own afternoon tiredness onto the words the giant was saying to me. Just then a woman tourist came by with a group of four. She began talking in a loud voice, which was unusual as most people spoke very quietly. "This tree is saying, ‘I was so tired. I had to lie down. I was just tired of standing here all those years.’" Her comments gave me new faith in what I was hearing so I continued to take the dictation.
"I’m still not sure if I want those shoots to make it. This lying down is something I’ve rather gotten used to. I still have a few bent roots deep in the earth. We’ll have to see what the circle of trees around me, what the earth wants. If it wants another tree like me right here.
Hear the chipmunks chattering? They just love to move into us downed trees, along with a lot of other life. Those little nervous feet under the bark. No wonder I can’t lie still. And having those roots in the ground. I’m resting. The resting giant. But I am NOT dead.
Some people, when they stare deeply into the cave of my roots feel a rush of wind. A pulling inward. All that I took from the earth. All that flowed from the earth up into my trunk is still open. And there. The flowing though is diminished. But it still goes on.
So long those channels were open. So long the earth touched the sky through me. It’s hard to forget those old ways. So long. So long.
I guess it is the dry time again. I feel the needled twigs from my neighbors settling down on my length.
Those twigs bring me memories of the sunlit hours. Of being up there close to the sky.
It’s very different up there. Another world. Closer to heaven. But in those winds is no rest. And here. I feel very peaceful when those golden bits come to touch me."
As we walked away on our legs numbed by sitting hunched over on the wooden bench, Werner stumbled on a root, twisting his ankle and plunging headlong down the path. To see him lying there stretched out into a length in the earth, imprinted the feelings of the area deep into me. Nearer the parking lot the air was suddenly fresher, warmer and sunnier. Werner sat to rub his ankle but seemed to feel no pain from his fall. We rested and looked at another cut-down tree.
slowly over the year rings
a snail trail
Reading in the brochure we had bought on the rack at the head of the trail, I found that the Dyersville Giant was too bashful to say was that until the tree fell on the night of March 24th, 1991, it was the tallest living tree in the world and the champion of the Sequoia sempervirens.
Refreshed and satisfied by our latest adventure, we were already missing the atmosphere at Richardson’s Grove so we drove back to Hartsook Inn and ordered another room. This time we tried a duplex cabin on the low bank of a dried-up creek bed. We planned to stay two more days and just stay put. It is evening now. Werner is resting from his fall. I’m sitting on a rickety old porch in an Adironack chair that once was painted bright red. The last rays of sun are filtering through bay leaves, lighting up valley oaks and still-green sycamores among the young redwoods on the other bank.
a coolness flows down
before going to bed
the mosquitoes too
have a snack
As the mosquitoes had really became pesky, I started to close my notebook, when the voice started. I looked around for the source. There were no old giants here. I risked going into the cabin, turning on a light. The voice followed. Though it sounded a bit cranky for having to wait for me to get ready to write again.
"You look down on me. No respect for me. Just because I am old and dried up. My stones sticking out all over. I look like an old lady in a rest home. Striped of all my possessions. Nothing left but my memories. Today is not very clear to me. But I remember springs. Running wild. Overflowing my banks. You can see the layers of summers I’ve arranged the smooth rocks and then in spring dug my new channels at new levels.
I AM like a woman. Always rearranging the furniture or finding a better way to carve up a hill. The kind who carried driftwood and dried weeds to make an arrangement. Inelegant. But homey. Like twisted herbs. I sort and store pebbles according to size. Sometimes, in my gentler moments, I make a couch of sand.
Jewels buried. Deep. If someone comes along. If I like them. I unwrap one out of the old silk. Out of the sand. At first I gave my precious stones to every good-looking, or hard working buck but it only made them want more. They ripped the place apart trying to take my gold. I shut my heart. Now my riches are hidden. But they will shine again.
I am the witch of shine. I could draw sparks out of the redwoods. It used to be that the big trees would send out streams of fire in arching rays just for the pure joy of it. They would teach the young ‘uns how to do it as soon as they could shed their lower limbs.
This is very similar to the elk dropping their antlers. I’ve found plenty of those when I’ve gone down the hillside in a freshet. I’d gather them also. Had one room. An island really. Where several piled up. Most people couldn’t tell them from redwood boughs after a few years. You have to have the sparkling eye of a stream to tell the difference.
If you come closer I’ll give you my secret. I may look dried up but underneath the rocks. Pick up a few. You’ll find water in the old gal yet.
Rivers, and of course, we creeks, do run deep. Sometimes water comes up through us and at other times the first rains of the year just sink out of sightheaded for our other river."
My hunger and tiredness forced me to stop. After eating salami and cheese sandwiches in our room while looking out the window at the dried-up creek we felt we had to take a walk. The two armless, ancient red plush chairs of the early 50s hotel trade were so uncomfortable to sit in, it was either stand in the middle of the room, lie down or walk.
We walked down and across the highway to the Grandfather Tree. We stared at him or hims. There seemed to be three or four trees we counted.
We walked on down to the river. We could see our old room and saw that our neighbors of last night are still there! So glad we moved.
We walked back to our cabin in the near-dark, stumbling over more roots and potholes in the driveways of the inn. By the light of an oncoming car we saw a great circle of trees we had not noticed before. While getting off the road, I lean against one of the trees with my palms flat to the bark. Something was happening here. There was the fluttery movement of a baby in a womb. No, there were words ready to come out. But it was too dark and cool, now, to write in the journal. We went back to our room.
In the night I was lying awake looking at the starry sky. Out of the dark comes a voice that begins to tell me the story of its life. I listen for a while, feeling I should get up and write this down. I will never remember it all in the morning. If I stay in bed, I’d need the light on and that would wake Werner. I couldn’t concentrate because I was thinking, "I don’t want to turn on the light. It is too cold to sit in the bathroom. Can I remember this?" Finally, I just asked the tree to hold its story until I could get it in the morning. Then there was a stillness and I slept again.
After a granola breakfast I settled myself with pillows in the sun. I invited the tree that had started its story in the night to come back to give it to me here. I felt pretty sure it was one of the trees in that big circle we had seen in the dark. I thought that if I could "hear" the trees when I sat near them, why couldn’t they turn up the volume to let me sit on the sunny, warm porch in a comfortable place? Nothing. For an hour I sat open for them. Not a word came through. I dozed a bit. Left my mind open as a meadow gate. Nothing except my own pleasure. After feeling bored and useless, I began to really want to hear the tree’s story so I got up and walked into the forest shadowed coolness where they stood.
Still a bit grumpy with them, I thought that if I was going to have to be here to listen to them, I’d sit right smack dab in the center of their circle. I folded my legs as I lowered myself to sit. A jolt. Like silent thunder made me spring up.
"Get out of there!"
I was frightened and did not quite know where to go. At the edge of the circle there was a gap in the trees where a shaft of sunlight shone on a tufted grass mat. I leaped toward it as if standing on hot coals. I stood there a moment in the sun testing if this was an acceptable place to sit.
"We invited you to visit us but for you to sit in the center of our mother’s ashes. That’s an unkindness. That is better. There at the edge of this hollowness.
Hollowness. Holiness. Yes our mother lived here. This wideness—our apartness—shows how grand an old lady she was.
I wondered how long ago the whole story of this place had started. What was here.
No, I have no idea of when she must have sprouted. Our kind have been on these hills for—some say 600 million years. Probably more. Do numbers really mean that much to you? Anyhow.
Ma was very old when I sprouted. She was already weakening, nearing her end when I began to look at the world from her side.
It was shortly after the twins, my two sisters to the west, sprouted that Ma must have died. We didn’t notice it for a long time. She always was very quiet. Like the girls are now.
It was a long time later when we felt her branches dropping on us. Later, then, it was her rough bark that loosened and fell around us and we knew then that her outer body was dead.
Her roots still lived and they live yet. We know her best through them.
Her upper / outer body turned gray; almost transparent. Just a great, tall, snag ranging into the sky above us. For years she stood like that. Dead, but not going anywhere. Just there watching over us.
That’s the way the girls and I remember her. A band of silver in the blue above us. During those many seasons my other brother sprouted up by the twins. He doesn’t say much either. He’s been the silent one of the family. Probably because the two girls then always talked so much he never had to sigh a word.
By the time Ma left us he too had grown enough to have a thick skin of bark. Good thing it was, too, or we would have lost him, also.
It happened like this.
It was in the dry time before the first rain. Storm clouds came up the river valley from the south. We thought for sure they would bring that rain. But no. Thunder and lightning was all we were getting.
One of the first forked lights hit Ma. She was bone dry and so thin at the top. Fire ran down her in a flash; filling our circle with white heat. Before we knew what to think, all that we had stood so close to was then ash and embers. The wind was blowing a storm. It, too, took her away, and left this hole in the ground.
The girls were closer to Ma. They were greatly attached to her so their greenness saved a memorial slab up there. In the process the sister closest to me was badly burned. She’s never forgotten that night. She has tried hard to cover the scar with new bark but it never grows back the same. It’s always bumpy and knobby. We love her for what she did. Otherwise we’d have nothing at all above ground that was Ma’s.
Our roots now have spread out under the hollow she left, but we wouldn’t think of sending up new shoots in her area.
In the shock of losing her we did try to close the circle with my brother here closest to me. And in the times when so many humans have come around we’ve sent up the young ‘uns to keep the center of our space sacred.
Though we were glad to have the chance to tell you our story, you see, we just could not let you sit in the very center area."
Cramped and slightly damp, I was getting tired of all the writing. I was glad to walk back to the cabin to make lunch. Afterwards, I walked down to the Grandfather Tree we had seen the night before. Now the shop was open and tourists were watching a guy in jeans and a flannel shirt use a chainsaw to carve up redwood lengths into pelicans, bears -- lots of bears -- and even small leafy redwood trees. I ignored these to sit by another circle of trees. Here was no hollow center. It was well filled by a very old, but still very healthy tree. It was hard to determine if the center was one tree with others growing out of it or if several trees had all picked the very same spot to grow in. I was wondering about this, so instead of waiting on the tree to say anything, I spoke to it first.
"This sign names you "Grandfather Tree" yet you seem to be a whole family of trees."
"I let them name me Grandfather because I am the head of this clan and it IS I who holds them together. It IS my limbs that bed out to hold them together. I AM the Grandfather!"
"In spite of your gruff voice, you must have a sense of humor to allow these chain-saw sculptures to be tourist traps around your roots."
"Hey, hey, after being gawked at all day long, I delight in seeing the tourists getting taken. Did you see that grown man, surely a grandfather himself, pay out $100 for a silly wooden teddy bear?
Maybe one of them will buy this ridiculous bear that holds a garden hose and get it off my corn—that root that has grown up against a stone and is buckled up. Hurts like thunder.
When I am not feeling so wooden, I am not so hard on the tourists. I understand that they buy these things because they really want to take me home but I don’t fit in their living room. So with a piece of wood, they feel they have a piece of me. I’d rather have it this way than if they knocked chunks out of my ribs by thunder.
Speaking of thunder, did you enjoy the story of Ma and her fiery exit? I remember that sight. I could see it all. The creek was a small river in those days. We both lived on it. She to the north and I on the south bank. When she flamed forth I thought we’d all burn but we were spared. The storm later broke with a deluge of rain. That would have been something if it hadn’t come down just then. When she was extinguished the embers were scattered in a whirlwind. She could have set miles of forest on fire that night. The rain come down like our sighs of relief."
"How did you know they had told me this story today?"
"Ha, we are all connected. We are a close-knit family. My roots connect with the roots of younger trees so there is a network of fiber between us. What we can no longer see from above, we feel from vibrations in the roots below.
That’s another reason I’m grandfather. I’m the past master of connective tissue. What you are looking at—these massive limbs that reach across the sky and out of the blue have set new trees in upper levels.
I use my art underground as well. Not much goes in these parts that I don’t know about. Go ahead. Ask me something. Anything."
Okay, yesterday when we were up in the park, about a half mile from here, we saw a tree. I was pretty sure it was a redwood tree but the twigs are feathery and droopy. It is not a very big tree but it has foliage like...
"That is a New Dawn Redwood. You know redwoods used to cover much of North America AND Europe AND Russia right on into Asia. It was thought we coastal redwoods were the last small remnant of that great race. Then in China, back in some remote valley, a small grove of our cousins had survived.
Some years ago seeds from that grove were brought here and planted. That one tree was the only survivor. But it is flourishing. I can see it from here. The morning sun makes it glow with a bright scarlet and white aura. Soon it will drop its needles. It’s not evergreen like we but we ARE cousins.
Strange you should ask about New Dawn. I’ve looked out for that tree since it was seeded.
You know from the top of my self the world does look smaller but having our cousin so close, carried here by men’s methods, makes the world truly smaller.
Oh, here come some more folks. Do you think they’ll see the new green tips on my leaf ends? I’ve dropped nearly all the dried up one. Thank goodness. No use in lookin’ old and half-dead just because they call me a grandfather. There’s lots of juice in this old guy yet.
By the way, I AM one tree. When you know us better you can judge the age of a part of a tree by the depth of the ridges in the bark. These side trees are mine; they are me but are my younger manifestations.
It’s getting into afternoon. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a nap. It is best when the sun is closest and warmest."
Sitting here enjoying the Grandfather Tree and the fantastic shapes it has carved with its living is a joy even when the tree is no longer talking to me. A woman comes by and asks if I had seen the wood carver. "No." I said. She walked around the corner and entered the furniture factory. Then a guy with great muscles in a T-shirt comes by. I said, "A woman is looking for you." "Where did she go?" he asked. "Around the corner." I said pointing to the door of the factory. I overheard them meeting and her asking him for a special order carving. Here in one afternoon the tree takes a nap and I become the connections for him.
The sun is in the wooden bear’s black marble eye; warming the afternoon. A frosty freeze ice cream cone cools me inside but the outside gets warmer. I return to cabin cool where a pair of shorts puts me back out on the bay-shaded porch. A porch of a day. The boards narrow to infinity. My rest is broken. A voice has begun again.
"Do you ever let younger trees talk to you? We may not have stories of by-gone days. Our branches are green and alive; right down to the ground. We can put you in touch with today. The acorns falling from their caps kind of heat of the afternoon. A butterfly fanning the languid air with orange spots. Grasses golden give to seeds. The sketches bees fly with their wings on fire with light and white crowns. A cold beer. Our roots reaching down deeper; extending themselves into the cracks of the earth’s cool cellar where rivers bring the last of snow-melt. Touching water we take only tiny sips. It is so cold it stings. Longer shadows shorten the zenith sun with the shiver of shadow. Heat-filled rocks which have expanded all day descend to the size they started their day with.
Notice how many different hues and colors have been stirred into paint trying to imitate the redwood color. As colorless as we trees are, there is no paint to match us.
Do you think it is dark inside a tree? Do you think our dark bark keeps out the light? No way. The bark is dark to keep the brilliant light inside the trunk from leaking out and blinding you.
It is purest sunlight we’ve taken in with our chlorophyll cells. You can’t look direct at the sun, nor can you look at the sun in our trunks. Be glad we hide it or you’d not find the cool dim recesses they are.
Spider webs are close as we are to being filled with almost pure light. Because they are less pure, they contain rainbows. They spit out the long thin bubbles of autumn.
The more you look for yourself at the world as it is around you, the more of it there is."
My attention shifts to the scene around me. Out of it comes a series of haiku which I record just as they come
the lizard hisses me
off his porch
now I’ve heard autumn
the crackle of fire
the "Z" in his name
in his path
wood turning around
French window panes
the redwood forest
in eye-sized bites
in the curve of the limb
a soup smell
in the sandwiches
bare light bulb
outside a filament
of spider web
each year repeating
these same feelings
rusty iron junk
half-hidden in the leaves
of the madrone
on the west wall
Night comes out of the earth. It begins in cracks, fills valleys, rises on the stone cliffs, a daily dark flood that leaves rocks unturned. The darkness gathers first on the bark of the redwoods; clinging to the rough bark—a nightly mass.
Dried grasses are the last lanterns holding out light long after the white river stones have sunk beneath the non-seeing. If one were a marbled murlett nesting in the uppermost branches of a redwood the sky would still be letting down its twilight—its two lights: day light and dusk light that sunning together so seamlessly a ribbon of several colors that twist so shade run across in ripples.
We went to sleep, peacefully, to the motor-mouthed murmur of the woman next door. We thought the above haiku was true.
In a deep fist of sleep I heard heavy human footsteps on our porch and in a flashlight’s dim glow a rough looking male. From the dark of our room, through the open window I yelled, "What’s going on here?" "Oh, this isn’t number 65?" "No." Footsteps left and a car drove away.
Just as sleep returned there was another flashlight shining in the room and a voice saying. "Open up. I am the manager. What is your name?"
I started to answer when Werner, who could see in the flashlight’s reflection, the face of a thug, missing teeth and all, jerked my arm and hissed for me to be quiet. He leaped out of bed and swung the door open. I can imagine the guy had quite a surprise to see such a big form in a shining white nightgown bellowing at him. He mumbled something and left. The lady next door was blissfully quiet.
We woke to such a beautiful morning with the sun filtered through autumn leaves filling the room like a bubbly bath. We decided to stay one more day In spite of our two-librium scare of the night before.
We had breakfast in the inn. By now the waitress knows us and what we want. We kept peering at the man at the reception desk to see if he was the "manager" who came to our door in the night. This man looked criminal enough but not as scary as someone had been in the dark.
As we went to the desk to pay for our breakfast, a figure came bursting from the manager’s office. THIS was the one. Most of his teeth were missing, his nose had been broken several times, he had a cauliflower ear. He immediately grabbed the tab for our meal and began to apologize. Our breakfast was paid for but still several employees stood around waiting on our anger. We simply extended our stay for one more night. They couldn’t believe we were not leaving in a huff.
For a daytime adventure, we decided to go see the Rockefeller Forest. As we turned off the freeway, the road to Honeydew was very small. We met three logging trucks on a basically one-lane road with signs that said, "road narrows." Trees and trees. How many miles of trees did we need to see? After driving past a place where we could see a river, we decided to go back to it.
Here were super great trees and we were all alone on an easy path down to the river. We investigated a footbridge over Bull Creek that was made of one log.
Back in the woods we got our food out of the car. Straddling a small downed tree, we ate lunch. Afterwards we saw a wooden map with a series of trails laid out for hikers. Without thought or direction we started walking. After awhile the trail sloped down to a creek (later on the map we saw its name was Cuneo). We followed that back to Bull Creek. Where the two joined was a very special place. A deep swimming hole with sand (really a fine, muddy dirt mixed with sand was formed on the south side of the junction.
I sat by the water waiting on the voices to begin. But I only heard my own—writing:
river gathering brilliance in ripples give the light a smooth rock sound song. All goes in the crystal ringed to my finger made and given to me by my father. What I am too tired, too nervous, too scared to take in or hear, or remember goes into the stone, a camcorder with the twisted tapes—strings of magnetic lines rearranged by the river. A circle of stones the river fills. A campfire so long ago the wood and ashes have moved. Even the fire scars are taken from the stones.
Suddenly the words were not coming from my mind.
"So the circle of stones let you in to us. Most people never know we were here. We passed on without leaving a mark for normal eyes but even you were able to pick up our old trail. It’s a nice place here on the river isn’t it? So wide, deep and Indian quiet.
What to call us? Natives? But we came here also. And your word ‘Indian’ is fairly accurate as we trace our race back to India, or what is now known to you as India. Since our roots lace back to there we have been able to receive some of the thought changes they have gone through, but we have rejected them, preferring to keep sacred our ability to communicate directly with the Great Spirit. For this reason, as thanks to our keeping alive what we were given, we’ve been allowed to be in this beautiful and abundantly blessed place. No present day physical members of our race come here, right here, but that is okay. The elders anchored their soul lines to this spot where two rivers come together to one part of our history. That’s what you stumbled on and were able to find us. Thus, we are always here.
If a hair ‘accidentally’ falls from your head, you will know we want to keep a line of contact open between us. It is a trap door letting us into you and your opening for coming to us. Hair is your history. These trees have spun on one point a totem of history but ours is even more secret. The river knows it and babbles it constantly but most persons see it as just that and cannot hear the words.
We appreciated your taking off your shoes. Sometimes the sand has missed the feeling of bare feet. That’s right. Lie in the patch of sunny sand. We will give you a dream."
Tired. I was tired and glad to lie back on the sand and close my eyes. To sleep. For a dream? I waited. But soon I was too hot. It was too far to walk to lie under the trees. It was easier to take the few steps to the water’s edge. Dropping my clothes I entered the chilly waters with a shiver. Nothing to do but dive in to swim to get warm. When I floated the river would carry me down to the riffles. Rocks nudging my drifting hands would signal it was time to push off to swim upstream again. I had barely dried off when the voice started. Now glad to sit the warm sun I uncapped the pen.
"So you’d rather go swimming than get a dream? Now that the river has washed you, baptized you, we have an even better dream planned for you.
You are going down, deeper to another level. Already you feel the coolness of now sunless times. Times which were this river before mountains fell into it—filled it. This was a great crack in the earth’s surface left by the violent times when fire and liquid rock flew through the air.
The giant trees were already here but we were not. When we came peace brought us here. It was the peace that kept the old folks here. They tended this stretch of the river and it kept them when it could.
The young men, as soon as they were no longer boys, would remember how to make a boat from a log with fire. Desiring a wife they would give themselves to the water ways in search of one who was not a sister. That is what brought part of their history to this place.
The boatmaker people lived closer to the ocean. One time, when the young men rowed against the current to come to the valleys where the larger tribes lived, they caused part of their history to unfold in this place.
It happened like this:
Further up on the main river, the three young men did find a friendly village where they were welcomed. There each of them found a woman of their liking and the one-blanket ceremony was held.
The young men were eager to return to their own village but realized that their one boat was too small to transport the women and their many things. Two of the women were sisters and did not want to be separated so they and their two new husbands took the one boat for the return trip. The other man, who was better at boat building, elected to stay in the area long enough to make another boat for himself and his wife.
He came to this place to find the tree for his boat. The couple lived here while he made it. When it was finished, they rowed upstream to her village where one last celebration was made before she left.
At this potlatch one of her half-brothers gave her a gift she did not know he had. When her mother had died, he had secretly kept back the bone awl she had worn smooth with her palm while making baskets. It should have gone into the ground with her, but he couldn’t let it go. Now he gave this to his sister. She was at first shocked and disturbed at his act, but as the awl lay in her palm, it warmed, melted into her skin to put her in touch again with her mother.
Soon the boat was loaded and the couple started their voyage back to his village. The farther downstream they went, the more the awl burnt in her hand.
As the boat passed the place that joins this stream to the river, she wanted to say to him that they should return to the camp where they had built the boat. Already she knew his ways with anger and the fear of it kept her quiet.
After two more night camps the feeling in her hand and a heaviness low in her body pulled so strongly she had to admit to herself that she could not continue this journey. When she found a single plant of the orange flowers blooming so late in the season, she knew what had to be done.
He slept so soundly she was able to move confidently as she prepared to return to her people. Rowing the boat upstream again, by herself in the dark was a harder job than she had thought it would be. But she rowed as fast and as far as she could. Each night would bring her closer home.
One dawn she felt the river was different. Wondering where she was she rowed on. Then she began to laugh; loudly into the silent woods. The tree-boat had brought her back to its home. Right here."
The shadows now covered the whole river basin. It was time for us to go.
The next day we even went home.
Note: Out of habit, I typed up what I had written in the journal, but I still felt a bit unsure of the ‘real’ source of the voices. Back home, I did not hear them anymore. But several weeks later I was thumbing through some second-hand books when I found one about the Pomo Indians, the tribe that used to live here. And as far north as Leggett now is. Near the end of the book was the retelling of a Pomo legend that in autumn, for the equinox, the trees would still talk.
Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1995.
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