Tallest Tree epiphany

Simon Firth describes a rainy and illuminating pilgrimage with his father -- a modern-day Green Man -- to see the Tallest Tree in the World in Northern California.

Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Visit any ancient English church and you're likely to find hidden somewhere within it a stone tomb, vault or gargoyle embossed with a large male head, his hair and beard a mass of branches, leaves spilling from his mouth. He'll be a Green Man -- originally a pagan god co-opted, as were many other local deities, by England's first Christians.

For both the pagans and the Christians, the Green Man was a symbol of fertility, of the abundance of the forest, and represented the idea that humanity is inextricably intertwined with nature.

My not-quite-so-ancient English father is not what you'd call a religious man -- he prefers to express his faith by being the gardener of, rather than a worshiper within, his local church -- but he does believe what both his pagan and his Christian forebears did: He's come to think of man and nature as inextricably entwined.

Indeed, since his retirement from his previous life as an executive with an oil company, I've come to think of him as a sort of living Green Man.

It's mainly because he's begun a love affair with trees.

In the small southern English market town in which he lives, my Dad is now a local "tree warden" -- a kind of neighborhood tree guardian with quasi-legal power to stop you from harming his leafy friends. And he'll hike all over his local Hampshire countryside to find, photograph and otherwise admire trees.

If you're driving or walking with him these days, you must be prepared to make long detours when a nice specimen is spotted. He's taken to carrying string with him to measure for "champions" (the biggest of their species), and if he doesn't have his string, he'll rope you into helping him measure it by arm spans. Given the chance, he'll have an entire walking party wrapping their arms around a trunk he needs to measure. It's tree-hugging the British way -- love expressed through categorization.

So last month, when my parents traveled halfway around the world to visit me in Northern California and wanted to know what they should see, I was ready with the answer: We'll go see the big trees.

In particular I thought we should go see the Tallest Tree in the World, a coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) that rises 367.8 feet above the banks of a creek deep inside Redwood National Park in California's Humboldt County.

It would make a fitting climax, I thought, to a three-night trip up the north coast and back from our base near San Francisco. There'd be shopping in Mendocino, Eureka and Arcata for my mum, and trees, trees and more trees for my dad. Bliss for them both.

Part of the appeal of the Tallest Tree was that you can't just drive up to it, get out of your car and walk a few feet to snap a picture before moving on. It's either a day's hike up a log-strewn creek or a four-hour round trip by car. Only 30-some cars a day are given permits to do the drive, and even then, when you get to the trailhead, there's an 800-foot descent before you get to see the tree. You really have to want to see it. Perfect, I thought, for my dad -- a tree pilgrimage.

The plan was to spend the night before in Arcata, an ex-logging town that in the last two decades has turned into an eco-radical oasis and the only city in the United States to have a Green Party majority on its city council. We would leave my mother shopping in the book and craft stores or lounging in the local outdoors cafe/sauna, and then Dad and I would set off to see the tree. It would be father and son, bonding over what he loved (trees) and I loved (my newly adopted state of California).

So off we went. We warmed up for our pilgrimage with a drive along the Avenue of the Giants. Some 80 miles south of Redwood National Forest, the Avenue of the Giants is a 32-mile road along the South Fork of the Eel River. Actually the old route of U.S. Highway 101 (the new and much straighter freeway runs parallel), this drive winds through whole series of magnificent stands of old growth redwoods.

The Avenue is home to some of the hokiest tourist attractions this side of the Rockies (several "drive-thru" trees, the Chimney Tree and Hobbiton USA, the Immortal Tree Burl n' Drift Novelty store), but they barely register among the 51,222 acres of pristine forest.

Everything was a lush green. In this wet El Niqo year the wildflowers were late, so even though it was the end of May, we caught them at their stunning peak. Everything was still damp, the clouds ominous, but it was wonderfully quiet -- after Memorial Day but before school holidays. We had the forest to ourselves.

Because El Niqo still wasn't done, the summer footbridges that take visitors across creeks to many of the biggest trees were still not in place. To go see the "Giant Tree" -- the previous Tallest Tree in the World until the new Tallest Tree was discovered farther north, and now the second tallest tree in the world -- my Dad and I had to rough it a little. We got to ford a freezing and fast-flowing stream (quite dangerous!) and return (off the trail a little!) over fallen logs so huge we had to climb 20 feet just to begin our walk across.

A good start: father and son ruggedly bonding while mother worried where they were -- and had her own drama when she was assaulted by over-familiar chipmunklike creatures (chickerees, we found out at the Visitors' Center) upset she had the effrontery to sit at a picnic table without a picnic.

As we got farther north the clouds moved lower. In Arcata we wandered in
light rain through the central plaza and ate fabulous vegan food. But my
mother was underwhelmed. She exhausted the city's shopping delights in
half an hour and was alarmed at the considerable presence in town of people
the locals have come to call "drainbows," the itinerant army of
scruffily dressed young people who, now that the Grateful Dead are no more, look
even more depressed and lost (and to my mother's eyes, dangerous) than
usual. She wasn't too hot on the idea of spending the next day -- Dad's
and my Tallest Tree day -- there, or in the local sauna. It looked like
we'd be taking her with us.

On Tallest Tree morning it was pouring with rain, and Sam Pennisi, our host
at the Lady Anne B'n'B and a former mayor, had lit a fire. Sitting
eating our huge breakfast, it was hard to leave.

I was anxious, though. The Redwood Information Center, some 20 miles
north and where you purchase your precious, limited-issue permit to drive
up to the Tall Trees Grove, would open at 9. So I hustled my parents,
who were happily chatting about the weather with our host, and we set off,
looking vainly for breaks in the leaden sky.

When we arrived at the Information Center, it was deserted. The bored-looking rangers were only too happy for company and to dispense advice.
And their advice essentially amounted to this: Don't go see the tree.

Oh. Really?

The drive, they reminded us, was two hours each way in good weather and on
dirt roads. Today there'd be rivers of mud. There was every chance the
800-foot descent had become a waterfall.

I was still game, and my mum said it was up to Dad. So he decided. We
wouldn't go.

He swore he was happy to do this. He rationalized: He'd seen a lot of
trees by now, including the second tallest tree, so he was fine. After
all, he said, one redwood tends to look much like another after a while.

Was I really hearing this right? This was the Champion Tree. He could
measure it with his string. Or if he had no string we could measure with
our arms outstretched, working around it in turn, in our own British family
tree-hugging measurement ritual.

We'd come a long way. He was the modern Green Man. He had to want to see
it. And he's retired. This might be his only chance to get up here. He'd
come to California again but there were so many other things to see. All
of a sudden, in the Information Center, surrounded by leafy dioramas
populated by stuffed chickerees and deer and owls, I was having filial
intimations of paternal mortality.

But no, we wouldn't go.

To console ourselves, we drove the short distance to see the trees at nearby
Lady Bird Johnson Grove. I'd been there before and remembered it as a
short, easy trail through magnificent trees with a fabulous view of the
ocean. When we got there -- the only occupants of a car park I'd
remembered as a madhouse -- the rain had eased off to a steady drizzle.
We set off, trudging through what had become a series of small lakes, my
mother getting so wet her feet ended up the color of her shoes, the view
reduced to 100 yards of trees and then a wall of clouds.

But despite the weather, both parents seemed happy and appreciative. My dad
kept saying that this was the way to see what was, after all, a temperate
rain forest. We were experiencing the conditions (i.e. walking inside a
rain cloud) that had allowed these trees to grow to their magnificent
heights in the first place. I pushed him, but no, he said, he was happy
enough with this. He didn't need to see a Champion Tree.

As much as you can ever tell with any Englishman, I think he was saying
what he felt. And I realized, as I led him and my mom around in a large
and very muddy circle, that I'd rather romanticized his tree worship.

I should have guessed when, as we first drove up into what the locals call
the Redwood Empire, he expressed more interest than disdain at all the sawmills we were passing.

When I'd first discovered this area, on my honeymoon with my native
Californian wife, we were all but weeping at the sight of every clear-cut.
I'd wanted to protect my father from the sight of a single stump, imagining
the pain it would cause his tree-loving soul, but in fact he turned out to
be fascinated by the milling history of the area.

Now that he has retired, I realized, now that he's come to know the countryside
in weekly walks and tree-finding trips, my father has become much more a
man of the land than myself and my very urbane wife.

And as a result, I think, he has a more measured idea of how humans and
nature can interact -- of how they can be linked and still both survive.
As someone who hikes regularly in woods that have been managed by man for
over 1,000 years, he has perspective with which, in coming to
California, I'd lost touch. To him a second growth redwood forest isn't so
much a scar upon the Earth's soul as just the beginning of a centuries-long partnership between man and tree -- one that's made "old-growth" an
almost meaningless term in England but that has kept its forests alive for

My father, the Green Man, is also the rational, measuring man. As we
headed back south he read aloud to us in the car, as he loves to, how the
Tallest Tree in the World was only discovered in 1963. Apparently, though, it
hasn't been measured since. Who's to know, he asked, if the tree we failed
to see really is the tallest still?

It wasn't the achievement I had planned, but both my parents were happy
with their rain-forest experience. We still got to see some damn big
trees. We did get properly awed. It was still a long trip -- still a kind
of pilgrimage. And, since no one else seemed foolhardy enough to want to
trudge around the big trees in the rain, we got to see them alone; father,
son and mother sharing nature's own majestic vaulted cathedrals; three
Brits doing what they do best: not quite getting where they intended but
enjoying it and doing it in the rain.

By Simon Firth

Simon Firth is a writer who lives in the San Francisco area.

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