"This Is The Forest Primeval"

"This Is The Forest Primeval"

"King of all the conifers of the world, the noblest of a noble race."

—John Muir

The world of the plant has a king. It is among the oldest and mightiest of living things. It is the giant sequoia or California big tree. Not even in past geologic periods were there trees greater than Sequoiadendron giganteum. Those who know the species best maintain that it never dies of disease or senility. If the tree survives predators during its infancy and the hazards of fire in youth, not even a bolt from heaven can end its centuries of life.

The giant sequoias are not only among the largest of tress; they are also among the most limited in range and numbers of individuals of any major tree species. Native only to central California, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, they occupy a total area of less than 1,500 square miles and are restricted to elevations from 4,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. They occur in a narrow discontinuous belt extending north to south for a distance of about 150 miles.

Although the giant sequoias have many unusual and distinctive characteristics, nothing about them is so spectacular as their size and bulk. Full—grown specimens average 275 feet in height and over 25 feet in diameter. Most of them occur in groves in Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks in California.

About 3,500 years ago, at a time when the earliest pharaohs were ruling Egypt, a tiny seed fluttered to a bare patch of ground in what is currently part of Sequoia National Park. It germinated, took root, and flourished, producing the largest tree alive in the modern world. On August 7, 1879, John Wolverton, a trapper, was at work in the Giant Forest area when he came upon this gigantic sequoia. It was by far the largest he had yet seen. So impressed was he by its immensity that he named it for the commanding officer under whom he had served during the Civil War. The tree was then and thereafter called the General Sherman tree.

Over fifty—two years later, on August 9, 1931, the headline in the Fresno Republic announced "Sherman Tree Found Largest of Sequoia Giants." This was the result of weeks of measurements by engineers employed by the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce. They measured several of the largest sequoias in the parks, and the results confirmed the General Sherman as the largest tree in the world. A close runner—up was the General Grant tree, which in some measurements is larger than the king, but total figures showed the General Sherman to be 57,336 board feet larger than its nearest competitor.

The size difference can be better appreciated if it is understood that a fair—sized pine or fir, three feet in diameter and 200 feet tall, might contain as many as 5,000 board feet. This means that the difference in wood content between the General Sherman and the General Grant is the equivalent of nine or ten average—sized pine trees. The General Sherman is estimated to contain 600,120 board feet of timber, the amount of wood needed to make more than five billion wooden kitchen matches. Or, put to other uses, its lumber would be sufficient to build forty—five family homes. The same amount of wood could be found on twenty acres of an average California pine forest. The main trunk alone would fill thirty railroad cars.

The tree stands 280 feet tall and would be significantly taller had it not been topped by natural causes, probably lightning. The diameter, measured at the widely expanding base, is over thirty—six feet, and five feet above ground it is over twenty—five feet. The tree does thin upward, but very slightly. At the height of 120 feet the diameter of the trunk is still eighteen feet, clearly showing that its massive girth is maintained.

The bark of the General Sherman is about two feet thick. The tree's largest branch, which is nearly 150 feet from the ground, is over seven feet in diameter and 154 feet long. If it were standing upright, it would dominate almost any tree in the eastern United States. The weight of the General Sherman is about 2,145 tons. Its age is estimated to be about 3,500 years, and it is still growing. The giant stands guard at the entrance of the finest part of the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. Although the General Sherman is the largest, most massive living thing, there are, in the widely varying kingdom of trees, some that are taller, larger in girth, and older. It cousins, the coast redwoods, are typically fifty feet taller, and one of the trees in Humboldt County's Redwood Creek Grove is more than 366 feet tall, having died back from almost 368 feet in the past twenty—five years. As for girth, the fattest tree is a Montezuma cypress in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, at 117.6 feet in circumference five feet above the ground. In the 1960s studies of the bristlecone pine, which grows 10,000 feet above sea level on California's eastern Sierra, revealed trees over 4,000 years in age. The Methuselah, the oldest known living bristlecone, is 4,600 years old. Dendrochronologists consider that the potential life span of a sequoia could be 5,000 years; in 1,500 years we will know.

The big trees have a family history that goes back in geologic time to the Mesozoic, the era of the dinosaurs. Their fossils have been found in widely dispersed localities such as Spitsbergen, central and western Europe, China, Japan, and across the North American continent. Fossil sequoia stumps are present in the petrified forest of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and among the stony trees of the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. No fossil trees have been found that approach the size of the living sequoia. It is sufficient that they have stood as sentinels connecting the time of dinosaurs with a time when humans can explore the heavens. With our stewardship they can be part of our future.

Through the ages the sequoias living today dominated the forest scene in the mountains and coast of California, unknown to civilized man. Nations rose and fell, civilization spread from Asia to Europe and westward throughout America, but the sequoias were not discovered until, historically speaking, today.

In 1833 Lieutenant Joseph Walker led a party across the Sierra Nevada into California and noted stands of giant trees. Other pioneers who followed also referred to the "giants," but nothing official was recorded until 1852. One spring day of that year a miner pursued a grizzly bear far up into the tall timber. History has preserved the miner's name, A. T. Dowd, and the fact that he was so astonished when he encountered the big trees that he let the bear escape. His fellow miners came to see what had so captivated him, and when they departed they spread the fame of the "mammoth tree."

The tree Dowd initially discovered was a colossus of the Calaveras Grove. It was promptly cut down by the pioneers of the area, and the stump was made into a dance floor on which thirty couples were able to stomp, trot, and waltz simultaneously to the hit bands of the day. This historic relic still endures and is known as the "Dancehall stump."

Scientists from the United States were not the first to describe the big trees. Specimens of wood, bark, and leaves were sent to Washington, D.C., for study in 1853 by way of the isthmus of Panama but never arrived. Meanwhile an English visitor returned to England with good samples of the tree. From this material botanist John Lindley properly described the tree. Naming the tree was a favorite sport of everyone involved in its study, with possessive patriots from England and America nominating their favorite heroes.

In 1854 the botanist Joseph Decaisne recognized the new conifer as a species of sequoia related to the coast redwoods. An Austrian botanist had, in 1847, named the redwoods after the great Cherokee chief Sequoia. To use the name "Sequoia" would confirm kinship between the two. To further distinguish the giant tree from the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, its taxonomic classification was later changed to Sequoiadendron giganteum.

In 1856 Hale Tharp was welcomed into the mountain home of the Potwisha tribe of the Monache Indians. He was the first white man they had ever seen. In return for their friendship he shot game for them. Two years later the chief of the tribe, Chappo, invited Tharp to see for himself the giant trees about which the Indians often spoke. He was led into the Giant Forest. What he felt as he first saw the magnificent stands of enormous trees can only be imagined. He was the first of millions to follow who would stand and look up at the awe—inspiring giants. In 1910, as he reminisced, Tharp remarked that he believed he was the first white man to enter the Sequoia National Park region. This claim has never been challenged, as Dowd's earlier discovery had been in the area of Kings Canyon National Park.

Tharp was followed shortly by John Muir, who in 1873 began an exploration and investigation of the sequoias that has remained unsurpassed. He identified 71 groves and combed the mountains for years to find traces of extinct groves. Finding none, he was able to conclude that in postglacial times the sequoias had preempted all the places in which they could flourish.

The giant trees became almost legendary in the West, while the eastern part of the country remained incredulous. In Kings Canyon lies the Centennial stump, the first of several big trees cut down for exhibit in the unbelieving world outside California. A section from this tree was shipped to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in 1876. It was almost completely rejected as nongenuine; in fact it was reported as a "tall tale from California."

The upper portion of the Centennial tree, now hollowed by fire, can be seen today lying amid young sequoias near its stump. The Chicago stump is all that remains of a giant that was felled in 1891 for shipment to the Columbian exposition of 1892 at Chicago. Even at that late date, when logging was in full swing, the easterners continued to reject what their eyes beheld and called it "the fraud from California."

Today's visitors to Kings Canyon National Park can inspect the Chicago stump and climb a permanent ladder to stand on the remains of what was once a giant tree. From the top the view is of a dead forest of stumps, the legacy left by the fruitless experiment in logging, a monument to man's greed and lack of vision.

The skepticism expressed by easterners was not shared by the timber companies. The chief virtue of the sequoias being their durability and bulk, they were sought out by lords of lumber as soon as their existence was confirmed. Judging from the appearance of the groves, these trees promised ready fortunes. The number of board feet of wood produced by such trees could be matched nowhere else in the world, at least in the minds of the lumber executives. Between 1862 and 1900 logging operations wiped out much of the finest forest in the world. Those sequoias cut in the Converse Basin are thought by many to have been the most magnificent stand of giant sequoias in existence.

Logging railroads were hurriedly built up the mountains, mills were assembled, and Lilliputian lumberjacks went to work among woody Brobdingnagians. Platforms were erected above the flaring base where two men, standing on each end, cut an enormous wedge at least ten feet into the tree. The fallers then went to the opposite side of the tree and, for days, dragged a twenty—foot saw back and forth, cutting into the heart of the tree. All the while the saw would be greased so it wouldn't stick, and wedges would be driven into the long cut to keep the saw from binding. After almost two weeks, while men worked twelve hours a day and six days a week, the first tree started to lean, and to the lusty cry of "Timber!" it began to topple. The tree struck the earth with a crack of limbs and a seismic shock that was felt nearly a mile away.

To the consternation of all, dollar sings faded from their dreams of power and glory, because the big trees were so huge and brittle that they shattered on impact with the ground. Usually only 20 to 40 percent of the log was recovered, and the remainder of the tree lay where it fell. Various methods were applied by the lumberjacks to try to soften the fall, such as "featherbedding." A ditch was dug in the projected line of the fall filled with branches and leaves to cushion its impact, but it helped very little. Another idea was to fell the tree uphill so it would have a shorter distance to drop, another futile and ineffective procedure.

It is doubtful that any of the logging companies made a profit from the giant sequoias. All a visitor needs to do is visit the Big Stump Basin and view the result of this useless devastation. Along the tourist trail are numerous remains of fallen giants.

A century of evidence remains, for even when the trees are destroyed they are slow to decay, showing how little of the actual log was carted off to the lumber mill. A prime example of waste can be seen in the carcass of the Shattered Giant. The timbering of this sequoia was so poorly done that when it impacted with the earth it fractured so completely that none of it was recovered. The entire ghastly logging enterprise ended in financial disaster, but the ravaging of the forest was an almost complete success.

The long battle to save the big trees began in earnest among Californians in the late nineteenth century. Along with John Muir, who had provided the groundwork, George Stewart, the influential editor of the Visalia Delta, championed the movement. His fiery editorials inspired many people to flock to the cause, for under government land laws the Giant Forest could still revert to the open market and be sold. Not only the timber lords but also damage caused by sheep and man—made fires could destroy the forest area.

Concerned citizens from the nearby counties petitioned Congress to establish a national park to protect the entire watershed. Not without resistance, a first step was achieved in 1890, when the Garfield Grove was set aside as a preserve. Enlargement of the park began almost immediately, and today almost all of the big trees are enclosed and protected in Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks. In 1897, when political and commercial interests attempted to take away the forest reserves, Muir achieved protection for the national parks by appealing to public sentiment. With continued vigilance, never again will they be vandalized, and for earth's inhabitants in centuries to come, they will continue to grow.

The big tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum, reproduces only from seed. This in itself is spectacular. The cone, usually about three inches long, contains several hundred tiny seeds, each the size of a pinhead and weighing about .00016 ounce (6,000 of them weigh one ounce). The seeds resemble small flakes of breakfast cereal such as uncooked oatmeal. Only the thin, dark line in the center of each seed contains the life germ, the embryonic giant tree. It is difficult to realize that from this almost microscopic seed will grow a tree twenty—five feet in diameter and weighing thousands of tons.

The remainder of the seed is a pair of golden wings that will carry the embryo through the air to the forest floor. Annually the trees will rain down millions of seeds, but with the heavy shade cast by the parent tree, the matted roots beneath them, and the floor covering of forest debris, the seeds have little chance of germinating. In fact scientists rate the odds against a single seed becoming a mature tree at about a billion to one.

For a seed to find conditions suitable for germination, it must fall on a rich mineral soil from which decaying leaves, branches, and other forest duff have been removed by fire, erosion, or other causes. Along with proper soil, plenteous sun and moisture are required. When perfect conditions are found, many seeds will germinate, and most seedlings will become a meal for wood ants, chipmunks, deer, squirrels, finches, sparrows, and other creatures of the food web. Some seedlings will make it through the first year and will face the next few centuries along with others that found the same ideal conditions. This is why the big trees are typically found in clusters, or groves, where trees of uniform size are separated some distance from other stands of giant sequoias.

One of the important requirements for the germination of the giants is fire. They are, in fact, so fire dependent that without the occasional intrusion of ravaging blazes the giant sequoia would not persist long on this earth. Adequate moisture is, of course, necessary for the seed to sprout, but this is rarely a problem at elevations above 4,000 feet. Because the seed must have exposed mineral—rich soil, fire prepares the seedbed by consuming forest litter, and making it possible for the seed to reach a soft, rich soil. It also creates openings in the forest canopy, thereby allowing sunlight, another ingredient, to reach the sequoia seedlings. While fire, usually from lightning, is at work it also removes the competition of other trees and returns nutrients, tied up in forest litter, to the soil, where they are again available for sprouting seeds. Fire may even be credited with producing hot air that causes the cones to dry out and open, for the seeds might otherwise remain enconed for twenty years or more.

When a giant sequoia falls naturally, its head is smashed into fragments that are eventually consumed by a hunting fire, while the trunk is slowly wasted away by centuries of fire and weather. One of the most interesting fire activities on the fallen trunk is the boring of great tunnel—like hollows, while the bark, which contains no resin and is fire—resistant, usually remains intact. All of the famous hollow trees were excavated by fire, for the Sequoiadendron is rarely hollowed by decay.

The best example of a prostrate giant hollowed by fire is the Fallen Monarch, located in Kings Canyon National Park. This is the tree through which, years ago, a person could ride on horseback. Although gradual subsidence has lessened the overhead clearance, anyone under six feet can still walk through the fallen tree without stooping.

In 1868 one of the first settlers in the area lived in this log for four years until his cabin was built. Folklore about the Fallen Monarch recounts that shepherds and cattlemen used the hollow log as headquarters and that in lumbering days a saloon was maintained within the tree. Because John Muir had demanded from President Theodore Roosevelt that a troop of cavalry patrol the parks, the U.S. Cavalry that protected the park area until 1913 used the hollow log to stable their horses.

The big tree keeps its youth far longer than any of its neighbors. Most firs are old in their second or third century of life, pines become aged in their fourth or fifth, while the giant sequoia growing beside them is still in the bloom of youth. It is juvenile in every feature while the neighboring pines are in their old age. It can be said that these giants will be nowhere near their prime size or beauty before their 1,500th birthday and, under favorable conditions, will not be old before their 3,000th year. Many, no doubt, will reach a riper old age than that.

The age of the trees has been determined through growth ring counts. Each year that the tree lives it adds a layer of wood and bark. If the tree is cut down, the rings of each year's growth, visible even to an untrained eye, can be counted accurately by anyone with adequate patience. Since growth takes place only in the cambium, the narrow zone between the sapwood and the bark, the outermost ring represents the last year of its life. A sufficient number of growth rings were exposed during the days of exploitation to determine the ages of many of the giants. Several were determined to be over 3,000 years, and the Chicago stump, mentioned earlier, still stands to remind us that nothing has been added to its ring count of 3,126 years since the lumber lords cut it down.

In his writings John Muir claims to have counted more than 4,000 rings in one tree but the location of the "Muir stump" is unknown. Quite possibly Muir was correct in his count, but the stump had been burned and the ring count destroyed by the many fires that swept the lumbered areas. Because this count is based on a missing stump, it cannot be recognized, and the oldest is estimated at 3,500 years.

The relative size of a Sequoiadendron is determined by the composition of the soil, water supply, and exposure to the sun. Therefore the famous Dancehall stump, discussed earlier, is twenty—six feet in diameter at the cut, yet a tree ring count showed this tree to be only 1,200 years old when felled. When standing, it easily rivaled the biggest and oldest trees in size and bulk despite its relative youth.

Most botanist believe that the big trees, if undisturbed by nature or man, could live to be 4,000 years old and that a few might even reach 5,000 years of age. After 3,000 years the tree is ripe and begins to decay in the heart, but the vitality of this species is so great that many centuries pass before it actually dies.

The reason for the trees' longevity might be, as George Stewart observed, that "the giant sequoias never learned how to die." Their long lease on life is due largely to the extraordinary quality of the bark, which in some cases is two feet thick. The bark is highly flavored with tannin, which makes the tree almost impervious to attack by any known species of insect. The thick bark contains no resin, the flammable substance that makes many types of bark burn so readily. It is spongy and fibrous and is just about as fireproof as asbestos. There is a recorded incident of a July storm in which the top of one giant tree was struck by a lightning bolt. It smoldered quietly without much damage to the tree until it was put out by a snowstorm that occurred the following October.

The big trees' reaction to fire damage or other threats to life and limb is to start healing. Growth over an injured area is twice as fast as normal, so that a three—foot scar can be healed in roughly one hundred years. The Sawed Tree in Big Stump Basin was destined for the lumber mill in the last century. After a wedge had been cut partway through the trunk, lumbering was halted, no doubt because of a change of mind, heart, or economics. The tree is still covering its scars and is being nourished by the uncut area.

The national parks evermore protect the virgin growth of the giant sequoias, and in several more centuries we will discover just how long the big tree can live. There are at present about 20,000 trees larger than ten feet in diameter. In the meantime several groves of younger sequoias are on their way. In Crescent Meadow there is a grove of 500—year—old juveniles. In the Big Stump Basin some enterprising loggers, with an eye to the future of the industry, planted a group of trees that have just passed the century mark. Along the Generals Highway a number of young trees sprang up after road construction in 1929 and are now about fifty feet high. It is a privilege for any generation of humans to observe about one—fiftieth of a big tree's life, from seedling to sapling to patriarch, while it stands as a sentinel guarding our once and future history.

The National Park Service has established a number of self—guided nature trails, some of which go well into the backcountry. Those who take the longest paths are quickly separated from the impact of civilization. Here it becomes no strain on the imagination, when encountering the groves of giants, to feel as if one is peering into the geologic past. A Triceratops might be rubbing its horns against a hearty ancestral sequoia, while overhead Pterodactyls flap from tree to tree searching for insects with twelve—inch wing spans. In truth the forest of the giants was, as it is today, the forest primeval.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth