Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 20, 2018

More than a walk in the woods

Sister Gaila and I spent our first day in bustling San Francisco, hopping on and off a tour bus that took us to see man-made wonders such as the massive Golden Gate Bridge, dozens of piers along Fisherman’s Wharf, and a replica of the Palace of Fine Arts from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. There were also lesser sights we had to check out such as shops selling Ghirardelli chocolate, Boudin sourdough bread and other specialties. But by the next day, we were more than ready to board the van that would transport us to serenity of the Muir Woods National Monument.

Aaron, our driver-guide, explained during the hour-long ride what we would see in the forest where 500-to-1,000-year-old towering redwoods reign. He said the trees, the tallest living things on earth at 200 feet or more, depend on California’s coastal fog belt for survival, especially during the dry summer months. As the fog condenses on leaves and needles, the water drips to the forest floor and soaks in. The trees’ three-inch-to-foot-thick bark holds water too. The trees can propagate both by olive-sized cones, each with 50 - 60 seeds, or by burls - masses of dormant buds that grow on the outer layer of the tree.

One hundred and fifty million years ago, ancestors of redwood and sequoia trees grew throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. But over time, that dwindled to one species found in central China and two others in a coastal belt between Monterey, California and Oregon.

The Gold Rush of the mid-19th century brought people from all over the world and the population of San Francisco increased from 800 to more than 40,000 in just one year. The population explosion meant that people needed wood for homes, businesses, hotels and, eventually, railroad ties. The estimated two million acres of old-growth forest containing redwoods were mostly cut down by the early 20th century.

Just north of San Francisco Bay, Redwood Canyon remained uncut, mainly due to its relative inaccessibility. William Kent and his wife Elizabeth purchased 611 acres of the land for $45,000 with the goal of protecting the redwoods and the mountain above them. But in 1907, a water company in nearby Sausalito planned to dam Redwood Creek, flooding the valley. Kent objected, so the water company threatened to use eminent domain. Kent then donated 295 acres of the redwood forest to the federal government, thus bypassing the local courts.

On Jan. 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a national monument, the first to be created from land donated by a private individual. The suggested name was the Kent Monument, but Kent insisted it be named after Scottish-born naturalist and conservationist John Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club.

Gaila and I were certainly appreciative of these conservation efforts as we made our way slowly along Hillside Trail. We stopped now and then to read signs and to listen to the quietness. In some places, the trail ran parallel to or crossed Redwood Creek. The smell of damp earth and needles reminded me of our trips to a mountain cabin in California when we were young.

A sign explained the formation of “family circles” in the woods. Hundreds of years ago, a single tall redwood was damaged, perhaps by lightning, leaving a blackened tree stump. But burl sprouts appeared along the root crown of the original tree, forming a circle of trees around it.

As we approached Cathedral Grove, a sign cautioned us to “enter quietly.” That wasn’t difficult as we were too awed by the height of the trees to do much talking. The sign said: “Cathedral Grove was set aside as a quiet refuge to protect its natural soundscape in an increasingly noisy world. The soundscape is vital to animals for hunting and foraging, courtship and mating, nurturing young, and avoiding predators ...”

Today, the forest is home to deer, coyotes, gray foxes, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, possums, bats, wolves, squirrels, banana slugs and a few mountain lions and bears. And for a brief time, it was also our home.

Summing up our day, Gaila said, “It was so great to be in nature after a day on asphalt! Gorgeous tall trees and green space ...”

Even though our time in the woods ended all too soon, we had to agree with a quote from Muir: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.”

The top-left and top-center photos provide an idea of how large the redwood trees are; the top-right image is of Gaila holding one of the seed cones; the family circle of trees in the bottom photo has grown from an older tree at the very center of the cluster.

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