By Nick Simonson
I’ve never been much for coincidences, believing that all things are connected, particularly those in the natural world. While luck, chance and odd occurrences do exist, everything happens for a reason. Preparing for a long weekend trip to see friends in northern California and the redwood trees near the state’s northern border, the phrase that kept running through my head, as we prepared for the air travel and drive up the coast to see the towering giants was: “better do it before they’re gone.”
It’s a pessimistic way of looking at our natural world, and as a conservationist, I hate the negative connotation it carries. It’s as if we’re unable to save something so towering, and beautiful, and important that we’d better just take it all in before it’s gone, leaving nothing behind beyond the text on a webpage or faded print on a folded newspaper in a trunk. Times being what they are, however, with noted drought conditions throughout the west coast and much of the western United States, hydrological issues, and so many other headline-grabbing events beyond conservation it’s easy to get sucked into that mentality.
That was more so the case when chatting with our flight attendant on the descent of our first leg of the trip. We discussed the current state of air travel, the return to somewhat normal conditions following the pandemic, and the not-so-normal ones her colleagues were facing in Europe this spring. When we turned to my world, and reasons for travel, she responded to my destination and our family’s plans with: “good, you really should see them” then quietly as an aside with a zinging mix of sarcasm and acknowledgement of world affairs with a closing “…before they’re gone.”
Shocked by the identical statement that had served as the propelling reason for my trip, it became obvious I’m not the only one thinking that way about our amazing natural world, but whether a cities-based flight attendant or an avid hunter and angler, it’s not hard to get pulled into that thought pattern. Chronic wasting disease, drought, and the prospect of lacking water this spring close to home are a microcosm of national and world-wide natural issues which parallel the sedimentation and low flows that have led to annually decreasing salmon runs on the Eel River I read about as we made our way up the coast of northern California, and how climate change may impact the flow and its surrounding forests.
At the entrance to the Ladybird Johnson Grove in the Redwood National Forest, we were greeted by a towering redwood, which was really just a young one compared to some of the sequoias and coastal species that were more than 2,000 years old still scattered about the state. The old scar of a saw blade marked its trunk, as if this was where the logging which felled thousands of other old growth redwoods sixty years ago stopped in mid-stroke, sparing the giant as the final shift whistle blew for the lumberjack crew.
The land around the grove had been cleared almost completely as the old image on the information placard showed the former first lady on the edge of a jagged and bald hillside. Behind her, outside of the frame was the edge of the park and the grove of redwoods named in her honor. As we walked the loop and my boys played on the trunks of the protected trees and the stumps of those that had fallen after several centuries, the guided tour read aloud by our family friend explained the life cycle of the redwood.
Through fires, droughts and winter windstorms long before humankind, the first peoples, and even those seeking gold had arrived in the area, the trees had evolved and survived as blackened and hollowed trunks still amazingly held their green branches aloft hundreds of feet in the air. Even following the clear-cutting of the 1900s, young redwoods found their way skyward and a new generation of trees began to rise on the landscape. Through conservation efforts of the old growth areas, and protections for the new ones learned from the digital tour on our walk about the loop of 1.5 miles, I began to realize that I would not outlive these trees and they would likely be here long after me, conditioned to deal with fire, dry conditions, and the other threats they’ve been facing and protected from the ones we might present. Somewhere along the trip, in my readings of articles and listenings to stories about the region, and conservation in general, another phrase turned up amidst the towering trunks, and it changed my perspective as I stood under the ancient trees: “nature is far more forgiving than we deserve.”
The combination of both guilt and hope in those eight words confirmed to me that we have our place in this world as stewards, to do our best to protect the land, the flora and fauna that reside there with us, and to leave it in as good of shape as we found it, or better if we possibly can, to allow nature to find a way and not have to work so hard to come back from barren hillsides or polluted waters. A seedling is a start. A pair of spawning salmon is hope. And the first few drops of rain after the drought is a turn in the right direction. Whether we hunt the woods or the rolling plains, fish the waters that flow through them, or simply enjoy walking amidst the grasses and trees available to us, we must work to be sure they are here long after our stories have been written and it is incumbent upon us to make sure that nature can maintain, or better yet, improve on what we have left, to be certain that we are the ones outlived by the tallest of trees, the annual returns of fish and those places most special…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: That Big. A coastal redwood at the entrance to Ladybird Johnson Grove in the Redwood National Forest greets those who visit the area. Simonson Photo.