The flight out to San Francisco was uneventful, except that the 767 was nearly empty. Covid-19 anxiety. We took off from Philly at 8, landed in San Francisco at eleven. Six-hour flight. You do the math. But there it is. They’ll make up for it on the return trip. We’ll get those three hours back says Timekeeper. Just you wait and see. Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. By now, time is a form of matter, I suspect.
Went to the Safeway on my way to the air bnb. No bread. No cleaning supplies. Lots of bare shelves. More Covid anxiety, except San Francisco was one of the original hot spots. So it was more like anxiety with a side dish of frenzy. California always wants to be first with any new trend. Too bad that’s not always such a great thing. I wound up with brioche for my peanut butter and jelly. Only in CA, except not. Panic is country wide. We’re all “home sheltered.” CDC has decreed gatherings of more than 10 people are a bad idea. So we’re all supposed to work from home, except that doesn’t work very well with trees. Bar tenders are out of work. Restaurants and stores are closed. Spending on anything but food has ceased. The economy has seized. The stock market is in furry fall. To spend a day in the woods with a few other people climbing a redwood may be the best way to retain sanity.
I was stalking the weather, as I often do. The extended forecast on Weather World made it look like Monday might be rainy. I don’t like climbing in the rain. The climb was on, no matter the weather. The list said to bring raingear. It rained most of Sunday night, and was still at it when I got up Monday morning. I queued up the weather app on my phone (further stalking). The rain was still raining. The temperature was thirty-four. Damp and cold really sucks. It even agreed with actual observations. It doesn’t always. The rain did seem to be moving away. I needed the wipers most of the way there, but the rain appeared to be in remission as I got near.
I don’t know if it’s because the ocean is on the wrong side of me or what, but my sense of direction is really messed up. The house is on the east side of CA 17. The redwood is on the west side of CA 17. Logically I should have to cross 17. But I didn’t, at least not that I was aware of. But once we were up the tree, we could see the ocean. Maybe it’s California Rules.
The morning of the climb, I cued up the map app on my phone. The address was 14215 Long Ridge Rd., a twenty minute drive, so it said. I got to Long Ridge Rd. I got to 14231, looking for 14215. Close. Next place had a huge redwood that had fallen across the driveway. About 16’ of tree had been removed to allow access. The rest laid there, went out through the woods, and popped out on the road 200 feet away. Where it was chopped off, it was still 3’ thick. But in spite of the fallen tree, the address sign said 14211, and then the numbers just got squirrely after that and seemed to have no sense of order. The GPS, which had been silent, calmly informed me that I should “return to the route,” meaning that it thought its silly human wasn’t paying it enough attention. They like to be scratched behind the ears, you know. And they get grumpy when you don’t listen.
I turned around and went back to 14231. 14235 was also on the stump. And then there was a faded, faint 14215 under them, down near the ground. The roads around here, and this includes the driveway, were either mapped by someone with really bad palsy or an EKG machine. It was enough to make the driver woozy. Admittedly, all the wiggles are necessary to accommodate the terrain. These slopes make the best West Virginia has to offer look like flat ground. The wiggles of the driveway (a scenic attraction in their own right) led me to the top of a knoll, directly above the fallen redwood at 14211. Can’t get there from here.
Scott came out and introduced himself as Scott. See that one out behind the house, he asked. That’s the one. We call it grandpa.
That scrubby little thing? I said.
Well, the hill drops down behind the house. The tree, as is common with trees, gets bigger when you get up close and personal.
Jean arrived in her Washington Jeep. She said she was from Port Arthur or Angeles or one of those portly places on the Olympic Peninsula. She had her own tree experiences involving a large western red cedar which went up some distance and forked. One day she came home and couldn’t find her van. A fork of the cedar had flattened the van and buried it in foliage. Then a year or so later, she came home and the other fork took out her shed. She said those were the only two things the forks could possibly hit, and both scored direct hits. But now the stump has new sprouts and a commitment to reach for the sky.
Which reminds me. I believe the trees around here are so tall- -some more than 300 feet- -because Hollywood was up here shooting a western or a gold rush movie, something with good guys and bad guys, you know. And when the bad guy said “reach for the sky,” the trees thought he meant them, and so they did. Just a theory. There’s this whole thing these days about how trees talk to each other. A little anthropomorphic, if you ask me.
Tim came out and introduced himself as Tim, and gave a little background about how he came to be a tree climbing instructor. Back in the dark ages before 1990, little was known about the ecology of the canopy in redwood forests. Since he had tree climbing skills, he could help the non-arboreal scientific types get up into the canopy to study their studies and research their research. We went around the ring, just the four of us for this climb.
Scott reintroduced himself as Scott. He’s pretty clear on his identity. His story wasn’t too different from Tim’s. He has a background in biology and botany and other plantish things. He, too, got hooked up with the research crowd. Part of his work was rambling around northern CA seeking the tallest redwood. It was 366 feet when “discovered.” It wasn’t lost. It knew perfectly well (within the limits of a tree’s cognitive capacity) where it was; it had been there all along. And just because somebody else doesn’t know where you are doesn’t mean you’re lost. Scott, being the prescient sort of fellow that he is, was keenly aware of these nuances. It has grown to 384 since he’s made its acquaintance. He and Tim told tales of life in the tops, whole plant communities no one even knew were up there. Sometimes they’d spend nights up there, a world away. He seemed to think he’d been at this for quite some time, having started in ’92.
Jean said she was Jean, which was (on the one hand) no surprise, and on the other hand, very affirming in these uncertain times. Her husband had had his fun at a trade show the previous week where they had seven buildings full of tech stuff. He only got to five of them. She had thoughts of going, but when he said the word “Vegas,” that thought evaporated. So now she’s here and ready to climb a tree.
I introduced myself as me. Logger with a BS in forestry and one in Plant Path. Tree climber since 1969. Fifty years ago last year. My goal is to climb a tree in every state. Actually cut one down, because that’s what I do. But my insurance wouldn’t cover me in NY & CA, so I was faced with the quandry of how to get CA under my belt. To the Google! Climb a redwood. And here I am.
Tim gave us a little background. This place used to be owned by a logger, but the neighbors, who were afraid he’d cut these trees, effectively ran him out of here. Now the place is owned by Janice and Harold. They may be here for lunch. If you meet them, please be sure to thank them for allowing us to climb their tree. The logger did cut some trees here, and for whatever reason, he used to go up grandfather here and do some pruning. At first I had concerns about the impact of climbing, but when I learned that grandfather had already been subjected to human presence in his branches, I was put at ease.
The four of us gathered under Harold & Janice’s deck for a kinesthetic lesson on how to climb a tree. The method was single-line, top-roped. There, off the joists of the deck, hung two single lines, one for me and one for Jean. We each got a saddle. There were only three holes and I put my feet through them wrong four times. New dogs and old tricks. Lucky hogs and blind acorns. Or something. With patience and persistence, Tim managed to show my feet where they actually belonged. Pull the belt up. Cinch up the waist strap. Good to go.
Then, using locking carabiners, he fastened the two ascenders onto the belt. One had a pair of loops for my feet. The other had a little hand grip for- -of all things- -my right hand. See, now this is the way you do it, he said. You lift your feet up so you’re kind of scrunched in the middle. Stand up. Slide your hands up, left on the rope and right on the ascender. It works out so you sort of move like an inch worm. And this (he pointed to a little flippy lever) is the equivalent of the ejection seat button on the dashboard that says ‘don’t ever push this button.’ Because if you do, the ascender can come off the rope and there you go. When we get to the top- -or as high as you want to go before we get to the top- -I’ll switch you over to this gizmo. He held up a device that looked not too different from a can opener.
It opens like this, and the rope goes through here, and it snaps shut. When you’re not holding onto the handle, it’s locked. You’re not going anywhere. Pull down a little. There’s a sweet spot where it’ll let you move. But if you panic or pull down too hard, it’ll lock right up. That’s not a problem. Just flip it back up to the home position. He demonstrated the hooking up, the going up and the coming down, all there under the deck. Now it’s your turn, he said.
Put your feet in the stirrups (there girls. There are stirrups other places than on horses. Hah!). stand up. Grab ahold of the upper ascender with your right hand, and the rope with your left. Your arms are pretty long; it may work best if you put your left hand above the ascender. Keep your forearm parallel to the rope and lift on it. The ascender should slide upward freely. Then scooch your feet up towards your waist. Sort of like an inchworm. Rinse & repeat. I reached up and slapped the bottom of the deck joist with a rowdy woo-hoo. These guys are pretty contemplative and (seemingly) not given to rowdy behavior. I had to explain the river yell to them. Yeah, great, said Tim. Now it’s time to go down.
The stirrups came of and were stowed around back of the saddle on a clip ring. We’re going to start off slow, Tim said. The hand ascender’s going to stay hooked up, as a safety. So take your right thumb and release the lever that grips the rope. Slide the ascender down towards your waist. Don’t let go of it. Then with your left hand, pull down on the descender lever, but make sure the strap for the ascender doesn’t get tight, or I’ll have to come over there & pull you up by your bootstraps. Neither one of us will be happy about that. Being that my feet were dangling, there was no need to reverse the inchworm effect. Just make sure the strap on the hand ascender didn’t get tight. A few iterations and I was on the ground. Seems like you got the hang of that, Tim said. I’m thinking “I have to get a set of these.” Scott and Jean had been engaged in parallel exercises. When she got back to the ground, Tim asked “any questions? OK, let’s head down the hill.”
To call the path a trail would be to use the term “trail” loosely. It was more like a cat path, which is several orders of magnitude smaller than a cow path. In keeping with the roads laid out by Zizzies, the trail required several switchbacks. The tree loomed.
It was actually three trunks with a shared base, a wall of tree. It was more than 20 feet wide. The ruddy bark bore black blotches, evidence of fires in times past. Thick roped ridges ran skyward in a gentle spiral twist. After a silent moment of awe, Scott spoke.
Notice how the needles on these little guys here look more like yew. They need to maximize solar uptake. As far as they’re concerned, that’s their most limiting factor. Moisture down here near the ground isn’t a problem. But they can’t close their stoma completely, and the environment gets drier and drier as the tree goes up. They gamed the system. For every 13 feet of height, they need to pull an atmosphere’s worth of tension to lift water from the ground. So they get as much as they can from the air. That’s why the fog is so important to them. The leaves near the top are much smaller, almost feathery so they don’t lose water. Jean held up a sprig of a twig that had fallen. The needles were a fraction of the size of those from the little guy on the ground. Yes! Exactly, Scott said.
Among gymnosperms- -conifers—redwoods are unusual. They sprout vigorously from stumps, and they have epicormic sprouts. In a stroke of luck, even though 95% of the old trees have been cut, the genetic material has been preserved in these sprouts.
They don’t have crown shyness.
They what? I interrupted.
They share air space. A branch from one tree will grow over through its neighbor. As they grow and become more stationary, they’ll often fuse in a graft.
Ah. That, I said. I thought you said crown shine-ness. The hardwoods back home like to beat each other up to keep their neighbors out of their space.
The world is full of amazing things when you pay attention, Scott continued. You’ll see redwoods growing in a circle. We call that a fairy ring. The “kids” sprout up from the roots or stump of the parent tree. The circle might be thirty feet across. That gives you an idea of the size of the parent tree. They can reproduce sexually- -by seed- -but these sprouts, which are really clones of the parents, are far more common.
There’s this whole underground world that’s out of our view, but is just as amazing. The roots graft together, so that even though the trees can’t root very deeply, they provide a vast mat of support for each other. Then there’s this whole symbiotic community of mycorrhizal fungi. It really becomes hard to tell where one organism ends and the other begins. The fungi are in the tree’s cells. There are others in the needles that help get moisture for the tree.
Tree-ologists estimate that fire ran through these woods at intervals usually not longer than fifty years. That kept fuel accumulation at reasonable levels. The bark near the base may be as much as six inches thick. It’s naturally flame retardant. The epicormic sprouts don’t have the thick bark of the trunk, and they’re killed when the flames and heat lick up the trunk. The sprouts die and fall off. That way, there’s no fuel ladder to the crown. Questions? Great! Let’s climb a tree!
Scott and Jean went to the uphill side of the tree. Tim & I went around to the downhill side. We were more than ten feet below Scott & Jean. Tim pulled the eject button-lever and put the ascenders on the rope. The first few inchworms worth of climbing, there may not be enough weight on the rope’s tail to let it feed itself through the foot ascender, he said. You’ll have to reach down and give it a little encouragement with your hand. It was true, but after about the third inchworm scooch, it fed itself nicely.
Since we’re starting below them, let’s get started, Tim said. We’ll go as far as the fork where the trees separate. Try to keep your feet against the tree. The fork was about twenty feet above us. So off we went, and when we got to the fork, there was Scott with a smile on his face.
There’s no better place to be than up a tree, he said. We all agreed and paused to survey the view. That one down there with the flat top and the old lightning strike running down the side, we call than one Sparky. And this one over here, see all those little holes in the bark? The acorn jay gathers up acorns and stashes them on those little holes. We call that three “the pantry.” Then when times are lean, the jays return and raid the pantry. Seems like a better plan than burying the acorns. Maybe not if the acorns had a plan to become oak trees. But as a way to store food, it’s pretty ingenious. You won’t see them higher up because the bark gets too thin. But up there, you’ll see little horizontal rows of holes made by sapsuckers. They peck at the bark. Sap oozes out. Bugs come to feast on the sap. The sapsucker eats the bugs. Not a bad way to make a living, if perhaps a bit treacherous from the bug’s point of view. We climbed on for a few minutes, then paused again.
It’s nice to take it slow and savor the time spent here in the tree, Tim said. The other day, we had a group of tree climbers and their boss. They were in a ferocious hurry to get to the top of the tree.
Yeah. This is one of those places where it’s more about the journey than the destination, I said. There are so many ways to deepen your consciousness. Mindfulness, awareness, gratefulness, practicing being present. It all feeds the sense of awe that there even is such a thing as this tree.
Tim mused too much testosterone, or they had to show their boss. I don’t know. But to hurry the climb like that is to miss so much of it. Didn’t make much sense to me or Scott, but we’re just the guides. Customer may always be right, but there are times he’s not. Again we climbed for a few minutes. We watched the mist rising off the mountainsides. Down below us, a rooster crowed. That’s not a wild one, mused Scott. But then there was a turkey not too far from the rooster, and he was answered by another turkey over behind us. Thus we had stereo turkeys. We arrived at what Tim and Scott called the braided bacon branch. It was a study in the physics of trees. Scott spoke.
See how the branch is oval? He asked. Conifers add wood to the bottom of the branch as it grows. The pith, what’s usually considered the middle of the branch, is way up near the top. The growth rings go the whole way around. One is added each growing season. But the rings will be tightly packed on the upper surface of the branch, and often pretty far apart on the bottom. Hardwoods are the opposite. They rely on tension wood added to the upper side of the branch. And see how, near the base of the branch, there’s a flare? That acts like a gusset or prop to hold the branch up and support it. It’s another aspect of the tree’s use of compression wood for strength and support. I think the biggest one of those I know of is about twenty feet deep or long or however you want to call it. When they get that big, they get flattened. It’s called fasciated. We climbed on again. Tim stopped and sat on a branch. I guessed it at twelve inches diameter. He asked what I thought it weighed. I pictured picking it with a crane. I don’t know. 1500-2000 lbs? Well, he said do the math. It’s seventy pounds per cubic foot. It’s an eighteen inch branch, and it goes out there fifty feet. That’s sixty cubic feet of leaves, twigs, bark and wood. I did the quick math, 60×70. My eyes got wide. That’s 4200 pounds! That’s right, Tim said. And that’s not accounting for rain or wind loading. Yeah, I said. I’ve taken up telling people that the wonder of the world is not that trees fall over, but that they are able to stand at all. Tim nodded. We climbed the last ten feet.
I sat on a branch. One hundred and eighty feet above the ground. You know, I said to no one in particular, when I signed up for this, I was really hoping to make it above three hundred feet. I looked around. The ground had disappeared in a mist of feathery green foliage below. The Pacific Ocean was visible through a gap in the crown. The clouds had lifted. The hills were dappled with sunshine. But you know, I said, this is enough.
Later that afternoon, I went to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It was sobering to realize that I hadn’t even made it to the first branch on some of those giants. They were in the 300-foot club. 180 was enough.
 In the best tradition of worry, it was all for naught. No rain during the climb.
 My daughters are horse-o-philes (equuophiles). I, on the other hand, have a reputation as a misequusonist.
 The river-worthiness of a raft crew on a whitewater trip is judged by the volume and vehemence with which they yell YEE-HAW. Known as a river yell.
 Carl Sandburg. The Rootabaga Stories. Imaginary creatures who like life crooked.
 Narrow gauge RRs were laid out on the sides of mountains. They couldn’t build a curve, so the train went up or down in a motion like a falling leaf: forward for one stretch, backward for the next. It’s different than a hairpin.
 Epi=upon; corm=stem. These branches arise from dormant buds beneath the bark.
 In the east, fairy rings are circles in a lawn or pasture grass. It’s another effect of mycorrhiza. The fungus helps the grass secure nutrients.