Monday, September 19, 2011

They Might Be Giants... But they don't fill your stomach*

We spent the weekend camping and hiking among the giant sequoias of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks.

Show offs.

Oaks could grow that big if they weren’t so busy devoting a huge chunk of their growth energy into other things… like feeding the entire forest and – in the past and in the future – entire human populations.  With sequoias it’s all about me, me, me.  Hey, look at me!  I’m gigantic.  Never mind that I don’t produce enough mast to feed an elderly vole with digestive complaints for a week.  Just stand there and gape in wonder at my hugeness.  Bow down before me!

I’m joking, of course.  I visited Muir Woods near San Francisco many years ago, but this was my first trip to Sequoia NP and NF – a trip which started with pitching a tent in the pitch black darkness of a state forest Friday night, and peaking out the tent after the moon rose to see the ghostly stumps of 15 foot diameter redwoods felled a century ago.

You go there, you know what you’re going to see, you walk the well marked, well paved paths (alongside, it seemed, half the population of Germany) and you still end up standing there in bewildered awe looking up at these giant trees.  In mean, they are really, really big.  You know how big you think they are?  They are bigger than that.  Jeepers and gosh almighty big.

In the 1800’s a cross section of a tree from what is now Grant Grove was sent east to amaze and delight the populace.  It had to be cut into sections for transport.  Once reassembled out east no one believed that the pieces could possibly have come from a single tree, and it was called the “California Hoax.”

One thing I was pleased to see was the emphasis in the interpretive material – signs and brochures – of the fire scars most of these giants brandish, especially the massive General Grant tree.  I hope that these repeated references to the role of fire cause people – at least a few people and at least in some small way – to view these arboreal giants as part of a dynamic, ever-changing environment – an environment that is at once benevolent and violent.  It also positively addresses a major pet peeve I have:  When wildfires are covered in the news they are usually said to have “destroyed” a certain number of acres.  Destroyed?  In natural terms fires take life, but they also give it.  Fire is both destructive and regenerative, and that usually gets overlooked in the media… until someone in the media realizes, “Hey, there are wildflowers and trees growing again in Yellowstone,” and files a report expressing their wonder and surprise at Nature’s resilience.  You mean fire didn’t leave Yellowstone a scorched and blackened dead zone for all eternity?  You don’t say.

Even though I loved every minute spent gawking at the sequoias, it is probably very safe to say – and not surprising to regular readers - that I was the only guy in the parks this weekend more interested in the oaks than the redwoods.

I saw and identified (I think) my first California black and canyon live oaks (more on those in upcoming posts).  And came up with more questions/thoughts about possible hybrids thereof.

And in one of the visitors centers there was a small display (which I should have photographed but didn’t) about the heavy reliance of indigenous people in the area on acorns as a food source, complete with a photograph of a woman grinding acorns into flour and an absolutely gorgeous woven basket used in gathering and hauling acorns.

It struck me:  Here we are, Lilliputian in the land of massive trees, but it was the rugged, often scrubby oaks of the area the provided sustenance to wildlife and humans alike for thousands of years.  Spectacularly enormous trees are great, but they don’t put dinner on the table.  That requires a tree capable of drawing nutrients from the granite and selflessly (not really, since it’s really all about successful reproduction from the point of view of the oaks) converting those nutrients to convenient, tasty little bundles o’ energy.

* Ha!  I wrote the headline after the post for once, so it actually has something to do with the drivel that follows!

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