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The Cone-bearing Trees of Yosemite (1939) by James E. Cole


Sequoia gigantea (Lindl.) Decn.

Big Tree (Sequoia), Sequoia gigantea, Sequoiadendron giganteum
[click to enlarge]
To stand beside the solemn majesty of the colossal trunks of Big Trees and to contemplate the historical events, the rise and fall of civilizations that have taken place since these very trees took root and grew, and then to go back millions of years when their ancestors mingled with the reptilian monsters, is to realize the resolute will to live that permits the unconquerable Big Trees to span the centuries of time man calls long. Only by standing among them can one direct his thoughts backward into the hoary past and know that any living thing could look down on so many centuries. There is then no argument as to their age. For what does it matter whether a Big Tree has lived 2000, 3000 or even 4000 years. Certainly, it is beyond the comprehension of any man to know the meaning of 3000 years of existence. It would be like compressing within his memory all the episodes since human history was first recorded. How impossible this proposition is. Keen must be a man’s memory who in old age can project himself back through the maze of incidents to a clear knowledge of his own childhood. No wonder, then, one is ill-at-ease and speechless in the presence of Big Trees. He is standing in the temples of the symbols of permanence, in‘ruding in the cathedrals of time, a stranger in the home of a resolute race that by virtue of thousands of years of residence proclaims its right to possess, to live and to thrive.

Soon, however, the awe of the unfathomable age of these relicts of time is supplanted by a score of questions, the foremost being how and why. Certain obvious answers that scratch the surface only may partly satisfy. It is readily understood that trees with resin-free wood and fibrous, asbestos-like bark as much as two feet thick can withstand forest fires more successfully than thin-barked pitchy trees. It is obvious that wood containing large quantities of tannin would repel insect pests which attack and kill the associates of these trees. But these evident explanations do not solve the problem. They are factors, to be sure, but not the solution. This remains locked in their silent, sturdy heartwood awaiting the magic key of a discerning mind.

Although the age of Big Trees is utterly incomprehensible, it would seem that any person could appreciate their size. Certainly, trees twenty to thirty feet in diameter must look large. But this is frequently not so, for Big Trees have a subtle way of minimizing their immensity especially when surrounded by large pines and firs and other Big Trees. The well-proportioned symmetry of the colossal trunks, that grow steadily up without appreciably diminishing in diameter, makes them quite conspicuous elements amongst their somber hued associates. Yet they do not stand out as curiosities or marvels. Instead, the Giant Sequoias seem to be in serene harmony, just stronger notes in the symphony of trees.

Since the Big Tree grows in such restricted and well-known localities, no summary of their identification characters is necessary. Details of this nature may be found, if desired, in many publications. Likewise, many descriptions of their majesty and beauty have been attempted. Big Trees seem, however, to defy adequate interpretation. Each person must experience for himself their solemn sermons, must see the trees whose ancestors existed before there were birds to nest in their boughs and must wonder at the persistence of a race that has lived eon after eon practically unchanged.

Visit one of the three groves of sequoias in Yosemite National Park and experience for yourself the feeling that inspired Colonel Charles Goff Thomson to write the following beautiful lines:

These Sequoia gigantea represent the only living
things that bridge humanity back through eons
to the age of reptiles.

Here live venerable forest kings in reveries that
carry back a thousand years before Jesus
Christ walked the shores of Galilee.

In their majestic shadows fretting men may well
pause to ponder values—to consider the ironic
limitations of three-score years and ten.

Here, through a compelling humility, men may achieve
a finer integrity of soul.

Next: IdentificationContentsPrevious: Western Juniper

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