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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


To the lover of trees it is something of an epoch when he enters for the first time the vast virgin forest of the Sierra Nevada, and his eye roves, with that perfect satisfaction of which delight is only the froth and lightest part, so deep and pure is it, through and over the countless, countless, countless myriads of the stateliest members of the noblest family of trees (for so I rank the conifers). From every rise and opening he sees with exultation still, and only, the unbroken forest: mountains, yes, leagues and ranges of mountains, as far as sight will carry, dimming away into blue infinity, still clad with the illimitable forest.

For one loves the forest much as one loves (or should love) one’s fellow men; that is to say, both in the aggregate and in particular. The tree-lover, surveying a great expanse of forest, is transported in fancy over among the objects of his love. He walks in spirit among them, and responds to every individual of all the beloved host. He perceives by a mysterious sense their distinguishing beauties: the noble sweep of this one’s broad and level boughs; how that one is braided and shagged with moss; and where that other is rubbed and polished by the horns of deer. He sees and hears, a day’s march away, the tinkling monologue of the tiny forest rivulet, creeping and stealing about the mossy roots of his friends; yes, and lights his “little friendship fire” by it, pulls out and eats his bread and cheese and reads his pocket Thoreau by it. So that the quality of a forest, like that of mercy, may be said to be “twice blest.”

If then to the tree-lover it be a privilege to enter the great Sierra forest, he will feel almost as if he engaged in a rite when he stands for the first time in a grove of the great Sequoias. If among the innumerable hosts of the pines and firs he finds true companionship and feels joy and thankfulness, among the great Sequoias he will receive a more solemn message and return a deeper response. In them we have what seems to be the last survival of the Heroic Age of the earth, that misty dawn of time when all things, man perhaps included, reached the gigantic in stature and age. They are an anachronism, an unaccountable oversight, a kind of arboreal Rip Van Winkles; and it is a high distinction of California that it is her exhilarating air and her sun-drenched soil that have tempted these patriarchs to remain with us in our feebler times, instead of joining their old companions “the monsters of the Prime” upon some lustier and more youthful planet.

The spectator experiences among the Sequoias something, I imagine, of the awe of an Egyptian who should be introduced into one of those vast temple-halls where he would see ranged on all sides the colossal figures of the king-gods of his race; the awe of unutterable age, irresistible power, and infinite repose. It might be called, in fact, an Egyptian impression that is made by these mighty trees upon the beholder. They are Egyptian in their size and ponderous immobility; in their color, which is Egyptian red in the stems of mature trees, while the great limbs far overhead are of a strange flesh-bronze hue, round, smooth, and gleaming, like Cleopatra’s arm; and I cannot conceive of a more magnificently Egyptian portal to some vast hall or temple than would be formed by using two of these huge trunks for pillars with another laid crosswise for lintel.

In some other regards the impressiveness of the Sequoias is of an architectural kind. This is due partly to the incomparable shaft of the tree, which seems to stand column-like upon the earth rather than to be rooted in it. No limbs break the perfect roundness for half the tree’s height, only there may be thrown out at one or two points a branchlet, hardly more than a twig, of delicate foliage, bursting through the covering of bark like a spurt of green smoke in token of the energy within. These sprays of lace-like foliage are a noticeable characteristic, and add an unexpected grace and playfulness to the dignity of the tree. Even very old trees will break out in these flights of fancy, like youthful old gentlemen who are fond of sporting loud neckties.

The massiveness of the trunk is relieved also by a fluting of the bark which is often so regular as to be

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remarkable, and which adds to the architectural suggestion. This fluting is often broken up near the base of the tree into a network of tracery, the bark running into a maze of niches and foliations that is richly Gothic and beautiful. As one stands in the dream-like silence of these groves of ancient trees, the solemnity of their enormous age and size, together with the grace and fancifulness of this carved and fretted ornamentation, combine to produce a cathedral mood of quietude and receptiveness.

The two species of Sequoia, the S. gigantea of the Sierra Nevada and the S. sempervirens of the Coast Range, seem to be the last survivors of a genus which was once widely distributed, and which can be traced by its fossil remains throughout Europe and Asia, as well as North America. It is remarkable and fortunate, in view of that fact, that there is no indication of decline in the surviving members of the family: rather the contrary, for on all hands the sons of the giants are arising in stalwart thousands to carry on the royal line.

Impressive as it is to gaze upon these trees that have kept note, as it were, of human history from its beginnings, it is at least equally so to imagine the course of time with which a sequoia that is now beginning its career may run parallel. On a moderate comparison the Sequoia may look to live fifty years for every year of human life. What a kaleidoscope of fantastic pictures rises in one’s mind when one thinks of the possible conditions of life and society five hundred or a thousand years hence! Yet the Sequoias that are now foot-high seedlings will then be only in what answers with us to youth or boyhood. He would be a desperately bold American or Briton who should calmly forecast the world-position of his fatherland ten centuries hence, when these infant trees will hardly be approaching maturity; while if one attempts to look forward through the mists of the slow-passing centuries during which they will be standing in unchanging strength, the phantasmagoria becomes too wild for the mind even to wish to dwell upon. It is solemn enough, standing here, to conjure up the long drama of the past which these great trees have seen enacted; but it is almost heart-shaking to reflect how unimaginably strange will be the course of history of which the tree that grows from the papery seed which I shake out of last year’s cone may be the impassive spectator.

The young Sequoias for the first few years of their life show no mark of their royal nature, but crook and twist about in a particularly ambitionless manner. Their branchlets sprawl out in a short-sleeved, lanky fashion, and their heads, as if they were young anthropophagi, “do grow beneath their shoulders.” Standing generally in tangled clumps and thickets, they have an awkward, schoolboyish air, very different from that of the pines and firs, which even while crowded in their nurseries show their lineage in an aristocratic trimness.

But after a few decades blood begins to tell. The Sequoia becomes conscious of his destiny, and, answering the inward urge, makes for the skies in a climbing, high-hearted fashion that is fine to behold. Still the family likeness does not shine out clearly as they stand mixed in the general forest of the conifers, all of high birth. They keep yet the thin whip-like branchlets that grow irregularly from foot to crown, by now bare of foliage, but furred instead with yellow moss. By the time he reaches his first century of age, however, being then perhaps eighty feet high, the young tree sloughs his skin and begins to take on the noble color and habit that mark him at a glance as a sequoia, of the old nobility of the tree-creation. He “mews his mighty youth,” and casting off with it the undistinguished features of childhood, the trunk, clean, bright, and tapering, which is to bear aloft his massive head through the long procession of the centuries, stands revealed.

By five hundred years the full color is taken, the taper has widened to a slight curve at the foot, and the pointed reticulation of the bark is noticeable. The characteristic shape is now fully marked,—the head a sugar-loaf cone, remarkable in its regularity of outline, and the trunk a steadfast column of shining red. Thenceforward they go from strength to strength, ever more glorious and excellent. Their deep-rifted bark clothes them with dignity and age; the great limbs, mossed and lichened, stand out oak-like above and athwart the pines and firs whose dainty tops spire a hundred feet into the air; and still higher, their sumptuous tops are built up in dense bosses of corded foliage. In those high places they bear their multitudinous cones, pendent singly or in twos or threes on stout, bracted stems; till in due time the sun ripens them and coaxes them to open their tight-locked caskets, and the wind, careful old forester, winnows out the flaky seeds and sows them in generous broadcast over the warm forest floor.

When the first millennium is reached the general shape is unchanged, only that the curve at the base is wider, and the lowest limbs are becoming weary and trend downward from the weight of the snows of uncounted winters. Another age passes, and Atlas has planted his feet still wider as he bears up the enormous weight. The symmetry is broken: he has now entered upon middle age, and his individual features are stamped upon him. You may tell Achilles from Agamemnon, and Ajax from Menelaus. Here a thunder-bolt has ploughed a heavy furrow, and that fearful scar marks the place where a tree-like arm was torn away.

A second millennium passes, with thirty more generations of the sons of men, and the Sequoia shows no change but that he has settled at his base into a convex curve, which may be reversed as it enters the ground;—a very beautiful form, exhibiting the perfect combination of strength with grace which marks this noblest of trees. From then onward Time has no dominion over him, and the passage of centuries does but mark his inexhaustible fertility and power.

A thunder-storm in this forest is a memorable experience, and one which even enhances the awe of the great Sequoias. I was roaming one day about the lower Mariposa Grove, commiserating the tourists who were driven swiftly past on schedule, when I became aware of that quickening of the senses which one feels before a heavy storm. I had noticed an unusual quietness of the population of the brush, the birds going about their concerns with a serious air that was quaint and amusing. The robins in particular foraged silently through the silent woods, passing and repassing one another alternately with that comical appearance of being pushed in jerks from behind, like perambulators. The snow-bird’s soliloquies were carried on under his breath: even the jay, impudent and voluble in general beyond the wont of birds, refrained himself and pursued his persecutions almost politely.

Suddenly a heavy wind roared overhead, from which the firs and pines recoiled; but I noticed that the Sequoias stood stately and unmoving, only their foliage was roughly tossed. Then came a wild slither of lightning, then a crash of thunder, and then the rain came tearing down. For ten minutes the elements were in a paroxysm; lightning thrust and parried, thunder roared incoherent applause, and the rain fell savagely as if it were flung by an angry hand. Then with another burst of wind, that filled the air with sodden tassels of foliage, the storm passed on, and the only sound was that of a hundred rills trilling tiny carillons. When one considers how many times the thunderbolts must have hurtled about these ancient trees it is astonishing that one of them is left standing.

The roots of the Sequoia are noticeably short, astonishingly so for the enormous growth of the tree. The base, as one sees by trees that have fallen, consists of a number of short, stout tentacles, and there is no taproot. It seems a miracle that the tree can stand, and still more that it can grow. It must draw directly from the air almost all its sustenance; but then, what air it is! I suppose there flows in the Sequoia’s mighty veins not the common earth-drawn sap of trees, but some celestial ichor, such, in fact, as would account for their almost immortality. For the Sequoia is all but imperishable, even when overthrown, and trees that can be proved to have lain for two or three hundred years show no trace of decay. Only two things can destroy them: Fire, the rapacious element, and Man, the rapacious pygmy. Even fire the Sequoias can almost defy, wrapped in their panoply of bark of two feet thickness; but man, — there is something pathetic in the fact that nothing can stand against him. He is put, as it were, on his honor, and a weak defence it has proved when weighed against gold. It is a shocking thing to see any tree cut down,—a sycamore, an oak, an elm: that living green tower, with all its halls and chambers and galleries of whispering delight, which Nature with her great patience has laboriously built up to perfectness,—to see it so briefly, so trivially, all undone. But the Sequoias, one wonders that any one could bring himself to put axe or saw to them. However, although the individual man is not to be trusted when he smells gold, he yet, in the aggregate, has sensibilities under his pachydermatous rind, and can be prevailed upon not to murder his grandfather: so that practically all the great trees are now protected, and have been enclosed in national parks.

Since my first acquaintance with the Sequoias I had cherished a desire to sleep with them. Many times I had enjoyed the hospitality of the friendly guardian of the Mariposa Grove, and had slept beside the generous fires that cheer his lonely cabin. But I had a particular wish to camp for a night under that tree of trees, the Grizzly Giant; and one clear summer night I shouldered my blankets, and with a frugal half-breakfast in my pocket marched off to keep my tryst.

The forest through which I tramped was dimly lighted by a half moon. The stars burned with a still, high radiance. Straight, silent, and vast the Sequoias stood up into the night, while the moonlight crept quietly over the open spaces of the forest and flecked with ghostly silver the deep-channelled stems of the immemorial trees. It was very quiet; only now and then a bird twittered, or there was a sudden rush in the undergrowth, or the distant hooting of an owl. The dead firs and pines, white and barkless, gleamed pale in the moonlight, and the innumerable pinnacles of the conifers rose on all sides into a sky of clear darkness. A cool breeze met and passed me, and the foliage played for a moment like the restless fingers of a dreaming child, then was again intensely still.

I wandered on and on in a mood of vagrant reverie, often stopping to listen to the flawless silence and to delight in the ageless virginity of the earth. Suddenly I came upon the giant, a vast black shape, rising unexpectedly close before me. The moon chanced to be shining just behind him, and made a soft and wistful glory among the forest of branchlets, twigs, and foliage of his head. The mighty shadow was projected toward me, the arms traced in grotesque shapes, intensely black, upon the open glade that surrounds this king of trees. (How many times, I wondered, had that shadow passed, with the solemn imperceptibility of Time itself, over that silver earth-dial?) Huge as its bulk is by day, it was multiplied tenfold in the peering light of night, when details were obscured and only size and shape were left to possess the imagination.

To me that night it was an awful tree. I felt much as one might who, walking among the grey ruins of Babylon or Thebes, should come upon some primeval man, ancient as the very earth, who, overlooked by death, had lived on from age to age, and might now live to the last day of Time. Its great arms were uplifted as if in serene adoration, and all around, the lesser forest stood aloof, like the worshippers in an outer temple-court, while this, their high-priest, communed alone. And when I reflected that on the night before the Crucifixion when Christ stood in Pilate’s hall, this tree was standing much as it stood now, lifting its arms, ancient even then, to the hushed sky, it seemed to take on in truth the character of an unconscious intercessor, a representative of the awe-stricken mute creation.

In the presence of this monument of Time, one’s thoughts take the same solemn and peaceful tone that comes upon them under a wide, starry sky; a solemnity so deep that it rises into joy; a peace so absolute that it touches the infinite goodness. It is a place in which to go over one’s favorite poems; for instance, Milton’s “Ode on Time.” The great lines incorporate themselves, and stand about one like the vast columns of the trees, forming a temple in which the mind ranges more freely than is its wont, with a clearer vision and a deeper understanding.

I rolled myself in my blankets and tried to sleep, intending to be up at daybreak to enjoy the hour before sunrise. But it was long before I became unconscious. Lying at the foot of the giant I gazed up, and felt more than saw the great bole sweep up majestically into the night. The moon, now setting, touched with soft brightness the limbs that stood out far above me. The silence was profound, and the owl’s hooting echoed around the forest as if it were an empty room. All the old solemnity of night was upon the world, and the riddle of the Sphinx was still unanswered. This old tree should know something of it, but the wisdom of perhaps threescore centuries is locked in its iron heart.

At last I fell asleep, but soon was awake again. The moon was down, and the velvet blackness was pierced by innumerable stars. The Great Bear glinted between the bossy plumes of the firs and pines whose spires outlined the mat of open sky. Two sharp reports broke the stillness; it was the sound of the breaking and fall of a great limb from some lord of the forest. I slept and awoke, and slept and awoke, again and again. A faint silvery blueness grew in the east, a pure, dark light. The stars receded, lingered, glimmered, and died. The cold dawn-wind blew (that unearthly wind, eternally as fresh as on the first morning of creation), and the hearse-like plumes tossed for a moment, then again were still. The first bird awoke and twittered faintly; another answered, and another, and then many, with rustlings in the low brush close to where I lay. A squirrel barked. It was a quarter to four.

I rose and wandered through the forest, eating my unprodigal breakfast with zest and sober exhilaration, and drinking a draught of icy water at the spring. The owl hooted once, reporting his night-watch ended. Soon the sun touched hesitatingly the topmost arm of the great tree; then, in a moment, the whole head kindled and blazed like a beacon above the lower forest.

As I take my way slowly back, the day is spreading and flowing, mile on mile, mountain on mountain, lifting the shadows as the sun lifts vapor. The trail of the old grey coyote is fresh on my own last night’s tracks. Slinking and grinning and slanting he goes, lean and wary, to his rock-pile den. Glancing back I wave farewell to the giant, whose sunlit face glows cheerfully down at me in reply. The greatest arm, turned to the south, carries a magnificent suggestion of prowess and adventure, the long tapering shaft at its end standing out and up like the bowsprit of a tall Indiaman. What, old hero, is thy heart still so young? Adios! adios!

And here let me say that I for one hope that when the great clock that tells the centuries marks the last of the Grizzly Giant’s innumerable days, nothing will be done to avert his fall. It would be a sort of impiety, an indecency almost; as if one should prop and bolster up a dead king on his throne to be gazed at. He is too illustrious a thing for us to meddle with; and surely he will have earned his rest.

No conception whatever of the majesty of the great Sequoias is possible to he conveyed by statements of their size. What idea of Charlemagne would you get from his tailor’s measurements? I myself always feel that, as illustrating the wonders or beauties of Nature, processions and columns of figures (like the well-meant but desolating chatter of cathedral-guides) detract from instead of adding to one’s vital impression. Speaking in terms of phrenology, I imagine that the “bump”—excuse the inept word—of veneration, for instance, would be found retreated into the farthest possible corner of the cranium from the one that revels in mathematics. When they told me that the Washington tree was a hundred and one feet in circumference and two hundred and forty-five feet high, I only found that I suffered a painful relapse, for I had just been seeing it infinitely greater. One needs to see such things with the spirit: the mind sees them about one tenth of their size. Lying down at the foot of the pedestal of Grizzly Giant for an hour of enchantment, seeing and hearing invisible and inaudible things, a plague on the gowk who blunders into my dream with“Half a million feet of lumber in that tree, sir!” Is that all there is in that tree? I assure you, my friend, I can see vastly more in it if you will but leave me alone.

But then, I am driven to suppose that I am singular in my feeling for the great Sequoias as objects of dignity and glory. I cannot understand how, otherwise, the childish, unsightly, and paltry practice could have arisen, and could continue apparently without objection, of labelling them with the names of cities, states, and persons. I confess I am amazed at the general obliviousness to the disgrace of the thing, even among cultivated persons, and am compelled to believe that the people who come to view them have no real appreciation of their grandeur, but look upon them merely with a Barnum eye as curiosities and “big things.” Their admiration for the Sequoias seems to be of a commonplace and commercial kind, for there is no recognition of the anomaly involved in disfiguring objects of such nobility and beauty with hideous tin labels. I am sure that to every thoughtful person the charm and impressiveness of these groves of ageless trees are greatly spoiled by this fatuous and trivial proceeding; and I can but hope that some day the authorities will cease to consider the Sequoia forests as freak museums, but with a better appreciation of their value and splendor will order the removal of these ignoble defacements.

A feature of the Sequoias which always interested me is the strange manner in which they receive and hold the earliest and last light of the day. Often I have watched some great tree at sunset, as it stood facing the altar-fire of the west. Slowly the red light left its base, passed up the columnar trunk, and burned in a lingering glow on the many-branched head; then reluctantly, imperceptibly, faded and died. But for an hour still, and long after the lesser forest had sunk into darkness, the Sequoia’s high smooth bole held the light, and shone as if by its own preeminent glory and strength.

Often, too, when I have been camped beneath them, waking when the dawn had hardly begun to brighten the eastern sky I have seen their tops begin to flush and glow above the sleeping pines and firs: like prophets who caught and rejoiced in the vision before the rest. And when a sunset or sunrise redder than usual has lighted them, I have seen their color deepen to a hue that was almost ominous, and they have burned with a volcanic intensity, the violence of which, in conjunction with the majesty of their demeanor, affects one in much the same manner as the reading of a great drama.

The Sequoias grow always upon hill-sides, and thus their beauty of proportion may be fully observed. There is nothing to obscure them unless it be the growth of intervening conifers, for no other families of trees inhabit the Sequoia zone: only bushes and low-growing shrubs share these choice places with gardens of flowers and meadowlets of greenest grass. Little trickles of water steal and tinkle almost unseen in their narrow channels, and spread here and there into small pools that charmingly mirror sky, and foliage, and fluted bole.

Around these basins the bird-life of the forest loves to centre, peopling the hazels, currants, and chinquapins with multitudinous voices. Hither come the deer to drink, and mixed with their dainty tracks you may often find the big round pads of the mountain-lion and the coyote’s smaller footprints. The summer air swarms with floating and darting insects, playing out their day-lives with tragic unconcern amid the monumental trees. As I sat ruminating at the foot of one of these oldest-born of Time, I could not be unconscious of the irony of man’s small moralizings: but then, length of mortal days is a vain criterion, for, after all, with a bit of iron one could soon undo the growth of a hundred generations of his own measure of time.

It is not surprising that one should experience a certain soberness of feeling in bidding farewell to the great Sequoias. Shall I (I asked myself) look down from some immortal sphere upon these trees a millennium hence, and will they still be standing as I see them now, changelessly watching the unchanging sky? It may well be; I deeply hope it will be. As I pondered the question, and looked with love and reverence upon them, the massy tasselled plumes, moving softly in the sunny air, seemed to say, “Yes, we shall meet again.” And with a long, backward gaze I answered, “Yes, yes; surely, surely; farewell, farewell.”

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