By Becca Nelson '20
There’s a tower of redwoods, their trunks stretching into the sky. Their canopies meet at a distant green infinity. Shafts of silver light filter through Muir Woods. There is a silence that is deepened by the smallness of sounds. The slight burble of the creek, the soft trill of a wren, the hush of my footsteps. There is a stillness that holds the weight of history. I walk amongst coast redwoods that are hundreds to thousands of years old. Leaning against an immense trunk, I hear the redwood’s ancientness in its quiet muttering. I struggle to imagine the thousands of sunrises that spilled light onto this tree’s needles, the innumerable birds that sheltered in its branches, the countless ferns it shaded, all the deer that bounded underneath. I brush my hand against bark blackened from ancient fires, jagged lightning scars from storms, thick crusts of blue lichen. I feel small and transient in its shadow.
Redwood history is interwoven with human history. Hundreds of years ago, the Coast Miwok walked through these woods and gathered redwood slabs, called kotcha, for their conical homes. Perhaps they carried them to their settlement at what is now Muir Beach. Perhaps the Miwok’s songs echoed off the redwood trunks. These redwoods survived the axe of the Spanish missionaries, the saws of American pioneers. They survived a growing lumber industry, becoming one of the last pockets of old growth redwoods remaining. Of the original 2 million acres of old growth redwood forest in California, over 97% has been altered. In 1892, the Bohemian Club, a San Francisco social society, erected a 70-foot Buddha statue amongst the redwoods. The statue has long since disintegrated to wind and weather, yet these trees endure. These redwoods shook with tremors from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. An earthquake that toppled buildings and destroyed much of San Francisco. Yet they endure. Politician William Kent donated Muir Woods to the government, and President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument in 1908. In 1945, United Nation delegates walked amongst these trees, holding a ceremony in memory of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They contemplated the history that the redwoods witnessed as they contemplated world peace.
The redwoods continue to grow, as seemingly immutable pillars against a swirling tide of changing ecological and social conditions. The future of the redwood ecosystem, however, is complicated by climate change. Redwoods rely on the upwelling of coastal currents that generates fog for their survival. Climate change will impact these fog patterns and consequently redwood forests. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts funding for the National Park Service, which manages Muir Woods National Monument. The administration has taken a stance against climate change mitigation policies, further hindering redwood conservation. As I climb over the gnarled roots of redwoods, I wonder if this ecosystem will adapt to a warming planet. As global warming changes nutrient cycling, will these deep roots still nourish the tree?
Redwoods provide important ecosystems services to people, including through carbon sequestration and recreational value. They are the iconic species of a biodiverse and unique ecosystem with its own intrinsic value. But beyond economics and ecology, redwoods play a role in American culture. They are praised in patriotic songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. Many towns, institutions, and companies are named after redwoods or use its image. In fact, the coast redwood tree appears on the Stanford logo and has become our mascot. Redwoods inspire the over two million people who visit them annually at various state and national parks.
This summer I will be visiting these parks as part of a research grant I received through the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program. I will be interviewing park visitors about redwoods and climate change. My research will apply redwood ecology to the realm of social science. I am investigating whether redwoods can be effectively used as a flagship species to inspire people to adopt climate change mitigation behavior. Such behavior includes making lifestyle choices to reduce one’s carbon footprint as well as supporting global warming mitigation policies. I will search for patterns in how people’s attachment to redwoods and their attitude toward global warming are interconnected. I hope to use the relationship between redwoods and people as lens to study the broader relationship between land and people, between climate change and American culture.
As I finish my hike, I glance up again at the redwoods. I find the leafy point in the sky to which their trunks converge. The shadows of redwood leaves ripple over me. I take a deep breath of cedar-scented air. The sheer vastness of trees, the blanket of prehistoric ferns and horsetails, the stillness, the silver light distinguish redwood forests from other forests. The peace of this forest outlives landscapes and societies. It will outlive you and me. I imagine history from the height of a redwood. Perhaps only a force as immense and ancient as a redwood can witness history with objectivity. Each year becomes a wooden monument, a ring etched into an old tree. Each tree becomes a living history book of concentric rings. Natural history and human history ripple together in the endurance of redwoods.
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