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We drive through golden, sun-washed hills dotted with thick dabs of green – vineyard, orange trees, olives and corn. This is what Italy must look like, I murmur in awe…either that or the African savanna. Outcroppings of rock add more texture to this lush landscape. But as we ooh and aahh at the scenery unfolding around every turn, there is a quiet anticipation between us of something yet unseen. Soon we are to reach the great sequoias, the biggest and oldest living creatures on Earth, yet nothing in our view even hints at the presence of these gentle giants.

As we pass through the entrance to Sequoia National Park and start the steep climb up the Sierra Nevadas, our puzzlement mounts with every 100 feet. How can the giant, thousand-old trees be living anywhere near here, when there is not a single conifer in sight, and the vegetation hugs the contours of the earth. We climb to 3000 feet, then to 4000. And then right around another bend in the road the low-lying shrubbery gives way to a thick, pine-green forest, with firs and cedars scratching the clouds, and prehistoric ferns carpeting the forest floor. I half expect to see a brontosaurs strolling through.

Instead we see the monarch sequoia. Its trunk is like a woolly mammoth leg walking in a meadow (which is the wood). The size of its trunk cannot be overestimated – it is colossal. But it is also elegant and almost refined. While the bark of other coniferous trees is hard and cracked, the bark of this creature is fuzzy, furry. It hangs in reddish-ochre strands around the circumference of the tree, all 100 feet of it, and crawls up the trunk 200-250 feet, where the crown decorates the top. At some point we park and take a trolley the rest of the way up. The bus negotiates an impossibly curvy road, we look out the window and see the trunks of various trees flashing by. But every time we pass a sequoia, its size takes up the entire window, almost the whole stretch of the bus.

As we come out and are able to finally approach the trees themselves, we realize that the closer you get, the more suspicious you feel about the thing in front of you being a tree. Within arms reach, we find that we can comfortably nuzzle in the nooks and crannies of its bark, walk easily through trees cracked at the bottom, and take a five-minute stroll around the trunk. Greg, with his 6’8” frame, is visibly dwarfed by the dimensions of the tree. Now he is officially a lilliput. Another step – and he is an ant.

Curiously, nature has chosen a very modest cone to house the tiny seeds which contain the genetic code for the monarch sequoia. Greg alludes to the size of the tree and jokingly wonders how so much genetic information can fit into such a small seed. I reply that there doesn’t have to be much – there needs to be only one bit of genetic instruction, from seedling to giant: grow. Grow. And grow.

The giant sequoia grows constantly, annually adding the total mass of a large-sized tree. Its baby-fist sized cones fall to the ground and sometimes lay dormant ten to twenty years. Regular controlled fires performed all across Sequoia National Park create a fertile ash soil and force the cones to open up sooner, thereby filling the ground with seeds and speeding up the reproductive cycle of the sequoia. As a friend enthusiastically explained to us before we set out to the park, these prescribed fires do not harm the giants. Their bark is so thick that the fire burns itself out before doing any real damage. In the same way, drought does not threaten them, nor bark-eating insects, nor anything else, for that matter. Left to their own devices, these trees live to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old.

This fact is perhaps even more astounding than the size. Imagine, as the tree stands in a sunlit meadow, the Roman empire blossoms, Jesus Christ is born, killed, resurrected, the barbaric wars take thousands of lives and the tree just looks on. As a sped-up video life unfolds all around: generations come and go, native tribes roam the forests, the Dark Ages consume Europe, the Arabic revival follows in its wake. Leonardo paints the Virgin of the Rocks, an apple falls on Isaac Newton’s head, Cabrillo sails up along the Pacific Coast discovering California while the giant sequoia lazily stretches its limbs. Greg tells me of a science fiction story where earthlings land on a seemingly uninhabited planet and find only two gigantic statues made of a strange, soft substance. Later they discover that these “sculptures” are actually living beings whose speed of life is just much slower. So slow, in fact, that to a human eye it is unperceptable. I remember this story as I look up at the trees, and wonder what else they’ll see in their life, long after my children’s children are back in the ground where they came from…

(All photographs by Gregory Khasin)

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