In her book The Soul of a Pilgrim, Christine Valters Paintner writes: “In the practice of hearing the call—whether it was a call we desired or one that was unbidden—we respond and assent to a new journey as pilgrims.” Since returning from California this summer, I’ve been pondering what it was that called me to journey three thousand miles to the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and I’ve realized for the first time just how often trees have always called to me.
When I was a kid, I used to play in the acre or so of woods behind my house. There was one pine tree that especially called out. Pitch smearing my hands, I’d make my way a mile or more, it seemed, up to the top of that tree, where I would nestle into the friendly crotch, feel the wind gently rocking me, and watch the clouds floating just over my head.
How else to explain why I started out in college as a forestry major? I didn’t know anything about the science of trees. I wasn’t even that interested in hunting and fishing. Which I’m sure is why I hated my classes. But through that program, I worked for two summers in McCall, Idaho on a regional hotshot crew, fighting forest fires throughout the Rockies. Besides the thrill of a little danger, there were nights at six and seven thousand feet in Colorado and Wyoming and Idaho where the stars seemed so close I could reach up and grab a handful anytime I wanted.
Even then I recognized those moments as somehow holy, and they led, I think now, to my becoming an English major, with a special love for the Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists. When I became an English teacher, I used to spend my Sunday afternoons walking in the woods of Down East Maine. The pungent smell of autumn leaves, the anthems sung by a June breeze through the spruce trees, the caress of the sun or the rain or the snow on my face called to something inside me: a vague concept I called God.
After my 18-year-old daughter died of cancer, I lived in southern Maine for twenty years in a house I bought from my grandmother. One of the things I loved and miss about living there was the maple tree in the back yard: a wonderful tree, a good six feet in diameter. I thought of it as my family tree, complete with a jagged limb where a large branch had been broken off in the Ice Storm of 1998, and which symbolized for me, the jagged scar on my heart left by the death of my daughter.
These days, I walk the trails through the woods preserved by Brunswick/Topsham Land Trust behind our condo and go for longer hikes with my wife Mary Lee through other stands of Maine trees. (Maine is called the Pine Tree State for good reason: ninety percent of the state is forested, the highest percentage of any state in the union.)
Trees, then, have always sung their siren song, and so it was just a matter of time before I made a pilgrimage to the oldest, tallest trees on earth. I’m still mulling over the lessons they taught and the gifts they gave.
Redwoods are great teachers. Perhaps because of my forest fire fighting years, I noticed early in a seven and a half mile hike through the Rockefeller Forest in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park how fire had scarred many, if not most, of the redwoods Mary Lee and I saw. Yet they continue to grow and thrive. You may be scarred, they say, but you can still flourish. Redwoods don’t start producing branches until they’re some 150-200 feet high. Hey, you still have time! they proclaim. Even after falling, redwoods continue to produce new growth. They reproduce, not only through cones, but also by sending shoots up from their roots, which ring the trees. Eventually (and I’m talking 1500-2000 years) the parent dies, leaving behind a circle of great trees. What offspring will you leave to the world? they ask.
For trees as tall and as long-lived as they are, redwoods have a very shallow root system. Their roots, however, spread out hundreds of yards, where they intermingle with other roots from other redwoods—a network that keeps all of them standing tall. It’s an image, I realize, of the networks of support groups that have sustained me in the years since my daughter’s death, and what I will always need to keep upright and growing.
Redwood trees also resonate in me at a deeper level. They are magical, mythic—more than what I think of as “spiritual.” Age has something to do with it. The earliest redwoods began growing on earth just after the dinosaurs, about 240 million years ago. Some redwoods Mary Lee and I walked beneath were alive when Christianity was just beginning. Those circles of redwood trees I talked about earlier are called “Fairy Rings,” and I often thought of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Early in our hike I found a branch that I used as a walking staff, which made me feel like Gandalf leading the Fellowship of the Ring or Merlin on his way to Camelot.
The light through the redwoods also contributes to this magical/mythical feeling. Hiking under the redwoods was like walking in a great cathedral, the trees like pillars reaching into the sky, the sun casting yellow and green shades of light through a stained glass canopy.
And I don’t recall ever experiencing such sustained silence. Any wildlife live three hundred feet overhead. The same with the wind. Because of the tannin in their bark, redwoods are not beset with insects (and thus, neither are hikers)—another reason the trees live so long.
And grow so high. If people don’t know anything else about redwoods they know they’re big. Still, I never appreciated their size until beholding them in person. Redwoods grow up to 378 feet high, which is over the length of a football field, and sometimes 20 feet or more in diameter (think the three-point line in professional basketball). And yet instead of my feeling small, defensive, or apprehensive, I was aware of an immense comforting presence watching over me, enfolding my problems, my defects—sins, if you will—and my grief.
I wonder if that presence isn’t always around me, and I’m too preoccupied to be aware of it until it calls me once more to pilgrimage. The redwoods, I now realize, had been calling me all my life.