With the exception of a single variation, redwoods are found in northern California and can live to be thousands of years old. They are capable of removing more carbon from the air than any other tree, and the chemicals they produce (phytoncides) help to condense fog and keep their forests cool and moist, a perfect environment for a diverse array of fungi, plants, and animals. Just as with the more famous southern rainforests, these northern rainforests can support wildly different organisms along the various heights of redwood trees.
Some of the oldest stories from California hold that the redwood trees are as sentient as you or I, and that if you go into their forests unbidden they will watch you and whisper amongst themselves. Eerie silences are said to be commonplace, though when you look about you there will be no bears or cougars, only the trees, looming. It is possible that this is due to the rich tannins in the trees, which given them their characteristic red hued bark. These same tannins taste terrible to insects, many of which forgo the trees. Less insects, in turn, mean less birds and so less birdsong. But the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok) would tell you that there’s something to the old stories. According to their sacred myths, as told by Greg Sarris in his book “The Once and Future Forest: California’s Iconic Redwoods”, when Coyote made the world long ago, he turned his village elders into the first redwood trees. The red of their bark is symbolic of how, as it was long ago when we walked and talked with all plants and animals, every living creature is of one blood.
Redwoods are like humanity in another way, too: there are albino redwoods. There is speculation that only about twenty-five albino redwoods exist in the world, but curiously, at least eight of them exist in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, about an hour away from San Francisco. Lacking chlorophyll as they do, they cannot create energy of their own. So how do they survive? By receiving nutrients from a parent tree.
This is not so unusual, once you come to understand these giants. Redwoods are known for creating “fairy rings”, expansive growths of smaller trees that ring around an older, more established redwood. While redwoods can reproduce through seeds like any other conifer, the best chance of survival a redwood has, much like a person, is to grow up close to its parent and benefit from shared nutrients. When the parent redwood dies, it leaves behind a legacy of strong, healthy children which stand strong in a circle about its remains. What is unusual is that these trees are not solely made up of clones of the parent, and instead include not only related, but also chosen family members, including many different varieties of trees that were “fostered” by the parent redwood. Using an extensive underground network of mycelium, redwood trees (which have a shallow root system) can extend their roots hundreds of feet around them, creating a dense web that helps to stabilize the soil, shelter new trees, and deliver nutrients to trees that are suffering from damage or blight until such time as they can recover. By studying the redwood’s quiet resilience and adaptable nature, we can learn to be allies and guardians for a diverse community, not just our own related kin. There is beauty and power to be found in chosen family.
The redwood tree is a person in and of itself, and a powerful symbol of our place in the great spiral of things alongside our cousins past and present. We can give so much of ourselves, but to take from another without consent, just as from a tree, is a great act of violence which disturbs the balance of things. As Sarris says, “Early ethnographers characterized our culture as being predicated on black magic and fear; but might we not see it for what it was: predicated on profound respect and a fundamental belief that no one of us is the center of the universe?”
Work with the redwood tree if you wish to foster community and be a safe ally for those around you. Like the redwood, don’t be afraid to extend your reach as far as you can, lifting up others even if you are only able to do so through the simple act of sharing food and being a listening ear. Earrings made from fallen redwood branches may help you “keep an ear open” for opportunities for your community, while a planted redwood is a commitment you are making to a given land and its people.
[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]