The Resilient Redwood

An illustration from my book “The Handmade Teardrop Trailer” depicts a young Redwood forest in the coastal mountains of Carmel, Calif. by Matt Berger

Life lessons from the 2,000-year-old Sequoia sempervirens

The giant Redwood trees that grow along the forested California coast are known to survive as long as 2,000 years and grow to heights among the tallest trees in the world. “Majestic,” “towering,” and “mighty” are just a few common adjectives used to describe these trees by anyone who’s camped beneath them, and walked among them (or through them).

There are two species of Redwood within driving distance of my home here in the Silicon Valley: the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) just over the mountain in Santa Cruz and down the Monterey coast; and the Sierra Redwood (Sequoia gigantea), which grow in the mid-state mountains ranges near Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Park.

The Family Tree

Perhaps the most humanly-relatable and admired trait of the Coast Redwood is its notion of “family.” Like people, Coast Redwood trees stick together, literally, often growing in ring shaped groves with a deep, interconnected root system.

They thrive in the presence of multiple generations. A fallen Redwood tree can give birth to a whole new generation of trees, growing in a line along the horizontal trunk.

This familial connection comes in handy when the water wains. A shared underground root system provides checks and balances for survival in the face of drought, passing water and nutrients between them.

Through millennia, evolution has also made them resistant to insect attack, fungal infection, rot, and most importantly: forest fire.

From fire comes new life

In response to forest fires, the trees have developed various adaptations. The thick, fibrous bark of coast redwoods is extremely fire-resistant; it grows to at least a foot thick and protects mature trees from fire damage… In addition, the redwoods contain little flammable pitch or resin.[23] If damaged by fire, a redwood readily sprouts new branches or even an entirely new crown, and if the parent tree is killed, new buds sprout from its base. Fires, moreover, appear to actually benefit redwoods by causing substantial mortality in competing species while having only minor effects on redwood. Burned areas are favorable to the successful germination of redwood seeds.

source: wikipedia

Man v. Tree:

But leave it to 21st century Mankind to test the resilience of the mighty Redwood. Decades of mis-management and neglect, over-population, and human-induced climate change has led to this summer’s historic inferno wildfires raging across the West, form Los Angeles to Big Sur to Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa to Paradise to Portland.

An original “Smokey the Bear” poster from the 1940s reveals just how much American history is impacted by wildfires.

As the orange haze of smoke and ash blanket the West Coast this week, I have been thinking a lot lately about solutions to reduce the risk of massive forest fires. I believe we need to invest in a WPA-level project to manage forests and reclaim our skies from toxic smoke.

But how?

I’m genuinely curious what the physical requirements would be to reset the situation and bring the West Coast forests back to safe management. How many people would it take? With how many chainsaws and trucks? Over how many days?

I follow a woodworker named Mac McComb on Instagram, whose woodwork I was introduced to while attending a student gallery show at California College of the Art. Mac posted an essay this week on Instagram that gets to the heart of the problem of forest management: We ignored our role in maintaining this fragile ecosystem, coddled and neglected it, and failed all of us in the long run.

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Friends, here lare some of my thoughts. I don’t claim to be an expert, I simply want to share how I feel, and have a dialogue with you all. If you take issue, let’s have a conversation. When we talk about fire, we too often talk about it as an acute condition, not a chronic condition. We talk about fires as something to be put out and then forgotten about, like they will just go away if we throw enough money and resources at them. This also represents larger issues in how we relate to the ecosystem. My thesis in school focused on how western culture, specifically white/European people, has removed itself from the concept of nature. This sets up a false binary. Nature is not separate from us. It is not something to be preserved or protected out of some sense of altruism. We need to remember that we are a part of the “climate”, and that we depend on the natural world just as much as we depend on our own bodies and minds. When we look at nature as either “wilderness” or “resource” we allow ourselves to take advantage of certain ecosystems, while neglecting and undermining others. The very concept of “wilderness” is a falsehood propagated by a white supremacist system. As I wrote in my thesis: “As parks were created, native people who had existed within and operated as a part of these ecosystems for many generations were removed by force. The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 and many other subsequent pieces of legislation led to the construction of a previously non-existent “unpopulated wilderness””. The idea of “conservation” of nature enables us to ignore the ugly side of our relationship to the environment. If we only focus on saving the things that we deem beautiful or worthy, we permit ourselves to ignore and destroy the underlying processes and ecologies which make our own lives possible. We need to realize this now. Fires are natural in California. What makes them so catastrophic is the loss of traditional ecological knowledge which was used to manage land, and 100+ years of fire suppression policy which causes an overload of fuel. We can’t just leave nature alone and expect it to stay the same forever. We are an integral part of the system

A post shared by Mac McComb (@mac_thewizard) on

P.S. On a lighter note, I recommend you follow CCA on Instagram. If for nothing else, because it makes me chuckle every time I mis-read their handle @cacollgeofarts as “California College o’ Farts.”

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