I had an interesting tree-hunting day on a recent Sunday. I began in my favorite blind, my armchair, reading an article in the Guardian about the discovery and desecration in the 1850s of the giant sequoias in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California.
The gold-rush speculators who stumbled on the trees lacked a shred of character, common sense or decency, but, regrettably, they knew a commercial opportunity when they saw one. They erected a hotel near the decapitated trees for tourists, built a bowling alley on top of one fallen giant sequoia and turned the stripped bark of two others into travelling circus freaks. In San Francisco and later in New York, a piano player entertained customers inside a reassembled section of the bark of the first giant to be felled, the so-called Mammoth Tree. That was such a great idea that the speculators removed the bark from a second 300-foot tree, the "Mother of the Forest," and turned it into a towering column that, beginning in 1859, was hit for several years at the Crystal Palace in London.
That was dispiriting, but my faith in humankind revived slightly when I learned that the destruction of these awe-inspiring trees, rather than being roundly applauded, were strongly criticized by some editorial writers of the day. Six months after the Mammoth Tree was felled in 1853, a popular magazine of the day, Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, declared it was “a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree.” The outrage was small at first, but it smoldered like an underground fire, eventually becoming a background inspiration to the proponents of national park system.
But the main thing that caught my eye that morning was the size of the trees. It goes without saying you can’t trust measurements made in 1853 BL (Before Leverett). At the same time, you don’t need a rangefinder to measure a tree on the ground, and the fallen Mammoth Tree was said to be 320 feet. True, the operative words there are “said to be.” But the Guardian article cited a half-dozen credible sounding sources putting the height of both trees at or over 300 feet.
Let us say they were in the ball park. As a lifelong, die-hard Easterner, trees that tall are so exotic to me they might as well be on Mars. Even the primitive illustrations in the Guardian article left me dazed. This is a plant we are talking about. Something that grows out of a seed, not unlike we humans do. Except these giant trees become the tallest living things ever, cell factories that pack on more carbon in their long lives than a fleet of Russian factory freezer trawlers mince fish. I could not get a true picture of such a tree in my mind.
Fast forward eight hours. The light is falling. I’d been indoors most of the day and ache to get out before dark. Around 6 pm, I headed to woods near my home when I decided to dash over to Lincoln to search for the superpine I had heard about. Jared Lockwood and Doug Bidlack found a 150-foot-tall white pine, along with more than a dozen pines over 140 feet, an exiting find that puts in eastern Massachusetts back in the superpine contention.
I drove to Old Concord Road in Lincoln, just below Walden Pond, parked, crossed a wide field and followed a town of Lincoln conservation trail into the woods near Fairhaven Bay. It was a pretty ordinary young mixed forest until I crossed a private dirt road and, continuing on the trail, began to head down a slight slope nearer the water.
I suddenly felt the forest lights dim a bit and the canopy rise. Soon I stood in a sea of immensely tall white pine masts, with just a few low-rise hemlocks here and there for company. It was what photographers call the “magic hour,” the last hour of light, but the sun’s position was not the only reason I felt what I did. I looked up at ramrod straight trunks, one of which, I knew from Jared, was 151 feet! True, that is “only” half as high as the 300-foot giant sequoias I had read about that morning, but it was more than enough to stir deep wonder in me. And these pint-sized giant sequoias were in my own backyard, which made them even more amazing and wonderful.
The grove had the unmistakable feel of an old forest. It was darker than the first woods I crossed through, and the forest floor, densely matted with reddish-brown needles, also seemed more open, as if some giant had uprooted one of the pines, turned it upside down and swept with it. Large white pine trunks shot up everywhere. As I lay on back in a vain effort to capture them with my camera, they trunks appeared to lean toward each other at crazy angles and converge 130, 140 and 150 feet above me.
Most of the pines in the grove have no real branches to speak of for 100 feet and more, which accentuates their altitude. But even more than their height I was struck by the perfect straightness of their trunks, as pure and straight a line as man or machine could make yet drawn freehand by nature for more than 100 feet.
A personal reason contributed to my surprise and delight. Here I was, only a few days after the official publication of my book Thoreau and the Language of Trees, about Thoreau’s lifelong love of trees, standing less than a mile from Walden Pond looking at trees he would have died to see.
On December 30, 1851, Thoreau famously described the felling of a noble tree, a “majestic” white pine that, he said, had “towered” over the woods near Walden Pond for nearly two centuries. It was “straight as an arrow,” he wrote, and “one the tallest trees” still left in Concord, until two men sawed it down. Thoreau found that white pine special enough to be garbed in Homeric superlatives, yet it was just 105 feet tall, as he found when he measured it on the ground the next day.
I felt a momentary thrill as I tried to imagine what Thoreau would think about seeing, in his own woods, at a tree half again as tall as that majestic white pine! I had a vague sense, but I knew he would have expressed it more eloquently than I could. I was used to playing second fiddle to him when it came to writing about trees. But that Sunday, for once, I had the experience, and that was more than enough for me.