We now know that redwoods are incredible places: not only are they tall, but they contain multitudes within them. You can find caves in redwoods, bonsai trees, fern gardens, huckleberry bushes, lichens of stunning diversity, salamanders, flying squirrels, and, should you manage to reach the top, a view to make your heart peak and soar.
Of course, you have to get UP there. Like, WAY up.
Anybody else here afraid of heights?
Good. I’m not alone.
Of course, as we all know, it’s not really a fear of heights but a fear of falling – and any book you read about redwoods, like The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, is going to discuss rapid descent.
Page fifteen – 15! – treats you to a grisly description of what precisely can happen to you. We’re built so that we’re topheavy, which means if you fall 30 stories or so (shudder), you’re going to hit the ground headfirst, and generally upside-down. You can: crush your skull, break your neck, shatter your spinal column, puncture your lungs with broken ribs, et cetera. Of course, if you land feet first, you can decimate your legs, cut your spinal chord. And your internal organs could burst like water balloons. On page fifteen.
You know, I like the ground.
There have been some people who have survived such falls – mainly because of luck and because they know what they’re doing. One guy, Kevin Hillery, survived a hundred-foot plummet out of a Douglas Fir. First of all, the ground around the tree was spongy, a result of needles and other decaying plants accumulating around the tree. But that alone isn’t going to save anyone. Hillery started his decent head-down, upside-down – and didn’t scream. Still not screaming, he began clawing at the air, then flipped himself over, still clawing, and, as the ground drew near, he extended his left hand across his body facing the ground – which, let’s not forget, was coming up on him at 90 miles per hour. And he survived, with broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, and bruised but unpunctured lungs – and his left hand was in serious but salvageable shape.
All this is bad, naturally, but what is even more chilling is the sound the people nearby remember, the whooshing of the fall and the wet thud of the impact.
I really like the ground.
Then there’s the redwoods themselves, 300 feet tall mammoths of botany – with a mere two feet of root mass to anchor them to a two hundred foot wide disk in the ground. This means that for all their hundreds and thousands of years of growth, a single moment can rule their demise, sending them crashing into the ground:
The fall of Telperion had created a swath of devastation around the forest…It had smashed a smaller redwood into pieces when it fell, creating a debris field that extended in all directions. The root mass of Teleperion extended about thirty feet in the air. Its prone trunk was sixteen feet in diameter – almost three times the height of their heads as they looked up at it. Shattered branches and small exploded trees and great chunks and splinters of redwood had been flung around the hulk of the tree. Blobs of soil ranging in size from baseballs to basketballs had been thrown up thirty yards when Teleperion smacked into the ground…The trunks surrounding the detonation zone were coated with soil sixty feet above the ground, like a bathtub ring. (131, 133)
One of the best parts of the book was the attention given to the various people who have done a large amount of the exploration of the redwoods. My favorite is Michael Taylor, because he seems like such an interesting and driven person.
He was, at the beginning of his explorations in the redwoods ‘pear-shaped’, and remained so until one pivotal moment: “’I realized I was eating a lot. So I stopped eating a lot’” (176). And then he lost fifty pounds. He was also a handy man with machines: he was, for several years, the only person to be able to fix the Nicoderm patch machines, meaning that he must have impacted thousands and thousands of lives.
But really, his love was for the redwoods. He would tramp through dense, rough terrain, clambering down chilly streams, through brambles, and over the trunks of felled redwoods, which he climbed and then let himself fall over – it turns out, if you use this method, you roll off and let yourself go entirely limp. At the time of writing the book, he had not sustained any serious injuries as a result. (How??)
Taylor wasn’t doing this just for fun – though it doesn’t sound like fun has much to do with it – he was looking for the tallest redwoods, from the safety of the ground. He had become entranced by this magnificent ecosystem, and felt it was his calling to find the best it had to offer.
He was a man who could find beauty in the small, hidden places that still existed on earth, the lost places that nobody had ever noticed. Michael was the stubbornest person she had ever known. He bore a resemblance to the great explorers who had lived in earlier ages, and had been convinced that there was something wonderful still to be found on the earth. (89)
In the end, I want to go to a redwood forest. I ant to lie down at the base of a trunk and stare upward until I can no longer feel my back against the ground.
That’ll feel better – and cheaper – than climbing a massive botanical specimen wearing an adult diaper.