Stepping on the toes of giants at Henry Cowell


A ring of giants at Henry Cowell.

I recently found myself walking on the toes of giants. It’s possible to lose your balance when you gaze up to look at them. They sway, drawing circles in the sky, even without wind. I’ve missed these trees.

Walking into an ancient grove of redwoods takes you back in time. It’s not hard to believe that individual trees can be 2000 years old or more. They stand in clusters, and, over time, have dropped so many needles to the forest floor that even a well-trodden path feels spongy with each step. Tendrils of light filtering through the canopy brighten a forest floor dotted with patches of large clover and ferns. You hear knocking and the scatter of tiny feet on bark. Beyond the ancient grove is a thick forest of much younger trees, growing in ringlets around wide, moss-covered stumps that mark massive logging operations in the mid 19th century.


Remnant stump from an early 1900’s logging operation.

I’ve visited other ancient forests, but Henry Cowell State Park, just outside of Santa Cruz, CA, is the one that makes me feel at home. And a quick visit over spring break made me realize that I don’t spend nearly enough time among trees in my day-to-day life. Redwoods were the backdrop for my PhD studies in Santa Cruz, but I think I grew a bit complacent, seeing them every day on campus.


Henry Cowell Park hosts a range of ecozones: hiking through the park, you pass along trails perennially darkened by towering redwoods, then into deciduous forest, and up through dry scrubland. Some trees reveal themselves in new ways at different times of year. Without their leaves, you can see how they twist and curve their way up to the sky. The years show in the shapes of their limbs – especially big trees. You can read the story of one intense storm in a bowed arm, or of many seasons spent resisting persistent winds in the tilt of a canopy.


Smooth red bark of the Manzanita tree.

You can decipher histories in trunks dotted with lost limbs and scars – marks of change in a long life. I wish we could see the roots. I walk through the forest imagining an entire network of roots under the beds of needles and leaves. Each tree holds on to it’s neighbor in a mesh of long, tangled growth that holds up the whole forest. They say that trees communicate with each other underground – through fungi and movement of water and nutrients through their roots. The German forester Peter Wohlleben has recently published an entire book about how trees communicate. I imagine these trees feeling the weight of my footsteps.


The lives of trees, in some ways, mirror our own lives. Lost limbs. Scars from a full life and exposure to elements. There are parts of us that are bent under the weight of years. Healed scars give us our character. We remain standing as long as those roots stay strong – the roots that keep us connected to each other and the wider world.


One of the giants: this old guy might be an Ent.

Maybe the thing that most draws me into a forest is that stillness amid life. It gives me a chance to feel like a mortal, stepping on the toes of much longer-lived giants. It also reminds me that it’s ok to be still. I wonder how I can be more still, in the buzz of daily life? How I can sit in the balance between doing and being? In that space between wanting to move and understanding my human limitations? Omid Safi writes about the ‘disease of being busy‘ in a column posted in 2014 at On Being. He notes, in the context of all that we try to do and be and acquire in a day, “We are losing the ability to live a truly human life.”

IMG_7330I think the loss of our understanding of what it means to live a ‘human life’ is at the heart of so many of our problems. Our brains, the most clever to ever walk this planet, have sent us spiraling in an endless stream of activity that has been detrimental to our health and to the planet. I see it every day in the tired eyes of students and professors – in a place where the most common response to ‘how are you?’ is ‘BUSY!’. It’s a mark of prestige, to be BUSY. And it’s not simply an academic problem – this is ingrained in our culture.

At the heart of all this busy-ness is the race against our own mortality, I think. It’s that drive to be a part of the world – the pursuit of those connections that are, in many cases, already holding us up under the forest floor. It’s an eagerness to leave a mark on the world, an indelible impression in the wood, in a space that is all our own. But we do this through movement, not stillness. Maybe the redwoods have something to teach us.

I suppose this blog is my attempt to capture those moments that would be lost to busy-ness in the absence of reflection. My attempt to gather up those tendrils of light on the forest floor, and stake out the boundaries that define my human-scaled life.

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