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UNDER THE REDWOODS

LIKE my fellow tourists, though I was touring alone, I stopped at Santa Cruz for a sight of “the big trees.” They would disappoint me at first, I had been warned; but nothing of the kind happened. After a day and a half spent in their shadow I could still only look up and wonder; and that, neither more nor less, was what I did on the first instant. Nor did my admiration exhaust itself upon the few largest and tallest. A little more in girth, or even a little more in height, seemed not to count for much with me. Even after I had looked for hours at the biggest and tallest of them I found myself seized with a feeling of something like awe at the sight of a group of smaller ones (smaller, but how they soared!) growing directly upon the roadside halfway between the famous grove and the city.

The grove itself is much less a grove, and much more a forest, than I had expected to find it. I was there almost by myself, having planned things to that end, and after getting away from the gate and the buildings near it, could wander about by the hour with a sense of real woodland seclusion and wildness. Not that a man could walk steadily for that length of time without a frequent return upon his steps, for the inclosure does not contain many acres; but I had no desire to walk steadily, nor any objection to passing again and again over the same ground. What I mean is, that the place is so dark, so densely shaded, so wild in itself, and so surrounded with wildness, that one has very little sensation of being in a park, and can often forget entirely that he is in a place devoted to exploitation and show. Wander far enough to get away from the sight of trees criminally disfigured by ugly, staring placards bearing the ridiculous titles of “Jumbo,” “Roosevelt,” and the like, and you are, as it were, taken into the very lap of Nature, and can rest there in wondering content.

As I have implied, it was the height of the trees, rather than their girth, that laid hold of my imagination. Their circumference I could walk around, but their altitude was like the divine wisdom: it was high; I could not attain unto it. I was never tired, though the muscles of my neck sometimes were, of looking up the straight, naked boles into the far-away tops. The tallest was only three hundred and six feet high, to be sure (a wind having broken off some seventy-five feet a few winters ago — I report what was told me); and the Northwest has many trees taller than that, I am assured. But then, I have never seen them; and, even if I had, still, three hundred feet is a pretty figure. If it isn’t high, — and of course it isn’t, absolutely speaking, — it looks high, and that, after all, is the main consideration. A tree that lifts its head so far heavenward — well, if you ask me, I think I could sooner worship it than any picture or graven image. If a man can stand under it, and not feel himself diminished, there must be something seriously wrong in his make-up.

It was surprising how dark and sunless the place was, even under a cloudless sky. One of the keepers said to me, “Oh, yes, it is all very well to spend an hour here, or even a day; but to live here, I tell you, it is pretty depressing.” It was less so in summer, when the sun passed almost overhead, and could strike down between the trees.

I inquired about bird-life and bird-singing. There was very little of either, he answered; and I imagine he was right. The shadows are too dense; every tree interposing such an enormous depth of leafy cover, so many “layers of shade,” between the sun and the ground. In summer, he added, the “jay birds” made a good deal of chattering. There were two kinds of them, he told me; and I knew as much already: a dark-blue kind, with a tall crest; and a lighter-blue one without a crest. I had seen both just outside the grove within an hour. In fact, ten of the crestless (California) jays were feeding together in the grass of the nearest field; and in the bushes near by were three or four coast jays (carbonacea), superb creatures, at which the blindest unornithological man in the world could not help looking.

In the grove itself, during my visits, the noisiest birds were a small number — perhaps only a pair — of California woodpeckers. They seemed to delight in high places, and not infrequently were calling, “Jacob, Jacob,” in the hearty way to which I had become accustomed, not to say attached, during my week at Paso Robles, where they might almost be said to own the town, they were so many and so perfectly at home in the ancient, lichen-hung valley oaks.

Two kinds of birds sang in the grove, but in the remoter, less frequented parts of it only, and with voices so fine — so threadlike — that I did not think it strange that the keepers made no account of them. These were Western winter wrens and California brown creepers. Of the two the creepers were perhaps the more numerous; certainly they were oftenest heard. For a good while I could get no sight of the singers. It was the creeper’s little wire-drawn, warble-like tune, I grew more and more convinced; but in that darksome place, and on those huge, lofty trunks, the difficulty was to put my eye on such an atom. At last it was done, however; and several times afterward I detected the tiny creatures, in their rustic pepper-and-salt coats, their legs straddled to their ridiculous utmost, hitching up a redwood bole till they got so high as to be nothing but a speck. Amazingly busy they seemed, not stopping a moment, even when they sang, but, like Wordsworth’s reaper, singing at their work, and up the redwoods creeping.

Both wren and creeper were fairly numerous; but the wrens, though frequently seen, and oftener heard, dodging about and scolding in the underbrush, after the manner of their kind, were rather chary of their music, which, if I am to be judge, is somewhat inferior to that of the Eastern bird, not only in voice, which is “squeakier” (I am quoting my pencil — which is far from infallible on a question so nice), but in the length and spirit of the performance.

A hairy woodpecker of some kind was heard more than once, but was never seen; now and then a Sierra junco or two showed themselves, though they probably lived just outside the grove; and at the last minute of my farewell round on the second day I was delighted out of measure by the sight of a hermit thrush. It seemed the place of all places for him. If only he would have sung a few measures from the top of one of those sky-pointing, sky-piercing redwoods! The golden, leisurely notes, coming from so near heaven, would have sounded more angelic than ever.

On both days, too, though I was near forgetting to mention it, I heard repeatedly in a certain place the buzz of a hummer’s wings; and once, for a minute, I caught sight of the bird, a female, darting about among the branches overhead. To all appearance she must have been at home there, strange and sombre abode as it seemed for such a lover of sunshine and flowers.

These, I think, were, with one exception, all the birds I saw or heard within the grove; but the exception was worth more than all the rest, a flock of five or six varied thrushes. How rejoiced I was to find them (my first glimpse of a bird much looked for) in so romantic and memorable a place!

They were shy beyond all reason, and on the first day kept so persistently in shadow that I could hardly say I had seen them at all. On the second day I was more fortunate: first with a splendid, full-plumaged male that stood on a low bough (not of a redwood; old redwoods have no low boughs), in a pretty good light, clucking softly, “as nervous as a witch,” to quote my pencil again; behaving, in short, very much like a robin overtaken by a similar mood; and afterward, with a bird feeding in an open pasture along with the jays before mentioned. This one I stayed with a long time. In action he, too, was more than a little robin-like, seeming to depend largely upon his sense of hearing, standing motionless to listen, and then like a flash whirling squarely about and pouncing upon something or other that had stirred behind him in the grass.

Under trees so lofty, their tops so almost beyond one’s vision, one feels after a little a need of lesser things to rest the eyes upon by way of relief and contrast; and under the redwoods this need was well provided for. The undergrowth of trees was composed mostly of bays, some of them of such a size as would be called large in any ordinary competition, madroñas, both trees and shrubs, — a novelty to me, and highly appreciated, — and the tanbark oak. The madroña I recognized at sight, its magnolia-like leaves and its bright mahogany-colored branches making its identity manifest to one who had read about it and had been expecting to find it.

As for the oaks, I had not so much as a suspicion of their true character. On the first day I noticed only shrubby growths, and, impelled by curiosity, carried a twig back to the hotel. There I showed it to a Santa Crucian, who answered readily that it was tanbark oak. “They use the bark in the big tannery here,” he said. To speak frankly, I doubted his knowledge, the texture of the leaves being so radically unlike that of any Quercus leaf that I had ever seen.

The next day, however, in the grove itself, I found trees of a considerable size, and under them picked up acorns and curiously feathered acorn-cups; and within twenty-four hours, by a happy accident, my attention was directed to a recent magazine article in which the tree was described and its leaves and fruit figured. The tree is not a Quercus, it appears, but is of the genus Pasania, its only surviving congeners (but these number almost a hundred!) being found in Siam and the neighboring islands! A strange oak it surely is, and a strange history it must have had: an ancient genus, surviving from geologic times, we are told, equally related to Quercus and Castanea, to the oaks, that is, and the chestnuts. And now, in these last days, with all this ennobling family history behind it, it is being cut down for the tanning of shoe-leather. To such base uses do we come.

On the floor of the grove were beautiful and modest flowers: redwood oxalis, with its exquisite leaves and its lovely pink blossoms; an uncommonly pretty trillium, opening white and turning to a delicate rose-color; two kinds of yellow violets, one rather tall, with a leafy stem, like Viola pubescens, the other (Viola sarmentosa) of a lowly habit, as pretty and unassuming as the round-leaved violet of the East, after which nothing more need be said; the toothwort, which is everywhere in California, so far as I have seen, but nowhere more welcome than here; and a wild ginger (Asarum), with characteristic odd-shaped, long-horned blooms — grotesque, they might almost be called — tucked away under the spacious leaves.

Later in the season there would be other blossoms, for I noticed iris and various things coming along, and even a small wild rose bush. Redwood botany would be a highly interesting study, I told myself, if one could have the year long in which to pursue it.

But the redwoods themselves were the supreme consideration. Some of the largest, a small number, comparatively, stood alone. In reason they should be most effective so; but for myself I think I was more impressed by those that stood in a cluster or group, a lordly brotherhood of giants; the largest in the middle, then two, three, or four large ones supporting it, as it were, and just outside of these another circle of younger and smaller ones. In many instances it seems to be all but certain that the present trees — the present groups, especially — have sprung from stumps or roots of an earlier generation. Perhaps, after all, the giants were in those days. Far back those days must have been, for some of the trees that we now gaze upon with wonder, if we may believe what we read about them, were poets before David and philosophers before Solomon.



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