Cities planted avenues of Sequoias. Soon every man of wealth or title must have a specimen for his grounds. Californians were even then unabashed in the claims they made for their state, including the age of Bigtrees. They asserted that these trees were old when the Pyramids were abuilding. Even so eminent an authority on fishes! David Starr Jordan assured the press they had endured ten thousand years. John Muir counted the annual rings on the biggest stump he ever saw and found over , but not more.
Even that can no longer be verified and is suspect of error. Accurate ring counts in recent times have never put the age of any logged tree at more than years. Yet surely thirty centuries of life are awe-inspiring. There is something comforting about handling a section of Sequoia wood that seems scarcely less living now than when it grew before the time of Christ.
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For the proof of its age is there under your naked eyes, the annual rings which you can tick off like dates on a calendar —the years and the decades, the centuries and the tens of centuries. Somewhere about 2 inches inside the bark of a tree recently cut will be the rings laid down in , year of the gold fever, and of the still more feverish Yet nothing of moment is graven for that time on the wooden tablets of Sequoia history. And it is humbling to notice that those particular rings may be 15 feet from the center of the tree, the starting point of its growth. The calm deposition of the rings rosy pink spring wood ending in the sudden dark band of summer wood has gone on millimeter by millimeter for millennium after millennium — advancing ripples in the tide of time.
Why, out of a world of trees, do these live longest? Why is a Cottonwood decrepit at seventy-five years of age, why does the Oak live three hundred summers?
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And since it can do so, why does it not endure a thousand? How does the Giant Sequoia go on growing, without signs of senility, until literally blasted from the earth by a bolt from heaven, a consuming fire, a seismic landslide, or a charge of dynamite? One answer may lie in the very sap, for that of the Bigtrees contains tannic acid, a chemical used in many fire extinguishers.
Though fire will destroy the thin-barked young Sequoias, when bark has formed on the old specimens it may be a foot and more thick and practically like asbestos. The only way that fire can penetrate it is when inflammable material becomes piled against the base and, fanned to a blowtorch by the mountain wind, sears its way through to the wood. Even then fire seems never to consume a great old specimen, no matter how it devours its heart.
And the high tannin content of the sap has the same healing action that tannic acid has on our flesh when we apply it to a burn. The repair of fire damage by a Bigtree is almost miraculous. It begins at once, and even if the wound is so wide that it would take a thousand years to cover it, the courageous vegetable goes about the business as if time were nothing to it.
So we might say that Bigtree lives long because fire and parasites seldom succeed in storming its well-defended citadel.
We might say all this and more, yet there remains some quantum of the inexplicable, and in the end we are forced to admit that Sequoias come of a long-lived race — whatever that means — and so outlast the very races of man. All this semieternal life, all these tons and tons of vegetation, come from a flaky seed so small that it takes three thousand of them to make up 1 ounce. The kernel is but 14 inches long, and inside it lies curled the embryonic monarch. There are commonly from 96 to seeds to a cone, and the cones themselves are almost ridiculously small for so mammoth a tree.
They do not mature till the end of the second season, and not until the end of the third, at the earliest, do they open their scales in dry weather and loose the seeds, which drift but a little way from the parent tree. Their method of transport is not only weak, but their viability is low; perhaps only half of the seeds have the vitality to sprout. And long before they do so, they are attacked, in the cone and out of it, by untold multitudes of squirrels and jays.
Many do not fall upon suitable ground — mineral soil laid bare — but are lost in the duff of the forest floor. Of a million seeds on a tree in autumn, perhaps only one is destined to sprout when the snow-water and the sun of the late mountain spring touch it with quickening fingers. First the sprouting seed sends down a slim spear of a root. Swiftly this makes its way down about 2 inches and puts out its suckling root hairs.
Only then does the first shoot appear, bearing four or five baby leaves still wearing the jaunty cap of the seed hull. Within a week or ten days the blades burst apart and the infant bonnet is flung away. Only now the tiny seedlings face further perils. They are attacked from below by cutworms, above by armies of black wood ants. Ground squirrels and chipmunks, finches and sparrows cock a bright eye at them and pull them up for a toothsome salad. Deer browse them by the thousands. If a seedling survives its first year, it may face the centuries with some confidence.
Underground, the taproot is descending faster than the shoot goes up, but at six to eight years it stops, and thereafter only lateral growth takes place.
Eventually the side roots will become gigantic and spread out in all their ramifications over two or three acres. A tree feet high has roots whose circle has a radius of feet, and occasionally the roots are longer than the height of the tree. Up into the light and air grows the princeling. The youthful leaves are soft, glaucous blue green; the bark is still smooth and gray with no hint of red about it. The stocky shape of childhood gives way to a conical outline, and the young tree stands clothed to the base in boughs that droop gracefully at the tip, of wood strong yet supple.
These lower boughs help to brace the trees against the weight of the great snows of the Sierran winter, which will drift higher than young trees and bury and bend them. When the snows melt, the striplings shake off the last loads from lithe arms and lift shining heads, and they are "gey bonny," as Muir might have said in his Scots idiom, as they stand ranked close about some dewy, iris-spangled, deer-browsed meadow formed where one of their ancestors has fallen and blocked a stream to make a sedgy bog.
In the second century of life, the trees begin to assume a "pole form" — that is, with strong central trunk clear of branches for a long way, and a high peaked crown. Gone now are the drooping limber boughs of youth.
In their place great arms begin to appear, leaving the trunk at right angles and then, bending up as if at elbows, lift leafy hands in a gesture of hosanna. The soft blue green foliage is replaced by metallic green. The smooth gray cortex gives way to the richly red bark of maturity. At last it is furrowed thicker than the brow of Zeus, and in the gales its voice begins, these years and hundreds of years , to take on the deepest tone in the world's sylva.
When the Giant Sequoias flower, the trees are loaded with millions of male and female conelets from as early as November to late in February. The greeny gold pollen showers all over the giant's body and drifts in swirls upon the pure sheet of snows. A single tree will bear hundreds of thousands of cones when in the full vigor of its life. Great age brings to the trees a diminished fertility — fewer cones, that is, but not less viability of seed. It sees the heroic self-pruning of the older boughs, which at last break off of their own weight. Electric bolts may repeatedly strike the monstrous lightning rod, topping it unmercifully.
The once broad and symmetrical crown becomes broken and craggy. The tremendous strains of the superstructure have resulted in gigantic buttressing at the base. The whole tree is now as far past the manly beauty of its prime as that is past the pretty charm of its childhood. It is, after thirty centuries, practically a geological phenomenon. In the wood, corresponding changes take place with the slow passage of time. The fibers of young trees are supple, and all the wood, for the first hundred years, is light yellow sapwood with dark orange bands of summer wood to mark the years.
Only in the second century does the dark rose heartwood, deeply impregnated with tannin, begin to form, first a slim pencil that increases, in a thousand years or so, till it becomes most of the vast cylinder of the trunk. The wood at the base of an ancient tree is all contorted and tough with the compressions and strains of carrying some tons of body above it.
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That at middle heights is straight grained, rose red, and, when fresh, so wet that it sinks in water. At the top of the tree the wood is pink and lightly buoyant. All the properties of Sequoia wood save one are inferior to those of nearly every other timber tree in our sylva. Its chief virtue is that it lasts perdurably. In consequence, it was early sought out by lumbermen for shingles, shakes, flumes, fence stakes, and poles. The giant groves promised ready fortunes, by the look of them. Book plate dated on front free endpaper. No tears..go to site
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Copy is slightly must with light foxing to the dust jacket flaps that also have light edge wear. Later books, including A Natural History of the Senses , A Natural History of Love , and An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain , combine scientific and experiential writing to illuminate the complex relationship between the physiological and cerebral worlds. Ackerman, who often focused on science and nature in her writing, did not limit her scope to those subjects.
In she wrote A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis , which describes her experiences working as a counselor at a suicide-prevention and crisis centre in upstate New York. In her husband, writer Paul West, suffered a debilitating stroke , and that event—as well as his difficult recovery—were chronicled by Ackerman in One Hundred Names for Love ; West died in You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security.
Diane Ackerman. Article Media.