The Strong Silent Type

Muir Woods

I’ve never found it easy to keep my mouth shut.

However, in the past decade or so, as public social platforms have become a virtual mosh pit for wide-eyed optimists and gun-toting vigilantes alike, my urge to, ahem, air my views has been tempered by the sheer god-awfulness of what passes for reality these days. I mean, really? Aristophanes himself would have been aghast by the “cloud cuckoo land” which passes for normal in the current millennium.

So lately I’ve been trying to distance myself from the fray. But it’s not as easy at it once was to get away from it all. And maybe now isn’t the time. Now more than ever it’s time to look after this planet, and perhaps move to higher ground.

Sorry, fiction fans, I don’t believe the answer lies in outer space. At least not any time soon. If we can’t keep from wrecking this amazing planet we’ve got no business heading out to trash another one.

Okay. That’s the rant. Moving on.

About a year ago a weighty novel came out to much fanfare. Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” was compared to Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick” in terms of its cultural significance and literary merit. When I learned that the author wove multiple story lines all sharing a common theme of trees, I was intrigued and determined to read it. I mean, I love trees. I love reading. I’m a fan of fiction. What could go wrong?

Well. It’s an amazing book. I’m glad I read it. But I wouldn’t read it again. It’s too painful. Too real. And it’s not at all like “Moby Dick” unless you’re measuring by length. “The Overstory” is not as funny or lyrical, or just plain wondrous. But what makes it like Melville’s staggering work of genius is the compelling brilliance of the story, which weaves history, science and the heartbreaking paradox of humanity into a sobering cautionary tale for our times.

The mind-blowing science at the heart of the plot centers on the relatively recent studies documenting how trees communicate with each other. Modern skeptics may scoff, but the evidence is overwhelming. Trees have their own “heartbeats.” They can live hundreds, even thousands of years.

Short-lived humans, who value speed above thoughtfulness, have long taken trees for granted, slaying them by the millions every year. We humans are so easily distracted by noisemakers. Yet we once admired the strong silent type. John Wayne, not known for his environmental stand, earned the respect of generations by following his own rule, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”

As another Earth Day approaches politicians will make new promises. I wish I could believe them. But it’s been almost 50 years since the first Earth Day. The ocean is rising faster every year, while the forests are silently vanishing.

It’s a pity we can’t hear the trees. But if you read “The Overstory,” you may be convinced. The planet is fighting back.

Happy Earth Day, indeed.

Something in the Air

Unforgettable fragrance emanates from the nearly invisible flowers the American linden tree.
Unforgettable fragrance emanates from the nearly invisible flowers of the American linden tree.

Breathe deep.

If you are lucky enough to be walking almost anywhere along Massachusetts Avenue in the District this month, you can’t fail to notice the fragrance.

You might walk right past the blooms without seeing them, however.

The modest tiny flowers of Tilia americana cluster under the lush leaves of the American linden tree, hidden in plain sight.

During springtime in the District many lovely flowering trees enjoy the rapt attention of tourists and residents. The cherry blossoms alone inspire a euphoric response that filters throughout the local economy.

Yet scant attention is given to some of the other stately and elegant trees that help make the Capitol City a capital place to live. People who get all their news from lurid headlines and the usual bad-news-first policy of competitive journalism may never discover all the surprising charms of this particular city.

But for those who take the time to walk the sidewalks of Embassy Row in June, a heavenly aroma awaits.

Look up. There, those trees with the heart-shaped leaves that are green on one side and fuzzy pale gray on the other? Step closer. Inhale.

There’s more than one way to get high in this city.

Tree Worship in The Fog Belt

Visitors whisper in the Cathedral Grove.
Visitors whisper in the Cathedral Grove.

After a few days of hectic activity in San Francisco, we slipped across the bay and made our way to Muir Woods, a place I’d always wanted to see.

It was a Monday, and although it was a holiday (Columbus Day, or, as it is known in Berkeley, Indigenous Peoples Day), we imagined we might have the place to ourselves.

Silly tourists. We got our first inkling that we weren’t the only ones looking to worship giant trees as we neared the park entrance. “Lot Full” read the sign at the first parking area. A park ranger was waving cars toward the overflow lot. Another “Lot Full” sign met us there. But an additional sign offered hope in the form of an arrow pointing to “Roadside Parking” up ahead.

We headed down the narrow roadway, made narrower by the steady stream of people hiking back to the park, presumably from the roadside parking. We soldiered on, bright with hope. After a mile or so we began to doubt. But there were still determined groups tramping in the dust at the road’s edge.

Eventually we found a narrow spot and parked. Then we joined the hikers. The day was warm and sunny, the air dry and dusty. We had neglected to bring water. Silly tourists. As we trudged along, I told myself it would be worth it, but I wasn’t completely convinced. So often much-hyped splendors don’t quite measure up to the imagined experience. Plus, I worried that the presence of all these people we had seen pouring into the park would destroy the serenity I sought.

Silly me.

Too big for any camera.
Too big for any camera.

The trees in Muir Woods tower high, wide, and mighty above the trickle of puny humans down on the forest floor. These ancient redwoods, many of which were old before Columbus stepped foot on the shore of the other side of the country, stand over 200 feet tall. Visitors, self-included, try in vain to capture the sheer magnificence of these redwoods with cameras, cell phones and other devices. It can’t be done. They are simply too big to be caught with our gadgets and toys. They transcend our limited grasp of time and space. They awe, in the truest sense of that word.

Look up. Look higher. Good luck with that.
Look up. Look higher. Good luck with that.

All forests have the capacity to restore the human spirit, to revive our hopes and replenish our souls. But Muir Woods does more. In the stillness of its shadows, in the soft fall of light between the massive trunks, it inspires reverence for the glory of creation. And I say amen to that.