DEPENDING ON YOUR definitions, this particular essay has taken three months to write and the book of essays that it’s a part of has taken – again, depending on your definitions – five years. Saplings grow far more quickly than my manuscript has. The production timeline of your average physical book is easily long enough for an entire ecosystem to be destroyed. This should make me write faster, but in fact the opposite has happened.
Writers love to wrestle with trees – so rich are their metaphoric possibilities, so soothing is the light that filters through their leaves. I once stood under a grove of horse chestnuts in London’s Kew Gardens as pollen rained down through shafts of sunlight and thought to myself, Ah, this is what Philip Pullman calls Dust. Then, having had that thought, I lay down under one particular chestnut, or should I say within the chestnut, for its low boughs rested on the ground and enclosed the space and therefore me entirely, and I had a nap. Trees are not good for productivity. They encourage sloth (or should I say sloths, as those animals have arms that are longer than their legs and curved feet, both features being really useful if you live in a tree). Visiting some of the more remote trees takes time: you have to get on planes, hire cars, walk for miles. Processing all that you see, and read, takes even longer. The unravelling of millions of years of evolution takes some time to wrap your head around too, especially if, like me, you’re still trying to come to terms with what came first: the splendour of it all.
When I’m not napping under trees I write words, then cut them down. I walk. I draw what I see in front of me. I find that I often draw a tree (or an animal, or a scene) before I write about it. That the drawing is akin to a meditation, an effective way to befriend the subject. The results often capture an atmosphere, or the character of a place, or perhaps raise problems that words can’t. So I let the image do that work in the hope I can then express the subject better. This is a convoluted way of saying I draw to both think and to not think. The results might be good and they might be bad. It doesn’t matter. The process feeds my writing. Gives it nutrients, if you like.
Consider the roots. In his book Drawing a Tree (Corraini Edizioni, 2004), Bruno Munari tells me to look at them closely, before looking at the trunk, and then at the patterns of its branching. Last of all he exhorts me to look at the shape of the individual leaves and consider the way in which they do (or don’t) cluster.
Diligent, I look.
ROOTS: CAN YOU trace the patterns they make? Are they buttress roots, high as a house, or is the root system deep underground, mirroring a tree’s crown? And what about the sound of them? Apparently, the first thing you hear when a giant sequoia falls is the low boom of its roots snapping, deep below the surface, one at a time. One word used to describe this is ‘crackle’.
I heard the earth crackle recently, not because a giant sequoia was falling but because it was the first week of spring in Indiana. When I walked through the woods I heard a constant, electric hum. At first I thought it was insects in the dry leaves, or squirrels digging for acorns, but soon I became convinced I could hear the seedlings push up through the soil, rustling the dry leaves that had fallen over winter. And yes, scientists have found electronic means to detect these sounds. Roots make tiny clicking noises apparently.
Trunks: are various. Shagbark hickory, for example, is, as the name suggests, shaggy. The bark looks like a cross between dreadlocks and roof shingles. But it’s not as shaggy as an Australian ribbon gum, which sheds in long narrow strips to reveal paler, smoother bark underneath.
Consider the paperbark. Hundreds of the papery slices of bark that are as fine as filo pastry compressed together to form a papery slab you could use for shelter.
The trunks of bloodwoods ooze a hard red sap and smell pungent after rain. Lemon-scented gums glow when the light hits them. Luminous whites, the palest of pinks. Skin that seems as delicate as a human’s. Woody patches of bark nestle in the tree’s elbows and its knees. Scribbly gums are named for the tunnels of the larvae that live between layers of bark and veer around like drunken racing-car drivers, leaving tracks as they go. The top layer falls and the trunk is revealed as a scroll.
Bark needs to be touched if you really want to get its measure, and the most extraordinary bark I’ve felt is that of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). It sits in alternating slabs and furrows that are themselves the width of ‘ordinary’ trees. It’s fire resistant. It’s spongy, and up to a metre thick. If you lean into it hard enough it might enfold you so I do that, lean into it and feel it give. I stroke it. Then, concerned I’m being just plain weird, I sit down beside it for a while. That’s when I see marmots dash past. Fatter, and more hilarious, than I’d been capable of imagining. That’s when I hear the insistent tap tap tap of woodpeckers. I try and hang out with the tree as I would a friend. Experience life at its pace.
I’d been thinking and writing about these trees for five years when I realised I’d be within a couple of hundred of miles of these giant trees and decided to grab the opportunity. To be honest I’d put off seeing them. Worried that their celebrity, and the number of visitors, might have reduced the park to a circus. I’d already spent a lot of time with their cousins, the California coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). How different could they be?
Very different is the answer to that question. Giant sequoias are the largest trees in the world, by volume. That phrase is used a lot in all the literature about the tree. By volume. I’m not going to give statistics on how much they weigh. Suffice to say they’re really, really heavy. Giant sequoias can reach over ninety metres high. They have a girth of around eight metres. They are also among the oldest living trees and some date back 3,500 years, though the ones I visited at the Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada were closer to 2,000 years. Perhaps you’ll get a clearer sense of them if I tell you this: they’re too tall to see to the top of, too wide to hug, much bigger than blue whales, and older than many religions. Giant sequoias lived with the Mono and the Washoe people for millennia. They lived under Mexican rule. They witnessed the arrival of the Spanish and the settler Americans who’d travelled across the continent from the east coast in the early nineteenth century. They were there when California became a state (1848) and the land they’d taken root in became a national park (1890). Forty-five different American presidents have come and gone, imposing their various views regarding the logging of the giant sequoia’s kin.
Jane Gleeson-White, in an article for The Guardian in April 2018, reminded me that personhood was first proposed for natural entities forty-six years ago in a case held in the US Supreme Court concerning Walt Disney’s plan to build a ski resort in Mineral King Valley. In his dissenting judgement, Justice William O Douglas drew on Christopher Stone's 1972 argument that trees should be granted personhood and therefore have the ability to sue for their own protection.
But personhood doesn’t come with as many rights as it once did – any human-rights lawyer will tell you this. Call them trees or call them people, the sequoias are in trouble. Giant sequoias only have around 144 square kilometres to call their own and this area is broken up into scattered groves. The fragmentation of habitat is one of the greatest threats to old trees and the ecosystems they support. It leaves them far more vulnerable to disease, the vagaries of weather, and fire. Of even greater concern is climate change. As the Sierra Nevada mountain range loses its snowpack and temperatures increase, it will become harder for seedlings and young trees to survive the long summers. In a hundred years we are likely to have lost most of our giant sequoias.
Unlike the Ents from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, giant sequoias can’t move when they need to – although when you walk among them, anything seems possible. Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory (WW Norton, 2018) is one of the few novels I’ve read that adequately begins to convey how being in the presence of giant sequoias is akin to being in the presence of qualities Christianity ascribes to God. These trees compel you. You touch them, but you ask permission first. You read about their removal and find yourself cursing out loud, and attempting to engage total strangers in arguments about ethics, which in the US today is a conversational minefield. If these trees started a religion, I’d join it, but they’re too busy breaking down carbon dioxide using light, and creating entire ecosystems, to bother with self-aggrandisement.
I try to think of other times I’ve felt the way I did when in the presence of these beings. Those times include, and are indeed limited to: kayaking on the coast of New South Wales with a whale feeding her calf; seeing the monolithic rock forms of Uluru in central Australia and El Capitan in California; seeing the sun set over a glacier in Iceland; and waking up to the Grand Canyon pulsing with fog, as if it was breathing.
LEAVES. DON’T GET me started on eucalyptus leaves. The natural variation within a species is so great that the concept of ‘species’ becomes porous – though perhaps it is for all life forms. As well, juvenile and mature leaves are often different. In my attempts to understand leaves, and therefore taxonomy, I come across this word: systematics. Systematics is, I read, a way of understanding the evolutionary history of life on earth.
Also known as the tree of life.
In the US, during winter, there aren’t many leaves to be found. My amateur attempts at tree identification are hopeless so I give myself over to correction from random local ecologists I strike up conversations with in bars and forests, then friend on Facebook. I content myself with the evergreens, which include the redwood, but also encompass pines, firs, spruce, cedar and cypress. If the number of needles coming out of the same spot is two, three or five, it’s pine. If there is only one needle coming out of one spot, it could be fir or spruce. You pluck the needles and if it is soft and doesn’t roll easily, it’s a fir. If it has four distinct sides and is stiff, which makes it easy to roll, it’s a spruce. And so on.
For the most part I call everything an oak, or occasionally a chestnut, and wait for spring to show me if I’m right. These days, spring’s arrival is less predictable and it stays for less time once it does arrive. But arrive it does, and suddenly I can tell a birch from a beech from an oak from a maple. I come to understand that sycamore and plane trees are the same tree.
I can’t tell you a lot about a giant sequoia’s leaves to be honest: they sit so high in the sky it’s hard to figure out the leafing patterns let alone the shapes of the individual leaves. I had to go to the internet to discover that, on a single tree, as many as two billion leaves – evergreen, awl-shaped – arrange themselves spirally on shoots. To learn that established leaves can live for up to twenty years, drawing water up the tree’s trunk and sending nutrients down it, while the trunk amasses wood. Giant sequoias’ leaves are responsive to and cope well with environmental changes, but pollution levels are increasingly a challenge. Being a national park in California is a tough gig. The Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks have such bad pollution that the management tweets daily air-quality advisories.
The branches that support the spiralling leaves can be the size of large trees all by themselves. The leaves and their branches make up the crown of the tree. Raggedy and wild cities some thirty metres across that sit higher above the ground than a thirty-storey building. The crown is wiry. There are tufts. You can see the remnants of crowns that have been sheared off by storms. The crowns have always been vulnerable to storms, but as the trees have become more isolated from each other, and as our climate changes in a way that fuels more violent storm seasons, this becomes more compromising.
I’M SO FAR away from having the skills, or the patience, to draw a giant sequoia accurately that for a time I don’t even try. Instead I try to capture the giant sequoia’s red glow (for it shares this with its coastal cousin) and the abruptness of its crown – a kind of bowl cut maintained by major weather events. Most important of all is the matter of perspective. The first time I try to draw a piece of one I’m sitting in front of a trunk about five times wider than me, close enough to consider the variety of tones in its charcoaled interior. (The tree I’d chosen had a chamber near its base opened out by bushfire and then polished, by time, to a small wooden cathedral.) This means the red huskiness of the bark becomes an entire page of blocked colour, and my sketch barely makes it above the root line.
When I return to Australia I can’t stop thinking about the giant sequoias, and the challenge they’d thrown down before me. How could a puny human, and untrained artist, hope to convey the tree’s magnificence? I try again using my square notebook. Hopeless. I find a rectangular one but the dimensions continue to be too modest. I get closer to capturing the crown’s raggedy charm, but my attempts to convey its height by whittling it to a point are a failure. For this is another thing about giant sequoias. They do not look narrow up higher. Perhaps it’s the effect of foreshortening. Or to do with the fact you can’t take in the width at the base of the tree unless you look at it from a distance. Once you do walk away from a redwood or a sequoia, the tree starts to look more ordinary. As Jon Mooallem wrote in The New York Times Magazine in March 2017, ‘Even if there’s a fence or person in the shot for scale, the human eye can find a way to correct for the sequoias’ unacceptable gigantism: It reads the fir trees near the sequoias as bushes, to make the sequoias seem like ordinary trees; or it flattens the perspective, so that, say, four far-off sequoias appear to be right alongside six cedars in the foreground – fusing all of them into a single line of ten perfectly boring-size trees.’
Even more impossible to capture what the human eye can’t but I hope my words can: the fact that these large old trees – all large old trees – play a critical role in forest ecosystems. They support birds, mammals, insects and reptiles. They push nutrients down into the soil. Their roots hold the forest floor together. A forest without large old trees is like a city without enough food, water, housing or clean air.
Despite the seeming impossibility of the project, I continue my drawn-out consideration. My reading about, writing about and drawing of the tree. I move between the abstract and more practical considerations. I go to an exhibition by the artist Chong Weng-Ho where several of his pieces work with the tradition of Chinese scrolls. I find this idea useful and dig out a handmade paper concertina that is four times longer than it is wide, and I draw the sequoia in a more considered way. I do not radically narrow the trunk but simply let the base of the tree slip off the side, thereby leaving its width to the imagination. I resist the impulse to make the tree look elegant but make sure to include gashes and boules. I draw small cartoony pines in the background. I hint at other sequoias.
All this helps. Next I try to find a larger piece of paper, one that is dramatically longer than it is wide and that will take charcoal and pastel. (The first scrolls I’ve found tend to be of rice papers, and too fine.) I end up with a compromise: cutting a large sheet of paper into two. It isn’t quite right and it’s hard enough to manage that I have to hang it from the clothesline to work on it. I capture the red glow, sure, but little else.
This takes a few days.
But then I get out of bed one morning, pull out a second sheet of irregular shaped paper, and start again. The colours of my first tree are too garish. I’ve failed to convey its height. The second attempt is better on those points but the crown still isn’t working.
It’s become clear to me that there is no getting it right. Even clearer that this isn’t the point.
A few days later I go to a printing workshop, which allows me to print twenty copies of a rough sketch. And suddenly I have another plan.
Is it possible to draw, or print, a forest?
Note: The online version of this piece has been amended following its publication in the print version of Griffith Review 63 to reflect the fact that while the idea of granting personhood to trees was raised in the case against the development of Mineral King Valley, personhood was not granted to natural entities at this time, and it was not the reason for blocking this development.