XVIII. The Giant Forest

Every one is familiar, at least by reputation and photograph, with the Big Trees of California. All have seen pictures of stage-coaches driving in passageways cut through the bodies of the trunks; of troops of cavalry ridden on the prostrate trees. No one but has heard of the dancing-floor or the dinner- table cut from a single cross-section; and probably few but have seen some of the fibrous bark of unbelievable thickness. The Mariposa, Calaveras, and Santa Cruz groves have become household names.

The public at large, I imagine, meaning by that you and me and our neighbors, harbor an idea that the Big Tree occurs only as a remnant, in scattered little groves carefully fenced and piously visited by the tourist. What would we have said to the information that in the very heart of the Sierras there grows a thriving forest of these great trees; that it takes over a day to ride throughout that forest; and that it comprises probably over five thousand specimens?

Yet such is the case. On the ridges and high plateaus north of the Kaweah River is the forest I describe; and of that forest the trees grow from fifteen to twenty-six feet in diameter. Do you know what that means? Get up from your chair and pace off the room you are in. If it is a very big room, its longest dimension would just about contain one of the bigger trunks. Try to imagine a tree like that.

It must be a columnar tree straight and true as the supports of a Greek facade. The least deviation from the perpendicular of such a mass would cause it to fall. The limbs are sturdy like the arms of Hercules, and grow out from the main trunk direct instead of dividing and leading that main trunk to themselves, as is the case with other trees. The column rises with a true taper to its full height; then is finished with the conical effect of the top of a monument. Strangely enough the frond is exceedingly fine, and the cones small.

When first you catch sight of a Sequoia, it does not impress you particularly except as a very fine tree. Its proportions are so perfect that its effect is rather to belittle its neighbors than to show in its true magnitude. Then, gradually, as your experience takes cognizance of surroundings,--the size of a sugar-pine, of a boulder, of a stream flowing near,-- the giant swells and swells before your very vision until he seems at the last even greater than the mere statistics of his inches had led you to believe. And after that first surprise over finding the Sequoia something not monstrous but beautiful in proportion has given place to the full realization of what you are beholding, you will always wonder why no one who has seen has ever given any one who has not seen an adequate idea of these magnificent old trees.

Perhaps the most insistent note, besides that of mere size and dignity, is of absolute stillness. These trees do not sway to the wind, their trunks are constructed to stand solid. Their branches do not bend and murmur, for they too are rigid in fiber. Their fine thread-like needles may catch the breeze's whisper, may draw together and apart for the exchange of confidences as do the leaves of other trees, but if so, you and I are too far below to distinguish it. All about, the other forest growths may be rustling and bowing and singing with the voices of the air; the Sequoia stands in the hush of an absolute calm. It is as though he dreamed, too wrapt in still great thoughts of his youth, when the earth itself was young, to share the worldlier joys of his neighbor, to be aware of them, even himself to breathe deeply. You feel in the presence of these trees as you would feel in the presence of a kindly and benignant sage, too occupied with larger things to enter fully into your little affairs, but well disposed in the wisdom of clear spiritual insight.

This combination of dignity, immobility, and a certain serene detachment has on me very much the same effect as does a mountain against the sky. It is quite unlike the impression made by any other tree, however large, and is lovable.

We entered the Giant Forest by a trail that climbed. Always we entered desirable places by trails that climbed or dropped. Our access to paradise was never easy. About halfway up we met five pack-mules and two men coming down. For some reason, unknown, I suspect, even to the god of chance, our animals behaved themselves and walked straight ahead in a beautiful dignity, while those weak-minded mules scattered and bucked and scraped under trees and dragged back on their halters when caught. The two men cast on us malevolent glances as often as they were able, but spent most of their time swearing and running about. We helped them once or twice by heading off, but were too thankfully engaged in treading lightly over our own phenomenal peace to pay much attention. Long after we had gone on, we caught bursts of rumpus ascending from below. Shortly we came to a comparatively level country, and a little meadow, and a rough sign which read

  "Feed 20C a night."

Just beyond this extortion was the Giant Forest.

We entered it toward the close of the afternoon, and rode on after our wonted time looking for feed at less than twenty cents a night. The great trunks, fluted like marble columns, blackened against the western sky. As they grew huger, we seemed to shrink, until we moved fearful as prehistoric man must have moved among the forces over which he had no control. We discovered our feed in a narrow "stringer" a few miles on. That night, we, pigmies, slept in the setting before which should have stridden the colossi of another age. Perhaps eventually, in spite of its magnificence and wonder, we were a little glad to leave the Giant Forest. It held us too rigidly to a spiritual standard of which our normal lives were incapable; it insisted on a loftiness of soul, a dignity, an aloofness from the ordinary affairs of life, the ordinary occupations of thought hardly compatible with the powers of any creature less noble, less aged, less wise in the passing of centuries than itself.