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  • Karl Thunemann

Logging the Redwoods

In November 2019, my brother and I agreed to go on a retreat to visit the Northern California redwoods. The date got squeezed from both ends. Though we stayed at an Airbnb for three nights, we spent only one day in the redwoods. I could have been disappointed, but I was not. That one day was fabulous.

I introduced my brother to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove a few miles north of the town of Orrick. The grove has been my go-to destination among the big trees for at least twenty years.  It is accessible. The grove has a mile-long loop trail, a complex variety of redwood phenomena, and an extraordinary handout guide that explains the grove’s marvels and challenges. Huge trees that have been ravaged by fire, some of them more than once, yet live on. The clone circles, the novel means by which a redwood propagates by surrounding itself with copies. The nurse logs, fallen giants colonized by untold numbers of species, an essential process in perpetuating the forest.

 Notable among the challenges is a vista on the grove’s eastern flank that still shows—fifty years after the grove was incorporated in the brand-new National Redwood Park—how commercial logging made great incursions in the virgin forest. And discreet signs throughout the grove implicate the snacks we might carry in rucksacks. If left behind they might be a treat for crows and jays, but the growing numbers of these aggressive birds put pressure on more fragile species such as northern spotted owls and the marbled murrelet.


As we drove uphill to the grove from U.S. Highway 101, my brother pointed out the sign warning motorists that on this narrow road we should watch out for logging trucks we might meet along the way. He was incensed; I have long shared that feeling. It seems an affront to the very existence of the national park, allowing this road to be used to haul out the fresh cadavers of trees that had not enjoyed federal protection. And while we were in the grove we heard the crashing sound of a logging truck pushing its way down that winding road, brakes screeching and couplings banging as it rounded corners. We both felt anger. In a place so delicate and magnificent, it does not take much to unleash your umbrage.

I have not always loved the redwoods. I was indifferent to Mrs. Johnson and her campaign to help save these ancient forests. My heart belonged to the northern Sierra Nevada, where my family took its vacations. I guess I was a bit cynical, though in my own eyes I was an idealist. Halfway around the loop, there is a big open space where the former First Lady was feted as they named the grove after her. Three presidents –former and future—were there: her husband LBJ, Ronald Reagan, * and the newly elected Richard Nixon. Her diligence made her worthy of recognition.

Maybe humility has kept me coming back to this grove…  That and the understanding that my durability as a walker was in recession. Someday I would no longer be able to circumambulate this “easy” trail.

Maybe humility has kept me coming back to this grove. The sense that I could have been a better citizen. That and the understanding that my durability as a walker was in recession. Someday I would no longer be able to circumambulate this “easy” trail.  Maybe that day was about to arrive. Strangely, I have never “meditated” in the grove: just being there is a moving meditation. But as a traveler farther south, along the Avenue of the Giants, I would usually pull off the road to nap, meditate and take a walk through the grove at hand. The Avenue, a back road following the Eel River for 30 miles, nourishes river-bottom redwoods, the forest floor relatively flat and easy to negotiate on foot.

On the final leg of our walk around the Lady Bird Grove, it suddenly occurred to me that I might never see this grove again. I received this thought with equanimity, a quality I often associate with my brother, and with meditating. Later, I gave some thought to buying a redwood burl to bring home, to see if I could coax it into becoming a tree. But I soon put this idea aside. Years ago I had acquired a burl, but it met a sorry end. It was claimed by -----[common word out of recall range] If I really esteem these trees, how could I justify torturing another of their living representatives?

Two or three weeks later, back home, I had a powerful dream that could only be titled, “Logging the Redwoods.” It was long and complex, but here I recount it briefly:

I am on the San Francisco peninsula, pondering a task. I have a huge logging truck, which I must drive into the city and load with two 100-foot redwood logs and take them back to my home in Seattle. The task feels overwhelming. I have the truck, but I don’t know how to drive it, let alone load it with two giant logs. I don’t question the assignment, but how? The dream plays and replays, each time offering an alternative, less onerous task. Finally, I seem to settle on taking two 100-count packs of notecards. No need for the logs themselves, or for the truck.

I find it odd that in the dream I feel no shuddering aversion to the idea of logging these trees. The dream seems to make a reasonable assertion: I want something from these trees. It is almost as if I want to harvest something. They are resilient … resourceful … committed to survival. Somehow I am being enlisted in this. The dream asserts a more benign definition of “logging”: Nurturing them and making figurative use of them, not destroying these trees and their habitat. And perhaps, at the same time, liberating them.

This is so complex. Writing this epistle has taken weeks! And I have not even told the story of how I came to regard the coastal redwoods as one of my higher powers. I feel I owe you that complicated story as well. I will get to it as time goes by.

In the meantime, I relented and ordered another redwood burl. It seems to be thriving. I keep it watered. I take it out, clean it and scrub its bowl every two weeks. I speak to it every day—in meditative tones, I trust. It seems to be thriving. I never utter the m--- word in its presence. ‡    

The chair of our landscape committee has found a spot on the grounds of our co-op that would welcome a young redwood. But it is not time yet. I’ve had the burl four months and read that nine months may pass before burls sprout roots, announcing they are ready to be transplanted. But even that is not a lock. So I hope for the best. And to my role of blogger, may I add the title “logger”—in its newest, most benign sense. 


*Reagan, notably indifferent to the redwoods, one said “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.”

† Arrggh! The word is mold! How could I forget? Mold! M---!        

Having sat in numerous meetings with artistic types where each person announces a preferred personal pronoun, I have grown accustomed to thinking of an individual as “they.” But in the case of redwoods, “they” and “them” seem botanically dictated. Redwoods are monoecious, meaning both male (pollen-producing) and female (seed-bearing) cones are borne on the same tree but on different branches. So I would speak of my burl as them, but because redwoods do not become sexually mature until age ten, perhaps the burl is it. But take one more step: as the burl is—at least figuratively—fetus and placenta rolled into one external package, I would say that they is warranted.


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