A la sainte terre

In this special edition update, I'm going to take you on a long road-trip to explore the wondrous Sierra Nevada mountains. Lucky for you, there's no 30-hour car ride that you have to endure to experience what John Muir called "God's first cathedrals." I will refrain from any more complaints, after all, Mr. Muir himself (famed naturalist and poetic writer who initiated America's environmentalist movement during the last quarter of the 19th century) made the vertical trek down California on foot with no company other than his pet donkey. I, on the other hand, had the comfort of a scenic car ride accompanied by various podcast hosts and my mom's 80's music.

Good ole' Johnny

Back to Muir. Notorious for disliking the term "hike", Muir would prefer to refer (a new nature inspired tongue twister I'm working on) to his travels as a "saunter." Hence the title of this post, which is a French translation meaning "to the holy land." The nature worshipper himself was quoted as saying that people should not dismissively hike through the natural landscape, but saunter and take in the beauty and wonder of their surroundings. Apparently, Muir would then continue on with what seemed to be a reoccurring bit of his about the etymology of the word saunter. When doing research for this post I found accounts from both Muir and Henry Thoreau and how their interpretation of the word might be a little biased towards their preferred definition. That's the cool thing about words, is it not? Their meanings can change over time and context.

Here you can see Muir (right) with my favorite prezzy, Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite Valley. Image source.

As I mentioned before, "a la sainte terre" was used during the middle ages to describe people making pilgrimages to holy places. However, the original use of the phrase may have had a pejorative connotation, often describing these saunters as wanderers who roamed about asking for charity to fund their travels. Muir went with a more romanticized definition of saunter, and I say let's go with it. The next time the word is used in conversation, you are now equipped with a nice anecdote about the history of the word saunter. Whoever is the receiver of your detailed account may be wholly uninterested, but if you find the right audience (nature buffs and/or French linguists) the pay-off will be big!

To learn more about Muir, check out this timely piece as we head into the fall season.

History of National Parks and Forests in the US

If you want to get away and submerge yourself in the beautiful natural sites across the US, the most difficult hurdle may be deciding on which of the 63 national parks, 154 national forests, or 20 national grasslands to explore. You can compare the abundance of scenic choices to trying to commit to a show or movie on Netflix. Whatever decision you make to get out in nature will most likely be worth it (streaming, on the other hand, doesn't always end up as rewarding). The collective consciousness of America wasn't always concerned with the protection and preservation of our natural spaces and the human impacts on the ecosystems around us. The following will provide a brief history of environmentalism in the States, and if any of this interests you, be sure to read this wonderfully immersive and informative account on the history of trees and conservation in the US by lawyer and historian, Eric Rutkow.

Let us rewind a little, back before our friend John Muir traversed the Sierra Nevada region in 1875. During the first half of the 1800's in New England, philosophers and essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau popularized the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was influenced by Kantian philosophy, romanticism, and Platonism. Before I scare you off with all the literary descriptors, all you need to know is that transcendentalism was a response to the over reliance on rationalism at the time, and the core message of the philosophy was that we all have knowledge about ourselves and the world around us that goes beyond what our senses can observe. Both Emerson and Thoreau championed the importance of self-reliance and the ability of nature to realign one's inner compass. This sociophilosophical movement spurred interest in protecting our Country's natural resources and spaces and would influence people such as Muir to found environmental organizations like the Sierra Club (established in 1892). Decades prior, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first bill protecting our Nation's lands, the Yosemite Valley Grant Act of 1864, which preserved the Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove in California for recreation and public use. Other milestones include the establishment of the first national park in Yellowstone (1872) and the development of the National Park Service (1916).

Where do the Sierra Nevada mountains and their giant sequoia residents come into play? Rediscovery of the groves is credited to hunter Augustus T. Dowd, who mistakenly stumbled on a very large tree in 1852 while chasing down a wounded grizzly bear.

It is important to recognize that the Sierra redwoods were integral to the lives of indigenous Americans who inhabited the region for thousands of years prior to 19th century Spanish and Euro-American settlement. Their stewardship and relationship with the land largely shaped the ecology of the groves and is a subject I will return to in the following sections. To continue with the timeline, Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, making it the second official national park in the US and the first park formed to protect a specific species.

In 1940, Kings Canyon National Park was established to the north of Sequoia National Park. This northern addition included four redwood groves and an abundance of breathtaking geological features that formed during the most recent glacial period more than 10,000 years ago. Image source.

Earth's biggest trees

Trees dominated our planet's landscapes long before humans, but how can we track their origins and migrations across continents like we do with our own ancestors? By using the combined fields of systematics and biogeography, we can learn all sorts of things about this post's guest of honor: the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). We've covered systematics and taxonomy in previous posts (remember our pal Linnaeus), and tools from these fields can help us understand the evolutionary history and classification of the giant sequoia. Biogeography has yet to be introduced on the blog and for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it is a branch of biology dealing with the geographical distribution of plants and animals.

Let's begin by clearing up the confusion around the giant sequoia and their closely related cousins the coast redwood and the dawn redwood. There are three extant (currently living) species of redwood. They are all in the cypress family Cupressaceae and grouped in the

subfamily Sequoioideae. We will be focusing on Sequoiadendron giganteum, which is referred to as the sequoia, giant sequoia, and Sierra redwood. Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the other well known redwood species. They inhabit the coastal region of California and are referred to as redwood or coast redwood. These massive trees reach heights above 350 feet, but they don't compare to the Sierra redwood in girth and lifespan. Last but not least, we have the dawn redwood. The only living species is Metasequoia glyptostroboides, but three fossil species within the Metasequoia genus have been found. This tree is native to China, and although it is much smaller than its impressive cousins, it can still peak around 140 feet and is commonly used as an ornamental tree.

Above are the three redwood species. They share characteristics such as reddish wood and fibrous bark, as well as general cone shape. Their bark is highly resistant to rot and fire. Fire resistance may be weakest in the dawn redwood based on what I could find about their growing habits (In China they're usually found in wetter areas, which is not true for the two other redwoods whose roots cannot tolerate continuously saturated soils). The dawn redwood is also deciduous, meaning it loses its foliage annually. Image source.

To briefly touch upon the evolutionary history of the redwood clan, scientists have dated the split from the rest of their Cupressaceae relatives back to 180 million years ago (mya). This predates another split that occurred 150 mya when Pangea, the giant landmass consisting of all of the continents we know today, split into two huge northern and southern landmasses leading to distinct northern cypress species and southern cypress species. To put it simply, the subfamily Sequoioideae (i.e. the ancient ancestors of the giant sequoia, coast redwood, and dawn redwood) was off doing its own thing before the continents split.

Honing in on the giant sequoia, its ancestors appear to have made it to their current home in the Sierra Nevada mountains by 7 mya. Scientists have carried out extensive research on ancient sequoia populations and distributions using pollen fossils. I urge anyone who is interested in the subject to check out the resource I mention at the end of this post if you want to learn more about it (it's super cool research). Soil cores didn't begin to show abundant populations of the species we know as giant sequoia until 5000 ya. This coincides with a warming climate after the Pleistocene (the last ice-age) ended 10,000 ya (Kunz, 2017). Most sequoia groves can now be found in the watersheds of the rivers in the western slopes of southern Sierra Nevada. A "grove" is just another word for group, and although it is a somewhat subjective term depending on who is doing to counting, groves have been numbered anywhere from 67-75. These groves are restricted to very specific growing conditions at elevations of 5,000-7,000 feet where thicker soils can retain moisture and the drier air promotes the natural forest fires needed for sequoia cones to open and disperse their seeds.

The map above shows major sequoia groves represented by green dots. Image source.

Giant sequoias are the largest tree species by volume, but what allows them to reach such drastically large diameters? For one thing, they are a fast growing species. The annual trunk mass put on by an average sequoia can be equal to, or even exceed, the entire mass of an average to large tree. They are also long lived, with the oldest known specimen dating over 3000 ya. The largest trees have the most leaves, clocking in at around 2 billion and making them extremely productive. Their rot resistant wood, full of secondary compounds like terpenes, tannins, and phenolics, deters herbivores, bacteria, and fungi. In fact, fallen sequoias will remain on the forest floor for centuries before fully decomposing.

General Sherman holds the title of the most massive sequoia in Sequoia National Park, making it the largest tree by volume in the world.

Above are two pictures I took in the Sequoia National Park museum. The image to the left is a jar holding 91,000 giant sequoia seeds. They reminded me of dry oatmeal in shape and size. Each cone produces around 200 seeds. Cones can remain unopened on sequoias for up to 20 years while waiting for just the right roasty temperatures provided by forest fires to open them up. The following image shows the different life stages and morphologies the giant sequoias experience through their lifecycle. Interestingly, all monarch trees have dead limbs with no foliage on the uppermost portion of their crowns. This is no indication of poor health, as the trees are perfectly stable and continue to grow, but it is an indication of the natural fire scars they form over time on the base of their trunks. These scars are non-living portions of wood that no longer conduct water to the top of the tree, causing those branches and leaves to die. Think of it like your grandpa's balding head. It's just another perk of getting older!

As I mentioned previously, Indigenous populations managed and influenced the Sierra Nevada landscape long before Euro-Americans came onto the scene. Tribes included the Miwok, Yokut, Monache, and Tubata. The earliest obsidian (type of igneous rock) hunting tips in the area date back to 8000 BC, but permanent residence of the Sierras is not thought to have happened until around 3000 BC (Kunz, 2017). These dates coincide with the sequoias' residency in the same region. I want to emphasize that point because when considering the ecology and history of any given site, especially through such a recent lens (to Earth, 5000 years ago is like the blink of an eye), it is an inaccurate and incomplete picture if we don't acknowledge the humans who were shaping, and being shaped, in that area.

There is enough information for me to do a whole separate post on the native plants the Sierra tribes used for food stuffs and raw materials, as well as the land management practices they implemented to promote the populations of those plants. However, I am aware that this update has already reached the length of a short novel, so I will only touch on what I consider one of the most impactful management practices that still has implications on how the Sierras are stewarded today: intentional burning. Lots of the trees, bushes, and herbaceous species utilized by the Sierra tribes were shade-intolerant species. Shade-intolerant species aren't able to sprout under completely closed canopies. They are usually found in wetlands and/or areas that experience frequent disturbances.

The disturbance in this scenario would be the use of intentional burning to control ground-cover and understory species and maintain openings for desired species. Shrubs recently pruned or burned were also easier to use because their new growth would be straight and unbranched. In addition to the intended results of these practices, there were also larger scale ecological impacts from these disturbances. Periodic small burns prevented the devastating canopy fires that we currently see all too often throughout California. By periodically ridding the area of dead plant material on the forest floor that serves as a perfect fuel source for fire, and clearing out the understory species whose mid-range heights allow fire to crawl from the ground up to the tallest trees, intentional burnings prevented these wide-scale forest incinerations. In addition, allowing natural burning events (initiated via lightning) and conducting intentional burnings is needed by some species to reproduce and carry out their natural life-cycles. The giant sequoia happens to be one of these species. From the time Sequoia National Park was first established in 1890 until the mid 1900's, fire suppression became a main focus, as campaigns and characters such as Smokey the Bear tried to convince us that only WE can prevent forest fires. This completely halted sequoia reproduction for decades, as their cones need fire to open and disperse seeds. Good intentions, but next time do your research, Smokey!

Before moving on from this topic I wanted to share a post by Daniel Duane that resonated with me and expressed some thoughts that we should all consider when visiting our national parks and forests (or whatever land we find ourselves standing on, for that matter). Duane states, "I knew the Sierra Nevada had a human past, of course. But national parks like Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite were not created to preserve memories—unlike, say, Gettysburg National Military Park. Our great western national parks were created, rather, to preserve the American dream of wilderness and to give us all a place to go, a place to escape the burdens of personal and collective history."

He goes on to say ...

"Mountain-loving white folks like myself face a conundrum in California. Elsewhere in North America, the U.S. government pursued the policy known as Indian removal—pushing tribes westward to lands not yet claimed by white settlers. In California, the Pacific Ocean made that impossible. As a result, California state officials pursued Indian extermination. From 1854 to 1859, the state spent half a million dollars to support militias tasked with hunting humans.

Backcountry adventure would not be much fun if we had to think of these things all the time; life would be a nightmare if everywhere we went, we had to see and hear the agony of every human being who ever died. Yet indulging in a fantasy of the High Sierra as a place-without-past, as I and many others have done, makes us complicit in a historical lie. Everyone who dreams of human progress has a moral obligation to know these things and to make sure that others know them, too, so that our descendants don’t commit similar crimes. But it is also true that, as strip malls and freeways bury what’s left of the natural world—and as the National Park Service marks its 100th anniversary—the preservation of the wild feels like a genuine cultural achievement, a gift from the past to the future.

Elie Wiesel, a writer and Holocaust survivor, did not have exactly this dilemma in mind when he received the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, a famous question in Wiesel’s Nobel lecture frames the predicament: “How are we to reconcile our supreme duty toward memory with the need to forget that is essential to this life?” I can’t see a better answer than doing both at once. In this case, that means learning the painful history of the parks we love most, including the histories of the people who were killed to create the illusion of wilderness, while doing all we can to protect and enjoy those parks for another 100 years."

To read more of Duane's post, look here.

Below you can see some pictures from our trip. First up is the stump of GFV1, a giant sequoia logged in 1950 to protect the Giant Forest Lodge underneath it. It was 2300 years old when it was cut down. Scientists have studied the tree rings you see below and have dated hundreds of fire events using clues and growth patterns in the tree's wood. Next you can see me and some sequoia trunks and roots. The last row shows a group of sequoias. If these trees were in a band, they would definitely use this picture for the cover of their self-titled debut album. You can also see some more growth rings inside of a living sequoia, the beautiful bark of a fallen ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), and some of the neon-looking lichen that are ubiquitous in the Sequoia Groves.

A shout-out to Michael Kunz

Sauntering around the National Sequoia Park's gift-shop, like any good tourist finds themselves doing at some point, I came across a great book that served as the main reference for this post. Professor and environmental scientist Michael Kunz's 2017 publication, Muir’s Temples: A Natural History of Sequoia Grove Plants , is an informative introduction to the ecology of the Sequoia Groves that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the above topics.