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Redwood Time: Tracing the ancient natural history of the redwoods

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Photo: David Baselt, redwoodhikes.com.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Photo: David Baselt, redwoodhikes.com.

Coming face to face with a coast redwood or a giant sequoia can be a world-expanding experience. Yet, without real context of the species’ antiquity, gazing up at seemingly boundless crowns and at gargantuan trunks can actually leave some onlookers underwhelmed.

Author David Rains Wallace has felt the latter before; but writing over 20 books about natural history and conservation certainly helped him understand what makes redwoods a big deal. In his essay Redwood Time – part of a new book, The Once and Future Forest: California’s Iconic Redwoods, published to commemorate the centennial year of Save the Redwoods League and available for purchase – he takes readers on a journey through time, to realize the complex past, present and future of one of Earth’s oldest species.

“But how … can a twenty-first-century mind, full of tweets and sound bites, get past the woody mass to the “living currents”? John Merriam’s profession suggests one way. He was able to connect with redwoods in time as well as space because he knew a great deal about their past.”

According to Wallace, new dating techniques in the early 20th century suggested that redwoods have been around for over 130 million years. Redwood fossils aged millions of years have been found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including in Yellowstone National Park. Around the advent of that first national park in 1872, Asa Gray, a Harvard botany professor and an associate of Charles Darwin, proposed that Sequoia sempervirens and Sequoia giganteum evolved from ancient ancestors, rather than by God’s hand.

“Geologists eventually identified twenty-seven such petrified redwood forests that eruptions had repeatedly buried over a period of twenty thousand years, when Yellowstone was a land of low hills and wide valleys with a climate like present-day Florida’s. It was a world both strange and familiar, where now extinct giant mammals … lived with ancestral redwoods in forests that also held ancestors of the park’s living bears, bison, and cottonwood trees.”

Carleton Watkins, Section of the Grizzly Giant with Galen Clark, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite, 1865–66. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.
Carleton Watkins, Section of the Grizzly Giant with Galen Clark, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite, 1865–66. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

From those distant epochs to modern times, Wallace details the redwoods’ struggles in the face of issues including ever-changing climates and socioeconomic development. Though merely a blip on the geologic timeline, the bumpy road to their protection and preservation and the rise of conservation biology offer a hopeful future, with still very much work ahead.

“Gray and Muir envisioned the public contemplating a landscape accessible by foot or horse, but Osborn and Merriam unwittingly initiated some parks where ancient redwood groves stand within sight or sound of car traffic that gets thicker and faster every year, rendering the world’s tallest trees less objects of reverence and awe than blurs out the windshield or shade for littered pit stops.”

Wallace’s chronicle of the redwoods will captivate natural history enthusiasts most of all. For those left with any question of the trees’ grandeur, this edifying essay is an undeniable lesson in just that.

Read more of Wallace’s essay, Redwood Time, in the new book, The Once and Future Forest, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Save the Redwoods League. Visit SaveTheRedwoods.org/Heyday to order your copy of this limited edition book today.


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About Dana Poblete

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Dana Poblete is a Los Angeles-based writer who writes about sustainable lifestyles and natural history for publications including Condé Nast Traveler and Audubon.



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