Feeling your way through the ancient forest

Grove of Titans signs and sculptures showcase Tolowa traditions and accommodate tactile learners

Two people feel a relief map in the foreground. A redwood forest is in the background.
FROM LEFT: Josie Merck, who made a generous challenge grant to support the Grove of Titans walkway and interpretation, and Deborah Zierten, League education and interpretation manager, feel a new map of the grove. Interpretive features were designed for tactile learners. Photos by Max Forster, @maxforsterphotography, except where noted otherwise.

Not far from the hum of Highway 101 but seemingly a world apart, massive coast redwood trees rise from a dappled bed of ferns. The gnarled trunks of some of these ancients defy imagination, and barely fit within a camera’s viewfinder. This is Grove of Titans, in the heart of Tolowa Dee-ni’ traditional land in Northern California, and home to some of the largest redwood trees in the world.

“Redwoods are highly sacred for Tolowa and are critical to our existence as Xvsh, or human beings,” says Amanda O’Connell, member of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Tribal Council.

“The coastal redwood forest is an important aspect of our genesis. The Nation does everything within its power to protect, conserve, and steward our coastal redwood forest,” O’Connell said.

FROM LEFT: Celebrating the Grove of Titans grand opening are Erin Gates, California State Parks North Coast Redwoods deputy district superintendent; Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Tribal Council members Terile Keevil and Amanda O’Connell; Josie Merck; Victor Bjelajac, California State Parks North Coast Redwoods superintendent; and Scott Sullivan, vice chair of the Tolowa Tribal Council

This includes working with representatives from California State Parks, Save the Redwoods League, Redwood Parks Conservancy, and EDX Exhibits on the design of new interpretive signs and sculptures in and around the grove.

The League and these partners opened Grove of Titans and the realigned Mill Creek Trail last spring. A spectacular 1,300-foot-long elevated walkway through the grove was built in response to visitors accessing the grove on unofficial trails that were damaging the habitat.

grove of ancient redwood trees
Grove of Titans. Photo by Kyle Cooper, Save the Redwoods League staff.

“The walkway and interpretive panels help send the message that Grove of Titans is not just a collection of trees, but an ecosystem, and a sacred place for the Tolowa people,” says Marnin Robbins, interpretive program manager for the North Coast Redwoods District of California State Parks.

The Tolowa use redwood for some of their most significant cultural traditions and ceremonies: constructing dugout canoes, houses, and sweathouses, storing regalia, and burying the dead, O’Connell explains.

Some Tolowa traditions are reflected in the interpretive materials, which were approved by the Tolowa Tribal Council. Pyramids composed of triangles—a traditional basketry pattern of the Tolowa Dee-ni’—adorn the panels and pillars. The headings on many the interpretive panels are presented in the Tolowa language. One panel features a small sculpture of a redwood dugout canoe.

The canoe is one of several tactile elements designed for the visually impaired and those who learn better through touch. A relief map of the Mill Creek Trail area invites visitors to orient themselves in the landscape; small sculptures help people use their hands to discover forest dwellers such as the banana slug and Humboldt marten.

“In addition to centering Tolowa culture and language, it was important to the League and the parks to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible,” says Deborah Zierten, League education and interpretation manager.

humboldt marten sculpture
Sculptures depict forest animals such as the Humboldt marten.

The first interpretive element visitors encounter at the Mill Creek trailhead is a tall pillar emblazoned with the word “xaa-wan’-t’i” —Tolowa for “welcome.” Greetings in several other languages appear on the pillar’s adjacent face. Signs within the grove are discreet, so as to not take away from the forest itself.

O’Connell wants park visitors, who come from all over the world, to understand that they are guests in traditional lands of Tolowa. “Not only are we the original stewards of the land, we also remain the rightful stewards of the land,” she says. “Hopefully this helps people recreate more responsibly.”

The collaboration with the Tolowa represents how the League and California State Parks plan to engage with Tribes going forward, say Zierten and Robbins.

“As interpreters, our job is to help connect people with these special places,” says Robbins. “What better group of people to help make meaning of the places we steward than the folks who have been most connected to these landscapes for the last 10,000 years?”


Read more highlights from the Winter 2022 Resilient Future Edition online.

About the author

Juliet Grable is a writer based in Southern Oregon. Her work has been published in Sierra, Audubon, Earth Island Journal, and other national and regional publications.

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