What trees tell us when we stand close and listen

Thirty years ago a small boy stood in the shade of a big tree and has his little mind blown. It was — and still is — the biggest tree on the planet.

The tree was a Sierra Redwood and it lived in California’s Sequoia National Park. I was there with my family on our first ever holiday to a foreign country, back in 1982 when I was just eight years old. That’s me in the photo alongside my nature loving Dad, who back then was a hard-working bus driver who had long dreamed of treading the soil of the American West.

The park was full of these giant trees, including one that had fallen across a road. It had a tunnel cut through it that was wide enough for a big American car to pass with ease. Each redwood was impressive but the one I stood beneath that day was the biggest, and while its height astounded me, it was its sheer bulk that made me feel like an ant.

The trunk was 11 metres wide at its base and each main branch was itself bigger than any tree I had seen before. Its total mass was estimated to be more than 1250 metric tonnes. That’s as much as about 150 African Elephants. Imagine!

Special trees get names and this one is called General Sherman, after the American Civil War veteran who went on to command the United States Army between 1869 and 1883. Though he was long dead, his namesake seemed to me immortal. This majestic tree exuded nobility, grace and integrity along with its dark amber sap and I was in awe of it.

It had started out in life around 2,300 years ago. Not far from the baby seedling, hunter-gatherers would have sought out fish and berries where skyscrapers now gleam in the sun. It was a very different world. For all the intervening years, as the pages of history turned ever faster, the tree grew and grew, surviving harsh winters and forest fires until it stood over 80 metres tall and towered above all about it.

As I stood in General Sherman’s shadow and gazed up to follow its straight trunk skyward, I realised at once how small we are and how insignificant our short lives might be. I imagined that the giant redwoods would still be standing hundreds of years after I was dead, unfazed by the affairs of the tiny people down below.

It was a key moment that helped define my future — the first time I had set foot in a forest and my first meeting with wild nature on a grand scale.

In the three decades that followed I have been lucky enough to walk in the Amazon and the forests of Borneo. I seen how trees have transformed lives in South Africa and how the loss of trees created conflict in Ecuador. I have planted a tree in Indonesia and even hugged one in Montreal.

I am eternally grateful to my parents for making spend time outside in wild places as a child. It was a gift that only grew with time. Today, I just have to see or touch a tree and I am grounded, connected to the universe, reminded of the rhythms of life that beat long before me and will beat on when I’m gone. Trees are like talismans waiting to be rubbed.

Each has its own story to tell but when you take a moment to interact with one, it becomes a part of your own story — a benign character that will never let you down.

It doesn’t have to be a record-breaker like General Sherman. It can be in a local park like this one that lives near me. It has sprouted leaves since I snapped this photo two weeks ago. Life goes on. That’s what trees tell us when we stand close and listen.

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12 Responses to What trees tell us when we stand close and listen

  1. alice says:

    I love it when you blog about trees.

    I had an encounter with an interesting tree today, or rather a re-encounter as I’ve met it before. Here’s an old photo of a bit of it: http://instagr.am/p/IRXtZ3xMAF/

    It’s by the Brunel Museum at Rotherhide there to show how a particular type of tree was introduced to the UK from the US in the early 17th C because it was good for shipbuilding, until Brunel spearheaded building in iron. I think it’s a fascinating emblem of the way in which nature, engineering and colonialism (or at least international travel) have became so immeshed through the various stages of modernity. It’s worth a visit – the whole thing looks like an odd mix of nature and machine as its held up with bolts (fitting, in a way).

    • mikeshanahan says:

      Thanks Alice. So that species has been in the UK for more than 400 years as a result. Wow. And it looks like the tree is slowly devouring that metal information plaque as its bark pours across it.

  2. kerrymae says:

    really liked this Mike – Now I have started thinking about my own tree encounters – smile…

  3. Hazel Oakley says:

    I hugged this tree too. And drove through the one with a hole it. I was about 6. I pity anyone who hasn’t had an “We’re so insignificant” moment with a beautiful tree.

  4. Papiya Bhattacharya says:

    A sweet piece of writing…I remember, we were at New Haven, USA and there was a Weeping Willow in the Farnam Park. It was big and beautiful and lost every single leaf in the winter and my year and a half old son and I would sit on its branches and hide.

  5. Tenzin Namgyel says:

    Mike, this very interesting piece conveys the message of impermanence. Though I lived with trees for many years but unlike you I have no memories to cherish.

  6. Manipadma Jena says:

    Wow Mike! Absolutely enchanting! I was there in 1998 and still preserve one redwood seed in a small plastic container!
    Look forward to more such writings!

  7. mediachick says:

    Beautiful piece. I’ve always looked at ancient trees in particular, wondering what stories they might tell, if they could…Maybe I’ll lean closer and will probably hear their leaves rustling and whispering!

  8. Zain Mahmood says:

    Charming piece, Mike! The next time I pass a large tree, I’ll remember this!

  9. Pitambar Sigdel says:

    Wow Mike..Really interesting….

  10. Malaka Rodrigo says:

    I had written the response below and wanted to find the particular photo referred in my reply.. but since i might never post this reply while insearch of this photo, I’m posting my experience with trees herewith..
    ——————————————————————————————-

    “It was a key moment that helped define my future — the first time I had set foot in a forest and my first meeting with wild nature on a grand scale”

    It is strange that I have a very similar story to tell from the other side of the world from Sri Lanka. “General Sherman” reminds me about a similar photo taken again about 20 years back while I was a schooling teenager. This photo (which should still be in my album) was taken during a trip to Sinharaja Rainforest (which is a UNESCO World Heritage) with my school colleagues and similar to Mike, that was my first time ‘I had set foot in a forest and my first meeting with wild nature on a grand scale’.

    My story was not about a tree, but a giant Creeper. Sinharaja Rainforest too has a giant creeper known as pus-wela (Entada rheedei – a climber that grows big). Researchers tagged a particular pus-wela as the biggest in Sinharaja making it a star attraction like the redwood tree ‘General Sherman’. We visited this Giant Pus-wela and had taken photos to remember the occasion and I’ve got mesmerized by the giant nature of this creeper.

    But it wasn’t like the one you had taken with the Redwood tree – all of us had sat on the climber and taken the photo as a souvenir to remember the Sinharaja visit. We could sat on its base because it was big. But later I heard that this giant Pus-wela died. I wonder whether the visitors’ ignorant treatments too is partly responsible for it. I honored trees even at that time, but haven’t realized that too much of harassment for the climber is not good. So I still feel guilty about sitting on this Giant Sinharaja Pus-wela and not stopping others doing it.

    Mike wrote “Each (tree) has its own story to tell but when you take a moment to interact with one, it becomes a part of your own story — a benign character that will never let you down.”.. How true this is mike.. The Sinharaja’s Giant Pus-wela too has become a part of my own story…

    There wasn’t anybody to stop us at that time and we were not even cultured to honor nature by our formal education. It was the newspaper articles written by senior environmental journalists that made me aware, instigating the conversion toward caring for nature. I think I converted.. and it convinces me that we – the Environmental Journalists has an important task to educate the society. The Sinharaja’s Giant Pus-wela always keep on encouraging me not to give up the cause of trying to convert the others to protect nature, as there could be somebody like me who will get converted by reading my articles.. So it never let me down..!!!

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