Back to the Trees 

Trying to describe, even remember, something beyond words.

I went back to the redwoods last week. In fact, I went back to the same place I'd been to twice before. Three times I have stood at the base of these trees, walked among them, looked up at them -- and even now, I feel like I've never seen them, because I'm not sure what it means to see something.

What you hear about the redwoods is true: They are beyond description. The problem is, they're beyond comprehension in the first place.

It's like your eyes send this signal to the brain that reads, "Really big tree," and your brain says, "Yep, got it. Big tree." But the eyes keep at it, insisting, "No, this is a really big tree," and to deal with the info, the brain has to dumb it down, shrink it to something manageable: a tree. The problem is, "trees" in our normal brainworld don't get 20 feet thick, 300 feet high, and 2,000 years old.

It's like the first time I saw the Grand Canyon; my brain adjusted after a while, and then I saw a sign that said it's 16 miles across the canyon and that some of the features in it, features that look like they're right next to each other, are actually five miles apart. Faced with information like that, the brain loses its footing in reality; you realize that everything you were basing your perception on is false and that you actually have no concept of what you're looking at.

It's the same when you're looking at a tree that a whole family can hide behind. Often, you can't even see the top of the tree. It just sort of disappears up there in a canopy, a canopy that's so far away that it only resembles limbs and needles in a general sense, like a photo that needs to be zoomed into.

The redwoods are so big they make a sound in my head. Ever hear a huge clap of thunder, with no rumbling afterward? A big BOOM and then you can hear the echo in other places, the sound waves retreating from you. That's what happens in my head when I see one of the really big redwoods. The sight of it makes such a BOOM that for a few moments, there's no thought, no feeling, not even perception -- just an echoing emptiness, a psychic pause, a stillness. The same thing happened to me when I first walked into St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. I was consciously aware that I had stopped thinking. BOOM, then stunned silence.

The other aspect of the redwoods is there's so damn many of them. Miles of them. And once you "adjust" to the ones that are "only" 10 feet thick, you stop gawking at them and lose track of how many you're seeing. It's tough to take a picture, because there are so many others in the way.

Besides, how do you take a picture of them? Do you go for the trunk, where you use another tree or a person to show how big it is? Do you go for the looking-up angle, to show how tall they are? Do you go for the looking-through-the-grove angle, to show how many there are? Perhaps the along-the-road shot, preferably with a car for perspective.

Then there's the light. Most of the time you're in shadow, and the occasional shaft of light really confuses your camera. That's why whenever you see a cool picture of redwoods or other big trees, it's shady or, even better, foggy. And the fog -- that's where you go back to some primordial state.

And yet, as I sit here now, looking at my photos, I am struck all over again. I see a photo and think, Look how big they are! They seem bigger than I remember, but I'm the one who took the picture and logic tells me the camera didn't capture their real size.

So here's what I think. First, a human life that doesn't include time among old-growth redwoods is stunted. Second, one must spend time among the trees to even begin to deal with them. Last time, I spent three days; I camped among the trees, walked among them. This time, I was a bit rushed. I would see a particular angle or play of light, take a picture, move on and then realize I'd just spent more time on the picture than I did simply looking at the tree.

When faced with something of this magnitude, I have to remind myself to sit with it for a minute. Feel it. Be with it, quietly, and soak in the moment.

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