The robust aroma filling my car, that bright-sunny morning after the storm, initially baffled me; like a pot of rich, warm essential oil extracted from an evergreen tree, it came into my air vents so suddenly and absolutely that it gave my senses a “hit”. Then I noticed how the road had a slight skid-factor, like driving on wet gravel, and that its surface was a bitter-orange “carpet” of pine needles…only these were no pines.
I was driving along Wellingtonia Avenue in Berkshire, flanked by the most impressive giant sequoias that I know (having never been to California). Yes, I know them very well since I pounded my feet on countless morning walks in the two expanses of open-access forest off this road during my “awakening” period, shortly after giving up work to recover my health a decade ago. Though visited less often now, I still love to walk here..saving it up for days when I feel the “pull” of these trees and that expansive southward view across Hampshire from the top of the dramatic glacial ridge that lies just beyond the avenue. It can feel like you are standing on England’s last pause for thought before sliding into the sea forty miles away. The Roman’s marched along this route along the so-called Devil’s Highway; and, its said, Catherine of Aragon first met her betrothed, Henry XIIIs elder brother, at a pit stop on this same ancient track through what was then a Royal hunting forest. There were no giant sequoias then; only the Victorians would have come up with the idea of importing trees when there was already a whole vast forest of them…
This striking avenue, you see, was only planted when the road was made, in the 1860s, to commemorate the Duke of Wellington, who had so recently died. The mammoth species of tree had just been “discovered” in 1852 by William Lobb, a seasoned traveller and representative of the Veitch Nurseries on his trip to San Francisco. While there he heard legends of these giant trees, natively located in California’s Sierra Nevada range and promptly arranged to go and see them. Duly astonished by their size, he brought seeds, shoots and seedlings – a very precious cargo – back to England, feeling confident that he was about to start a trend and a very lucrative one at that. In under two years, thousands of saplings had made their way into the hands of wealthy Victorians for planting as giant status symbols on their country estates!
When the matter of naming these trees came up for debate (for in naming things, we have tended to think we can claim ownership…) he pipped his American rival, Dr. Kellogg (founder of the California Academy of Sciences) at the post. Kellogg planned to register the “new” species under the name ‘Washingtonia’ after America’s first President. To do this, he needed to complete his set of specimens but, before he managed to get his collection together, Lobb (having abruptly cut his specimen-gathering trip short to hurry his new finds across the Atlantic…) reached England with his booty so the naming race was, effectively, lost to the Brits. It was John Lindley of the Horticultural Society who chose the name ‘Wellingtonia gigantea’ to commemorate the lately deceased Duke. These are the bizarre circumstances that, in under half a decade from their discovery, led to these mammoth trees being chosen, because of their appropriate name, to plant in two flanking columns along a new road in Berkshire in honour of a dead duke. These actions created what amounts to an astonishing, if somewhat incongruous, experience even as you drive along it today, 160 years later; one which was now filling my car with the most incredibly stirring aroma after a night of heavy wind and rain. It was almost as though the heady scent of these trees woke me up to a whole new level that morning; an activation of sorts, setting in motion my own set of connected dots, these being just a few of them.
Why I feel the urge to share this anecdote has far less to do with a desire to regale you with yet another example of the “silly boys pissing in the snow” type of history that, sadly, accounts for most of our recent achievements (by which I mean the last several hundred years…) than to point out the extreme arrogance of an age that I like to think is now coming to an end. There is something tragi-comic about an age that treated a several thousand year old tree as “new”, that thought that you could “own” such a tree just by collecting its seedlings, that it could be exchanged between hands (even continents) as a lucrative commodity and then given a silly name (usually a name of a general or a politician; the biggest one in existence is known as General Sherman …). All of this is, well, quite absurd; ample demonstration of our most groansome failings to date but, hopefully, the kind of behaviour we are now putting behind us.
Yet there is poetry to be found in all things…even the bizarrest twists and turns of history. For if it wasn’t for this prime example of monetary ambition and arrogance, the giant sequoias (the more tactful name later bestowed) would not have made their way back to this continent. I say “back” because it is thought that they once grew across the whole of the Northern hemisphere, even though they are now the rarity outside of California, Oregon and Washington (and a few hundred British country estates…) And if it weren’t for that strange twist, there would not be one growing on the top of the hill behind my house (once part of such a country estate whose house burned down in the 1960s), an avenue of a further 36 leading from the main road where I live and yet another solitary sequoia due west of my house in very clear view from my bedroom window behind which the summer sun spectacularly sets. The one on the hill has been my close friend and support for the longest time; I really can’t tell you how sustaining it is for me to lean against it, to wrap my arms around its substantial trunk, to hear what it has to say to me: I’ve been known to run to it like I would to a trusted ally. That remarkable tree has seen me through times thick and thin and I’m so glad that this and others like it made the journey across to British shores…it feels good, somehow, to have them around right now; feels, somehow, important to have their wisdom planted deep in English soil. Maybe the trans-Atlantic aspect is important, energetically. Whatever it is, it feels important to have these giants spread out (and, for me, in close proximity). Which goes to show that, just as so many seeds get sown through the excreta of small animals, even the most lowly motivated actions can seed “exactly what we need” ready to germinate new life once the conditions are right. May all the hidden seeds of light accidentally sewn as the bi-product of hard competition, fame, social standing and greed be on the verge of delivering such a timely and unexpected return!
For there is “just something” about these trees; something that makes them stand apart (and it’s not just their size). Here’s one remarkable thing: they have an open-celled structure, thus containing little or no pitch or resins. So, a crystalline tree to all intents and purposes…that got me sitting up and taking notice when I first read about it. They also live in three climate zones at once so they must adapt for that; their bases concentrating fully on the business of grounding and sustaining their great size with water and food and their middle layer (which is where branches start to sprout and loop downwards; their lower trunks don’t attempt branches at all) concentrating on diversity, moistness and warmth. Then their canopy is subjected to extremes of wind and cold – harsh conditions indeed – and so a complete change in needle structure (from being broad and flat for maximum heat absorption from the sun lower down to tight scaly spikes to reduce evaporation near the top) reflects this. I recently talked about how useful it is to emulate a tree in order to thrive as someone who operates primarily from their vata-dosha which is all about air and space (in my post on Ayurveda From reacting to working together: healing relationships inside and out); and it seems to me that these extraordinary trees are a living example of all three Ayurvedic doshas in one perfectly balanced being. They go from being perfectly kapha adjusted (all about earth and water) at the base to being perfectly pitta (fire and water focussed) in the middle, to being perfectly vata ready (designed to withstand air and space) at the top. Bringing all three doshas into balance is the prime objective of Ayureveda and is how we achieve optimum health, balance and wellbeing as human beings; and these incredibly resilient trees could be the perfect teachers of such a model. Like the human chakras, the trunk acts as a link between the lower chakras (to do with matters of attachment to the earth), middle chakras (digestion, sustenance and all the day-to-day matters of physical existence) and the higher chakras (spirituality, expansion, inspiration). If only we could reach higher and higher as human beings, knowing we can operate from those higher chakras without “tipping over” through our ungroundedness or because of being destroyed by harsh elements that we can no longer withstand, loosing warmth and sustenance or generally taking a battering. Well, as these trees show us, we can…as long as we have that strong open-celled linkage from top to bottom. There’s such a lot to ponder on here!
It seems my early morning infusion of giant sequoia essence had a great deal to tell me; all of this, in fact…since I joined all these dots during and after my walk after that “hit” of potent aroma. Not least, they reminded me that even the strongest of storm winds plays its part in our rejuvenation; for it is in the shedding of what is now surplus to requirements and the refreshing of all our many layers that we get to release our keenest, purest signature-essence to the world. When we become the living balance of the three aspects I have talked about, we become so resilient that we get to weather any storm; in fact, the storm only serves to work with us, to refresh us. Then our own reboot serves to infuse those that pass us by with all the subtle sensory prompts that set all kinds of other reboots in motion; the kind of domino effect that reminds us (something every tree knows down to its roots; and sequoias seem to emulate this knowledge more than any) how, really, everything is connected.
Working closely with trees, especially the most ancient of them, is a skill-set that feels so important at this juncture; one which I seem to be remembering from some great depth of my own root stock. It feels like their great wisdom and longevity has a great deal to impart during these transitional times; they are truly “grand” in a way that far outstrips any kind of human-material grandness…yet, I feel sure, we can be grand like a tree if only we get much closer to them. This has absolutely nothing to do with ownership or “using them”, squabbling over them (and all the earth’s resources) like silly children in the playground, but everything to do with humbly listening to what they have to say about the way we work with our physicality in relationship with the earth. These trees are great masters of this thing; their great maturity, resilience and size a testament to what can be done with the raw materials of this planet when we work adaptably and respectfully with its varying conditions and resources, treading softly and not seeking to conquer things just because they are there to be conquered. The time has come to mature beyond those age-old approaches then, perhaps…like a tree…we will start to grow up.
More that is interesting about giant sequoias
Kellogg, who was “on to” the trees Lobb came along to take the credit, was led to them by a hunter called Dowd who came upon them quite by chance. This account from Wikipaedia amply paints the picture: “Dowd told the audience that in the spring of 1852 he was employed as a hunter by the Union Water Company, of Murphy’s Camp, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Calaveras County, to supply the workmen, who were engaged in the construction of a canal, with fresh meat. He had been out chasing a large grizzly bear; the long, hard chase led Dowd into a strange part of the forested hills where he followed the bear into a grove of gigantic trees. Dowd soon lost interest in the chase and wandered around in amazement at the sheer size of the trees surrounding him. On returning to his camp, Dowd told his story to his companions, most of whom did not believe him and accused him of being drunk; a week later, however, he was able to persuade some of the less sceptical to be led to the grove, where they were equally astonished by the monstrous trees”.
When Lobb was taken to the same location, he recorded 80 to 90 trees within a mile, ranging from 250ft. to 320ft. in height and 10–12ft. in diameter. One of these trees had been felled and measured 300 feet with a diameter of over 29 feet near its base. A section of this 3,000-year-old tree was subsequently displayed in San Francisco. Its hollowed and carpeted(!) slice of trunk was used to accommodate a piano and an audience of 40.
Giant sequoias are the world’s largest single trees and largest living thing by volume. General Sherman, the giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park, stands 275 feet (84 m) tall, has a 102-foot (31 m) circumference, and weighs 2.7 million lbs. (1.2 million kilograms). They are thought to be the oldest trees on this planet, though we can only speculate.
They can live for at least 3,000 years; the oldest on record living, from ring count, more than 3,500 years. Even fire, root rot and dry spells do not typically affect the whole tree; the most significant aspect is the base which, if destabilized, could bring the whole tree down. They supplement water supplies at the top levels using air roots which take water from fog (there‘s a technique for every airy vata-types to ponder on; how can me learn from that in order to sustain ourselves better from our crowns!). Storms and fire only make them stronger. They are the ultimate collaborative tree; their roots join forces with other trees, they collaborate with numerous other lifeforms and, even after falling, the length of time that they stay intact ensures a slow-steady release of valuable nutrients (for periods of as much as 10,000 years!) into the environment from their tannin-rich bark.
Sequoias thrive in elevated locations (for instance 7000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range) as the added height provides them with the dry air that allows their cones to open and release seeds…which they only do at these great heights. Taking this back to the Ayurveda analogy above, you could say that, although the experience of “being vata”, which is all about openness, air, wind, cool and dryness can be a very challenging thing as a human unless you are particularly well grounded, these are the very conditions necessary to bring the “seeds” (you could easily say inspiration and “higher” gifts) back down to earth to take root. Yes, wind activates these trees up…and what have we just had such a lot of.