Redwoods and Family Circles (Deborah Kennedy)
Circling like Matisse’s dancers,
tender saplings rolling round.
Boughs reach to distant dome,
soft tips barely brush sixty feet.
In the center of the center,
a specter of the mother tree.
So long lost, not even a stump
stands like a black and broken tooth,
only a ring of young clones
trace the edge of her faded footprint.
For two thousand years
this unyielding pillar’s will
tamed the burning winds.
Each fine leaf winnowed fog
until virgin water dripped down
bringing life to land and creek.
The last great steward of this land
until two loggers, thin as razors,
Left Chopper and Right Chopper,
rained down blows, and the rise and fall
of double-bite axes split the forest day by day,
week by week. They dropped her down,
a shattered world, like Rome’s fall
to empty men gripping sacks of hunger.
One memory remains, a sepia photograph,
the whole logging camp and one bored mule
standing on the broken trunk,
proud conquerors on a massive prow.
Now, fog hangs like tattered lace along the coast.
This living palisade bars the blistering sun,
casting shadows rich with reverie.
Sunbeams slip into the dusk, prisms blind
with future sight as centuries turn by the score.
In that time, in that place, one great
redwood stands and rules the land again.
Redwoods: Family Circles
Last summer I discovered a ring of young redwood trees in the hills near Santa Cruz while on a bike ride. When I returned home, I began to read about these increasingly threatened trees. For example, when you see a circle of redwood trees, have sprung up from the footprint of a great tree, often felled long ago, that once stood at the center of the remaining circle of young trees. The mother trees have burl at their base called a ring collar. This collar contains dormant sprouts, and when the tree is cut down or burned, new trees spring up on the circular footprint of the lost tree. These rings of young trees are called family circles because each tree carries the mother tree’s genetic material, which can be thousands of years older than the young trees.
Mature redwood forests provide many unique services to their ecosystems. Their great height allows them to strip moisture from the heavy fog frequently found along the Pacific Coast. Their fine needles gather the mist into water droplets, which drip down the trees and help provide the hundreds of gallons of water a mature tree needs every day. In addition, researchers have found that the trees also provide up to 34 percent of the water needed for surrounding plants and feeding the flow of streams. Redwood trees also foster the growth of many other plants, fish, and reptiles. Studies show that they provide protective environments by reducing the predation of bird eggs. Redwoods foster healthy, thriving biosystems when they are left to form intact forests.
Redwoods have grown in California for approximately 20 million years, and for almost 20,000 years people have lived and worked among them. Probably, for millennia and certainly in recorded history, indigenous peoples used the trees to build boats, houses, and even entire villages. They maintained the integrity of the great forests by using only some of the trees that fell naturally. This situation changed dramatically when the California Gold Rush brought waves of hungry and desperate men to the West. The Gold Rush was short-lived, and few succeeded in the chancy mining business. Soon, many of these men turned to logging. At first, the redwoods seemed beyond the logger’s reach—their thickness, weight and height were too great for the first mills and saws. Unfortunately, human ingenuity soon conquered these limitations.
By the late 1800s, the relentless sounds of double-bite axes, whipsaws, band saws, and redwood trains penetrated the forests. The loggers felled 96 percent of the redwood trees in California in just 100 years. Today, redwood logging continues along the California coast, on private lands and in national forests. Many environmentalists seek to preserve the remaining 4 percent of these great trees and oppose all logging of redwood trees. Activists, who support preserving all of our remaining redwood trees, call for a “Zero Cut” policy.
The illustration features a section of the family circle of redwood trees that I discovered at Wilder State Park and emphasizes how they create their own climates—damp and cool, the sun’s light barely piercing their shadows.
An eco artist, educator, writer, lecturer; Deborah Kennedy’s work has been presented in the United States and Europe. Learn more by visiting her website, deborahkennedyart.com. In Deborah's new book, Nature Speaks, offers ways to engage with important ecological themes. This sample, from the new book, features her poem, Redwood, the accompanying illustration, and a short essay on these treasures of California, now increasingly threatened by climate change. Learn more about Nature Speaks here.