“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” – John Muir
As a conservationist, my idea of a good vacation involves abounding nature, long arduous hikes, and a photogenic example or two of local wildlife. Of course, I love dragging my family along on such escapades as well, because family makes everything that much better. This past week, I followed my conservationist heart to the Pacific coast of the United States – in and around San Francisco. And there, I stumbled across the traces of one of America’s leading conservationists and foresters – John Muir.
Known locally as “John of the Mountains,” Muir was an amalgamation of different fields – glaciology, philosophy, art, forestry, and wildlife science – and his activism helped to preserve large tracts of land that we know today as some of the national parks in the United States. Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park are two of the parks he founded, leading to his title: “The Father of the National Parks.” Muir also founded the Sierra Club, an organization devoted to preservation of America’s wilderness. An inspiring man was Muir, and one who shaped my perception of national parks and forestry during my graduate school career.
On July 31st, my family and I visited the Muir Woods National Monument, the last place on earth where one can find an old-growth coastal redwood forest, and hiked through a veritable community of ancient, solemn trees. The monument is located on Mount Tamalpais, and protects 240 acres of redwoods and 554 total acres of forested land. Coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) only grow on the narrow, cool coastal belt between Oregon down to Monterey, CA. The tallest redwood in the world is nearly 380 feet, making the species second only in height to its cousin, the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which grows on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The oldest tree in Muir Woods National Monument is at least 1,200 years old. Tiptoeing through the understory, I felt like I was traveling back in time to a long-forgotten era.
Not only did we walk among trees, but we reached the very end of America – the Pacific Ocean – as we did so. The wild, untamed ocean beat craggy cliffs out of the mountainous coastline, and along these cliffs we walked. Silent appreciation is key out on Muir Beach Overlook. The path seemed to drop off on either side, and a short, rickety wooden railing was all that prevented us from falling into the raging waters below. A cold wind whipped my hair into a frenzy, and the strong smell of brine and seaweed smothered me. Yet I couldn’t help the smile from spreading across my face. To be faced by such beauty is a privilege indeed. In one day, I had been privy to the secrets of a forest…and to the passion of the sea. What more could an ecologist ask for?
A coastal redwood forest cannot be fully appreciated without a healthy dose of humility and respect for a higher power. Whether or not you believe in God, the power of Mother Nature is undeniably present in the very existence of these giant trees, as she is in each wave that strikes the Pacific coastline. To walk among giants is the talk of fantasy tales, and having that opportunity to embrace my own meager existence is an experience that I will forever treasure. John Muir once said: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” And it is indeed true. The best way to find that higher power, and to find oneself, is to take the time to walk through a forest of giants from the hills down to the sea, leaving nothing but footprints and taking nothing but memories.