Summer 2018 / Chasing Demons

The Ghosts of the Redwood Coast

by Valerie Stimac

It’s cool and dark between the trees. The air is pungent with the scent of damp earth and tree bark. There are no chirping birds, no bugs buzzing, and no hint of wind rustling leaves. The daylight streams through in weak beams, fighting its way to the forest floor past sprawling branches and behemoth trunks. In the redwoods, it’s always dawn or dusk, no matter the time of day.

Each year, millions of tourists flock to protected coastal redwood forests like Muir Woods National Monument and Redwoods National Park; millions more visit the Sierra redwood forests studded along the Sierra Nevada mountain range. What is it about this particular genus of trees — the towering Sequoia — that compels us to abandon our cities and homes, to wander forest trails past monolithic trunks and gaze skyward at the dense canopy above? What are we looking for: the trees, or something less tangible among them?

After the four-hour drive from San Francisco to Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California, I found myself among massive evergreen sequoias, sentinels to the passage of time. But I also discovered that the most captivating beings in the forest don’t tower above: They stand dutiful and mysterious, their pale forms emerging from the shadows only when approached in the gloom.

Trail through Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwoods State and National Parks, Calfornia.

Trail through Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwoods State and National Parks, Calfornia. PHOTO: GREG VAUGHN.

~~

The parking lot is littered with redwood twigs. My guide Richard, an endearingly enthusiastic “docent” for these trees, approaches me around the bumper of my rental car, arm outstretched for a handshake. Our shoes crunch on a bed of dry needles as he takes me to the Humboldt Redwoods Visitor Center. Inside the small, single-story building, Richard briefly shows me the interpretive center with a sweeping gesture: Wooden shelves packed with books about environmentalism and dendrology stand beside redwood relics from early settlers and preservationists.

Immediately, Richard turns to the center’s main desk, and spreads maps of California’s primary redwood parks across it like a deck of cards. He suggests we stay local to Humboldt.

Our first stop is Women’s Grove, just a few minutes’ drive up the road; I’ve barely gotten comfortable in Richard’s car before we’re pulling off into a muddy driveway. Outside the car, the air is cool, and I follow Richard as he tramps into the forest. He leads me into the grove over small patches of redwood sorrel and fallen logs, all the while telling me remarkable things about the trees and the women who inspired their protection.

 

In the multi-millennial life-cycle of redwoods, this is the blink of an eye: a specter in the corner of your vision that’s gone when you take a second glance.

 

The redwoods in this grove — in all redwood groves, in fact — inform and support one another by sending chemical signals and nutrients through the root systems latticed below ground. It is because of this sub-soil alliance — a collaboration not unlike that of the women who started the preservation movement in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and for whom this grove is named — that these trees can flourish not only for centuries, but millennia.

“Trees like these can live [for] over 2,000 years,” Richard explains. Some of the trees that surround us, he goes on to say — even those that won’t reach middle age for another hundred years — “might remember a time before European settlers had arrived in the Americas.”

As I consider this, we approach a gigantic redwood growing out of a ravine. Sprouting from one side of the trunk is a fountain of narrow, rust-brown stalks and roughage. It is a massive bloom of dead growth — or so it first appears.

Within a few feet, I discover that underneath the rust colors are patches of white. Sections of small twigs and needles are the pure color of a fluffy cloud on a sunny day.

I suddenly realize what I’m seeing: It’s an albino redwood.

To me, it is the most beautiful plant I’ve seen: whole sections of pristine, unblemished white among the rusty growth, sienna bark, and dark green needles. The longer I look, the more white I see, and I move closer, until there are just a few inches between my nose and a delicate snow-white sprig, sparkling with dew in the early January light.

The delicate, snow-white branches of an albino redwood. PHOTO: VALERIE STIMAC.

I want to pick it, to take it home with me. I want a piece of that beauty in my home, a reminder of this exceptional and rare tree living among the giants. But a voice reaches out across my mind — the voice of a woman who works at the visitor center and recommended this tree to me earlier in the day: “It’s just beautiful, but people keep picking pieces off of it. They’ve almost killed it by now.”

At this point, Richard jumps into the biology. It’s the kind of summary he must have perfected during his years as a science journalist:

“The albino is a parasitic growth, unable to photosynthesize its own nutrients and entirely reliant on its host or sibling tree for sustenance through the fantastic network of roots beneath our feet,” he says. “Scientists don’t really understand why albino redwoods exist. Some believe they may help the host tree process toxins or heavy metals.”

This explains the albino redwood’s dirty, dead look, since its branches and needles contain high levels of nickel, cadmium, and — least surprisingly, given their color — copper.

Richard goes on to mention how native people and early inhabitants held these trees as both sacred and superstitious, calling them “ghost trees.” And ghosts they are: With a different lifespan than other redwoods, these beings can appear — or disappear — within five to 10 years. In the multi-millennial life-cycle of redwoods, this is the blink of an eye: a specter in the corner of your vision that’s gone when you take a second glance.

Back in the car, I realize that I need to see another. The ghost hunt is on.

~~

In Founders Grove, I obediently gaze skyward to the towering Founders Tree, named in honor of the men who started the Save the Redwoods League. Then, Richard and I walk the trail loop, to the bench at Stop #2. I sit, gaze up, and spot the brilliant albino growing out of the side of its host, 150 feet above the ground. It’s far away, but beautifully distinctive and bursts like white sparks erupting from the trunk of the redwood — and it’s protected from the prying fingers that have drawn and quartered the albino in Women’s Grove.

In the afternoon, we continue our quest northward along the famous Avenue of the Giants. Between the towns of Redcrest and Pepperwood, we turn off into a pull-out that spatters the sides of the car with mud and sodden redwood needles. This isn’t an official grove or a place that most people would typically stop to admire the trees. In fact, this place has no name at all. But there’s a special tree here, one that’s not on official park maps.

It’s another albino, my third in a single day. This is remarkable: albino redwoods are exceptionally rare. A single grove of sequoias can host up to 20,000 mature trees, but when it comes to albinos, there are only 400 individuals in the entire world.

This one is not as massive as the albino in Women’s Grove, nor as stark as the hanging albino in Founders Grove. It is unassuming, wrapped comfortably around half of its host tree’s trunk. But it is not the only specter here.

Opposite the majority of the albino growth, a small albino redwood shoot stands shoulder to shoulder with a young redwood in traditional green and red attire. They spring from the same patch of earth; they look like twins, each unaware of how different their lives will be. I can easily imagine the redwood growing to tower overhead; by its adolescence, the albino twin will be stunted, just a few years away from death.

I bend down, cupping one of the tree twins in each hand. They feel indistinguishable, the needles supple and firm on both sets of twigs. Despite their different hues they seem to be two halves of one whole — like two radically different visions of the same world.

~~

As we drive back to my car, Richard is quiet. He’s guided me through the forest he knows and clearly loves; he’s shown me secret trees and conveyed the magic that makes him willing to spend his Saturdays walking visitors through the forest.

I’m quiet too, but my mind is anything but idle after the long day. Instead, my eyes flick endlessly through the passing trees, looking for the tell-tale white flash of a ghost.

Valerie Stimac

Valerie Stimac is an Oakland-based space tourism and travel writer who has spent time living in Alaska, London, and the Pacific Northwest.

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