“Hey, go stand in front of that 3000-year-old tree.”
This is not something you expect to say in your life. We’ve driven to the Fish Camp entrance to Yosemite, where we’ll hike up into the biggest sequoia grove known to us, I guess the biggest known to man. The tree’s name (a tree that old should have a name) is Grizzly Giant. And he-she-it is a giant.
We take turns standing in front of the tree, we take turns taking a picture. This photo op illustrates our different approaches to taking pictures. On a trip like this, when you look through the camera lens, you may have both a primary and secondary subject. There’s the primary subject
and the secondary subject.
Okay, I defer to the Tree.
The chances of standing in front of a tree like this are about the same as a town like Mariposa, where David and Dana live, having a good sushi restaurant. Mariposa does. About the same as our son growing up and becoming a farmer. Which he did. About the same as his marrying a woman who would not only allow but would suggest, want, insist on having a pig living in her house. She does.
This is our second time standing in front of Grizzly Giant. We came a year ago and hiked the 2.1 mile hike up and back in 90 degree temperatures. It was our second hike of the day. It was very hot. We were tired. Tizi wanted to go; I did not. We went and I was sort of happy we did. Happy to meet the tree.
This time it’s 60 degrees, and the hike is a pilgrimage of sorts. There was a fire in this grove. It’s California. So of course, fire. There’s been little or no rain. They’re calling this the worst drought in 1100 years. All over the west we’ve seen shrunken lakes, reduced rivers. We’ve driven over hundreds of bridges over hundreds of creeks that have no water. How many creeks out West can you name Dry Creek?
Driving into the kids’ house the other day, we saw the damage of the Mariposa fire on Triangle Road. A few weeks ago, their very own fire.
The day they had driven down to Paso Robles to celebrate Dana’s birthday, just as they were climbing into the hot tub the phone rang. Fire. Bad. Evacuation order. They have 180 trees in their orchard, and a barn full of cider making equipment. They have animals. They drove home, they must have raced home, and moved two dogs, five chickens, two goats, and a cat to safe haven, then spent the next three nights in a neighbor’s home.
This time they got an all-clear. Their apple trees were thirsty, lacking water for five days, but otherwise, all was well. This time.
But in the surrounding area…
A few days ago Tizi and I went with David on an errand. Right now they’re planning their next big event, their Tortured Orchard tour for Halloween. It’s a production. They’re writing the script, enlisting friends to play certain parts, laying in supplies like masks and costumes. Next to one of their sheds is a box of eight-foot skeletons. That afternoon we went to pick up a loveseat, presumably for Tizi-and-Rick-size skeletons, and a baby buggy. (I don’t want to know. Yes I do.) It was raining an inconsequential rain. Along the road, we saw more devastation from their fire. Charred trees cut down at the base, charred hilltops with blackened skeletal remains of trees, charred boulders. At the base of burnt trees, a few scraps of determined greenery were already squirting out of the soil. The fire service somehow managed to save some of the houses we drove past, the front yards all ash and downed trees; at the top of the driveway, miraculously, houses spared, intact.
“Don’t take pictures,” Tizi said.
I agreed. It would make a spectacle of people’s losses, their suffering. Must we photograph everything?
We pulled into a driveway. On the front walk was the loveseat, its cushions soaking up rain. While David and I loaded it into the back of his truck, the home owner came outside, dressed only in pants, in his bare feet, rolling a ratty stroller to the road. He demonstrated how to collapse it so it would lie down in the truck.
Then home. The road, the trees, the hills, the fire. You don’t get used to it.
On the walk up to Grizzly Giant, I take the pictures. The park belongs to everyone. It’s everyone’s loss, not personal, but just as tragic, just as harrowing as the personal loss. It’s destruction writ large. Along the trail we see trees that were spared: incense cedar, white fir, ponderosa pine, and sugar pine, their needles brown and dry from lack of water, dry as lantern wicks. Along the trail, felled trees, their pulp like innards spread across the trail. And burnt, fallen sequoias, giants, their blackened limbs like ribs.
“We’re killing the earth,” Tizi once said to our scientist, naturalist nephew Mirko Pierantognetti in Italy. “No,” he said. “We’re killing ourselves. The earth will survive.”
And there it is, already, new growth. You see the resilient earth.
On the trail down, we walk past a partially charred cone. Then another. Tizi bends down to pick up one of the scales, then puts it back. The thought occurs to me: Will Grizzly Giant be here next year?
“This could be the next sequoia,” she says. The next giant. We’ll be long gone. Probably these trees will be gone too. But the earth will still be here.