All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost:
the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring;
renewed shall be a blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.
~J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892 – 1973
After a long journey on the winding Wawona Road, carved through densely-packed, towering trees, we reached the mystical Mariposa Grove and the giants to whom we had come to pay homage. Embarking down a well-trod trail carpeted with pine needles, we breathed in the fragrant air of a sacred spot to which millions from around the globe have made a pilgrimage.
Along with a throng of others drawn here for the same reason, we first paid respects to one of the earth’s oldest creatures, known to the many who have travelled here as the Fallen Monarch. The crowd stood in hushed awe, humbled by this legend’s regal presence, even as she lay in repose. Continuing on, we soon encountered the equally immense and imposing figures of the Bachelor and Three Graces, who over the course of three millennia reached their present stature of more than 25 stories. With our necks craned backwards in an effort to take in the full extent of their enormity, we were again reminded of our frailty and powerlessness in the face of these ancient elders who have endured for ages.
Yosemite National Park, one of the first wilderness parks in the United States, is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles are also other spectacles, among them stands of giant sequoias. For my husband Tom and me, a hike in the Park’s Mariposa Grove was the crowning glory of a two-week stay in several remote and pristine areas of California.
Further along the path we encountered the Grizzly Giant, one of the largest trees here—a limb on its south side is almost seven feet in diameter. Fifty yards beyond is the California Tunnel Tree, cut in 1895 to allow horse-drawn stage coaches to pass through. At a fork in the trail, we headed away from the direction of other hikers and soon were alone in the timeless forest, with the murmuring of a running stream and the occasional call of a bird the only sounds. The landscape leveled out a bit and the lush greenery became streaked with stripes of black where scorched trees with charred and crackled bark stood among their ruddier-skinned fellows.
We had quickly become accustomed to having the forest to ourselves and were surprised to see a lone, slight figure emerge over the crest of the next hillside. As she got closer, we recognized the young woman as a park ranger by the uniform and called out a greeting and exclamation of appreciation for her chosen habitat.
Kelsey Lahr introduced herself and told us that she is originally from Santa Maria on California’s central coast and grew up visiting Yosemite every summer, eventually getting involved as a volunteer, which led to a paid position several years ago. She is now in the middle of her fourth summer as an employee as an “Interpretive Ranger,” which includes working in the park’s visitor center, helping and interacting with visitors she encounters out on trails, and giving formal programs like guided hikes, nature walks, and evening campfire talks.
I commented on the beauty of the brilliant green surroundings, and seeing evidence of the cycle of life, with tender young plants rising from the ashes of what had apparently been a relatively recent fire, and golden sap oozing from singed bark.
“Sometimes visitors are put off by the appearance of a recently burned landscape; many people think charred trees are the opposite of scenic,” Kelsey told us. “In reality, a recently burned grove is a healthy grove, for a number of reasons. First, new sequoias cannot grow without fire; fire recycles build-up and debris on the forest floor back into the bare mineral soil that seeds need in order to grow. Secondly, fire solves the problem of an “overcrowded” grove; it reduces competition among trees by taking out those that are less well adapted to fire, leaving only the healthier trees. This means that the surviving trees have more resources to go around. It also opens up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to reach the trees, especially sun-loving giant sequoias.
“Sequoia seeds need three things in order to become a viable tree, all of which are provided in some way by fire,” she elaborated. “Seeds need bare mineral soil, sunlight, and water. Bare mineral soil is provided by fire, which burns off the build-up of needles, twigs, and bark pieces that would block the seed’s access to soil. Fire also opens up the forest’s canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the seed. Finally, sequoias usually get the water they need from groundwater just below the surface of the grove. Fire thins out the established trees, ensuring that there is more groundwater to go around for the remaining trees and more water available to new seedlings.
“Fire is a natural and healthy part of the ecosystem here in the Sierra Nevada,” Kelsey continued. “However, not realizing how important fire is to the ecosystem, humans suppressed fire in the Mariposa Grove–and almost everywhere else–for about 100 years. In 1971, the National Park Service began to reintroduce fire in the grove, and we have been doing prescribed fires ever since. These fires are set and managed by the National Park Service in order to imitate the important, natural role of fire and as a way to restore this fire-dependent ecosystem. Today we have prescribed fires in the Mariposa Grove every year, burning a different section every time. The evidence of fire here is the result of two such fires. The fire in this area occurred in 2004. The most obvious burn area just beyond the trailhead occurred in October of 2008.”
“It’s important to note that the Mariposa Grove is a work in progress. We’re still trying to restore the grove after 100 years of unhealthy fire suppression, but with our prescribed fire program, we’re on our way to getting this fire-dependent ecosystem back on track. While there are very few within sight of the trail, there are lots and lots of new sequoias in the parts of the grove that have seen heavy burning, which tells us that prescribed fire is working.”
Saying our good-byes to Kelsey, we were alone again on the steep hillside in the late afternoon, the sunlight streaming through the treetops. We moved on to visit with two denizens of deep time here whom I especially wanted to meet. Called the Faithful Couple, these majestic sequoias are fused together at their bases, yet at their height are distinct individuals with similar but unique views.
Reaching the famed duo, Tom and I smiled at each other. While deeply loyal to one another, we are also both fiercely independent-minded—some might say stubborn. After two weeks joined at the hip in the relative isolation of California’s wilderness, and biting our respective tongues as the occasional and inevitable difference of opinion had arisen, we had recently erupted into a heated discussion. While we have come a long way from earlier days of scorched earth arguments, we had raised our voices. Yet we had managed to maintain civility, and were willing to bend. Dispensing with the accumulated debris of minor annoyances, we could once again enjoy each other’s light.
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