It was morning when we entered the grove. Sunlight slanted through the towering canopy of leaves as we started up the trail that wound through a stand of giant sequoias.
At some point — at many points — they force you to stop and stare in silent awe, in a feeling of something like reverence. Until you see one of them in person, it’s impossible to grasp their size. Photos don’t do these trees justice, though we tried mightily with our five cameras and cellphones. The scale is appreciated only by the human eye.
We were in Kings Canyon National Park in California a few weeks ago, on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. That part of the range is the only place on Earth where these giants grow. They are among the oldest and largest living things on the planet.
The star of the show in the grove we were in that morning was a tree known as the General Grant. It’s the second-largest tree in the world, behind only the General Sherman (tree-naming apparently being one of the spoils for helping the Union win the Civil War). We saw the Sherman a few hours later, just to the south in Sequoia National Park.
The General Sherman is stunning. At 275 feet, it’s nearly as tall as a football field. Its trunk is more than 36 feet across at its widest, and it contains enough wood to build 120 houses of average size. Walk around your block to see how many homes that is.
As for General Sherman’s age, it has been estimated to be as much as 2,700 years old. Think about that for a moment. That’s almost three millennia. This tree probably was around when the Athenians were inventing and developing democracy back in the fifth century BC.
It’s soothing to contemplate the sequoia in this political season. Imperturbable and unyielding, it has stood strong while the republic thrashes — from its stormy inception as it broke away from England through the bloody War Between the States through depressions and recessions and all manner of upheavals to the current strange and savage presidential campaign.
Some of its brethren are showing signs of stress from California’s drought, now in its fifth year. They need large amounts of water and aren’t getting enough from a drought that has been made worse by global warming. But scientists are trying to clone them and spread them around the world to help absorb greenhouse gases and curb global warming. Which means these ancient trees are a modern story, too.
But what is really fascinating about sequoias is their relation to fire. For a long while, fires understandably were considered a threat to their survival. So well-meaning officials looked to put out every fire that developed until they realized that actually was doing harm to the trees. The accumulation of dead wood and undergrowth was fueling truly catastrophic fires, and no new sequoias were sprouting.
It wasn’t until a few decades ago that researchers figured out what was going on.
Sequoias need fire to survive.
With bark sometimes thicker than two feet, they can withstand many conflagrations. But that heat forces their cones to open, releasing the seeds inside. With underbrush cleared by flames, the seeds can germinate. And the destruction of other trees lets sunlight through, helping the seedlings grow.
I’m choosing to look at our country in the same way. There are some bad things going on. We feel like we’re reeling in the face of these infernos, but we’re going to come out of it stronger. Because we’re going to have planted seeds that will bear fruit in the future. Children who are wiser than us, who learn to adapt better than we do, who are both hardier and more tolerant.
Who will stand.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.