National Geographic : 1951 May
Saving Earth's Oldest Living Things BY ANDREW H. BROWN With Illustrations from Photographs by Raymond Moulin and the Author HE CLOSER we drew, the more enor mous the living column loomed. It was the mightiest of a thousand Big Trees (Sequoia gigantea) in California's unspoiled South Calaveras Grove. As we reached out to feel the patriarch's rough bark, one of our party, bursting with information, tried to speak. "It's as high as a skyscra-" she began. But a U. S. forest ranger with us lifted his hand; he and the lady were old friends. "Hold the statistics a moment, please. Let's just stop, look, and listen first." Other immense cinnamon-red trunks towered far above adjacent pines and firs that were giants of their own kind. A brook gurgled near by. A squirrel twitched, then "froze" on a branch. Birds chirped aloft. We slumped to needle-padded ground. Leg and back muscles reminded us we'd paid a price to reach the cathedral hush and majesty of that out-of-the-way spot. Eight punishing miles of rutted, muddy fire roads had forced the use of shovels and tow cables, even though our jeeps and trucks had four-wheel drives (page 684). The fact-packed lady could contain herself no longer. "This is the Louis Agassiz Tree, named after the famous zoologist and geologist. It's high as a 20-story building, wide at the base as a city street, heavy as a destroyer, and probably as old as the Christian Era." "Besides which," the ranger said quietly, "it's big." Louis Agassiz, one of the greatest of all sequoias, was certainly impressive. Its heroic girth shrunk men and girls of our party to puppet size. Far above, the tree's branches and swelling top were dwarfed by distance. Limbs Larger than Many Trees' Trunks "An old stag-headed sequoia's branches start 100 feet or more up the trunk," the ranger said. "You need binoculars or a heli copter to appreciate their size. "A single limb on the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is nearly 7 feet in diameter and 150 feet long! It's larger than record specimens of many more familiar trees" (page 680). The National Geographic Society had sent the writer and the San Francisco photographer Raymond Moulin to record the splendor of the South Calaveras Grove. Last major stand of Big Trees in private ownership, it grows on Sierra Nevada slopes 70 miles southeast of Sacramento. Your Society has been an important con tributor to the purchase of irreplaceable Big Trees.* The Society and individual members in 1921 completed a donation of $100,000 to help preserve the finest of the sequoias in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. It now supports efforts to set aside the South Calaveras Grove as a California State park for the future pleasure of all citizens. Just a century ago next year, hunters and gold seekers roaming the forests of Calaveras County, California, discovered nearly un believable trees. They were so huge the finders knew reports of them would be greeted in the world at large with jeers. Big Tree Stump Made Dance Floor To dramatize their find, men cut down the biggest tree they could locate (a 22-day job for five fallers), smoothed off its stump, capped it with a pavilion, and staged cotillions and quadrilles on it, with as many as six teen couples twirling and bowing (page 684). The dancers' feet beat on wood that was growing nearly 200 years before Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire. On the trunk of the same fallen tree enthusiasts laid out a bowling alley. An artist, Edward Vischer, later drew sketches of the Dancing Stump and other scenes in the grove to publicize the arboreal marvel. One of his drawings showed a herd of camels plodding past the huge trees. This was no imaginative fancy, but a true record. For Vischer accompanied nine Mon golian bactrians when they shuffled past the sequoias in 1861, bound across the Sierra for Nevada silver mines. When Big Tree measurements first were quoted abroad in scores of feet, listeners were vehement in protest: "You must mean inches!" was the reaction. For proof, promoters skinned alive at least two great trees in the North Calaveras Grove. Carefully marked for lifelike reassembly, the * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Among the Big Trees of California," by John R. White, August, 1934; "National Geographic Society Completes Its Gifts of Big Trees," July, 1921; and "Our Big Trees Saved," January, 1917.