The Eerie Silence of Elder Trees

Image by Sarah Brown.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that despite having lived my entire forty-two years of life in California, until a few weeks ago I had never traveled to visit what remains of the old-growth redwood forests.

Well, that’s not entirely true; some years ago I visited Muir Woods with friends, but was distracted from any sense of awe by a combination of infinite tourists and the trail barriers that forbid any aimless wandering. Recently my housemate told me about Montgomery Woods state park up north in Ukiah, home to redwood elders. We decided to make the trek.

One of the many unfortunate ironies of our mechanical dystopia is that you need a car to get to places where you don’t have to be around cars… or other humans. It took us nearly three hours to drive from Oakland up highway 101 and then negotiate the winding, narrow road out to the park. It was worth every second.

It was even worth the utter fury I experienced when some asshole clerk at a backwoods gas station demanded proof that I’d been price-gouged at the pump before he would tell me where the bathroom was. Nothing like getting the Negro Treatment in the middle of nowhere. He eventually told me, after I issued the fucker a stern admonishment, which saved me from having to find out what sort of dreadful legal consequences might result from me pissing into an empty bottle and then dumping it all over his counter. But I digress.

There’s something haunting about forests. Perhaps this feeling is merely the bias of the cement-bred, but I think there’s more to it. I think these elder trees remember their countless millennia as chiefs of the coast, and are bitter about so many of their brethren being murdered. But I’ll get back to that.

After returning from the trip and talking to friends about it, they all asked the same question: how were the redwoods? I find this question difficult to answer, for the same reason that I find it difficult to articulate what it was like to visit the Grand Canyon. How can I possibly describe the experience of being somewhere so ancient, so vast in scale? And how can I describe it to people who are deaf to the voices of such beings and places? Few things in life can be adequately addressed with the kind of banal soundbites preferred by droids.

If you’ve been close enough to an elder redwood to touch it, and had enough sense to observe one with your own eyes rather than through the false eye of a camera, then no explanation is needed. For everyone else, I will do my best to put the experience into words.

I’ve walked through deserts in Arizona and New Mexico, waded through snow in central Oregon, hiked through tropical Hawaiian forests, climbed monkey-filled trees in China, and run naked in the grasses of the Great Plains. Yet no place is more magical to me than redwood forests. Just the smell of them fills me with comfort and a sense of peace.

To be among the elder trees was something else entirely. These are beings of profound presence. Wider than the length of a pick-up truck and rising hundreds of feet into the sky, they exert an ancient and noble gravity. Some of them have burn-caverns at the base of their trunks, which provide homes to bats and other forest folks. Many of these caverns are big enough for an adult human to walk into, standing fully upright.

The trees are enormous, and they are old. In this park there are trees older than Jesus, older than democracy, older than most civilizations. And that’s only speaking of individual trees—the forest itself has been there, essentially, forever… and it knows this.

Gauging distance among giants is difficult; everything is further away than it seems. There is no horizon here, only more ridges, hills, trunks, and branches. Every trail, from those made by humans to those made by small furry creatures, all disappear into an unbounded grove. I feel that I could wander here unto my death and be satisfied that I was meeting a good end. To enter the ancient woods and never be seen again—what a marvelous way to conclude one’s story! So much better than dying in a mangled automobile or a ventilator.

The park staff was working on a trail construction project, using some piece of motorized machinery to do the heavy lifting. Even here in the woods at the end of the world, my ears are besieged by the sound of infernal combustion. It only occurred for short intervals, thank the gods, but it was still long enough to remind me of my intense hatred of industrial civilization.

Redwoods are people of rain and moisture. In the Oakland hills near where I live the redwood forests are in a state of dire thirst. They have gone too many years with too little rain; creeks and other water paths are choked with dry, dead wood. The ground is parched and dusty. The trees groan in the wind. The plants are desiccated and miserable. Though I still get relief from the concrete sickness when I visit those woods, seeing them in this state makes me sad. Love for the living world often feels like a piece of hopeless melancholy.

We picked a good time to visit the elders; there had been rain over the previous couple of weeks. The ground was pleasantly muddy and the leaves on the ground were spongy to our footsteps. The massive, flat root bases of fallen redwoods were slippery and treacherous to climb. All the most luscious shades of green—tree and fern, grass and flower—are here in this forest, and made all the more beautiful by glistening dampness.

Newts live here, tiny creatures who walk like they never quite got used to being out of the water. I find them adorable, and I came hoping to catch sight of one (one!) Soon after arriving we left the trail to explore a narrow creek. As we were walking around one of the great trees toward the creek, I suddenly knew, with absolute certainty, that I would find a newt on the other side of it. And sure enough, there he was, dark gray with orange feet, padding slowly along the ground. We walk a few more careful steps and see another, then another; I’d never before seen more than one newt at a time in the wild. The forest has blessed us, and is saying hello. How did I know I was about to see that newt? Who told me?

To listen, and hear, you have to be silent. I’ve long moved softly through the world. I have cultivated the art of invisibility—intonjutsu. Some of the skills are subtle—how to go unnoticed in a crowd; how to move through the shadows of perception; how to manipulate what people see. Other skills are purely physical and come from long practice, such as how to move on silent feet. I’ve been doing it for so long that it is now automatic, and I’m reminded of it only when I accidentally frighten someone by soundlessly appearing in their peripheral vision. When I come upon strangers on late-night streets I scuff my soles on the cement to warn of my approach, especially if those strangers are women; it is all I have to offer in deference to the constant harrowing fear that all females in this society are forced to have of unknown men.

I am skilled at moving quietly. But in the ancient, eerie silence of this community of elder trees, my every footstep sounds like an echoing chorus. The shuffling of my clothes as I walk is deafening. When I am still, so very still, I hear every drop of water fall from the branches, every flutter of a bird’s wing. As we walk, meandering on and off the trail, the birds call out their warnings to others—call and response, call and response. The mischievous crows are especially loud here.

From up the ridge, far enough away for my comfort but close enough to terrify my companion, there comes the sound of a young tree cracking, splitting, and falling. It is the type of sound you can never forget once you’ve heard it, like nearby thunder or the sound of ice cracking beneath your feet. It is the sound of wild danger—a reminder that nature can destroy you with ease if you are not cautious. It is a frightening sound, true… But it will never approach the pure evil of a buzzing chainsaw.

I traveled to these woods hoping that the elder trees would speak to me, hoping they would tell me something to alleviate my daily despair. I also came to pay my respects, similar to visiting someone on hospice. Who knows how much longer these elder trees will survive our machine-corrupted climate? As rapacious as western civilization is, it’s a miracle that there are still any of them left. I’ve been studying “environmentalism” for long enough to know the death stats; if the percentage of old-growth trees murdered by industrial civilization was an academic grade, it would be a solid ‘A.’ Congratulations, you’re in the 90th percentile of anti-life!

Knowing the numbers is one thing, but I’ve always been more of a visual learner. Near the entrance to the park is a (twenty-year-old) color-coded map showing how much of the California coast used to be covered in old-growth redwood forest, and how much of it is still left. I’ll put it like this: take a sheet of paper, dip your pinky finger in some water, then stand a few feet away and flick the water onto the paper. Those tiny wet spots on the paper, relative to the vast dry area, will just about account for the ratio of remaining old-growth trees to deathscapes.

The scale of destruction strains my capacity for horror. I saw the map and my heart dropped into my gut. I burst into tears.

I hate this culture.

California state parks always have placards that say something like, “There used to be X-thousands of Native Americans who lived here, now there’s only a few,” and leave it at that. The implication being that they simply went away; the placards never mention or even hint at their fate. Well, we’re in Pomo country (Ukiah = Yokaya, “deep valley”); I’ve been to Pomo ceremonies, and I attend a sweat lodge poured by a Pomo elder. I assure you they know exactly what happened to their ancestors, just like they know exactly what continues to happen.

I know a single Pomo song. I sang it to the elder trees.

When the sun was long gone from the forest floor and barely illuminating the top branches, we left the park. Though we were only there for four or five hours, it felt timeless. If I could have stayed there, and never again laid eyes on a plastic wrapper or a metal tube spewing smoke into the sky… but it’s too late for that. There’s no escaping the Machine.

On the way out we passed a small ridge. There was a bulldozer parked there, next to a ring of three huge redwoods. We walked by them and I got a feeling I’ve learned to recognize—the trees were calling to me. At first I ignored the feeling and kept walking, but it was so… loud. I bid my companion to wait, then walked back to the ridge and entered the ring of trees. One had a burn-cavern, and right in the middle of it was a discarded plastic tube of pink lip gloss. I could almost hear the trees: take this thing away. So I did. Too bad I couldn’t take away the bulldozer.

The elder trees are not silent because they cannot speak. They are silent because they are among the dead and dying. We are deaf to them because we are sick—a machine-colonized species that acts as our elders’ cruelest enemy.

Malik Diamond is a hip hop artist, cartoonist, author, educator, and martial arts instructor. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the descendant of kidnapped Africans, conquered Natives, and rural laborers of the Scots-Irish, Swiss, and German varieties. He currently lives in Oakland, California, with two brown humans and a white cat. E-mail: malikdiamond (at) hotmail (dot) com