These are not trees to be hugged.
Not even if you ignored the stern signs about staying on the path. Not even if you had arms long enough to embrace their enormous trunks. Not only would hugging a Sequoia sempervirens be impossible; it would be disrespectful. Ancient redwoods are too dignified for hugging.
On a visit to California's Bay Area last week, we had a chance to walk through Muir Woods. This stand of old-growth coast redwoods was preserved a hundred years ago by a local couple, William and Elizabeth Kent, who bought the land and later donated much of it to the federal government. It was set aside as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
Since nearly a million visitors show up every year, we were fortunate to be there in December instead of July. There were still plenty of people on the main pathway, but on the less-visited secondary trails we were able to walk with the silent attention this place deserves.
Muir Woods has neither the oldest nor the biggest of the giant redwoods. Its trees are the taller but more slender cousins of the Sequoia-dendron giganteum. The tallest one here is only about 250 feet high and the widest a mere 14 feet in diameter. Give them time, though. Most of these trees are still young adults of only 500 to 800 years old. They haven't seen half their expected life spans yet.
Redwood trees were around some 150 million years ago—in fact, they covered a great deal of the continent until climate change limited them to the Pacific Northwest. One of the reasons for their endurance may be their unique methods of reproduction.
Seedlings sprout from the tiny seeds carried in the trees' cones, of course. New growth can also come from burls, which are woody growths on the bases or sides of the trees that contain dormant buds. If a tree is injured, new trunks can sprout from these burls.
It's common in Muir Woods to see a ring of trees forming a family circle. Sometimes they surround the fire-scarred hollow trunk of a long-dead giant. Sometimes all that remains of the mother tree is the space where it grew centuries ago. I don't know whether these burl-sprouted trees are genetically identical to their parent trees. If they are, that makes such trees almost immortal.
Maybe that is why such a sense of ancient life and wisdom pervades these woods. Walking here, it's easy to believe in wise gnomes and ageless tree spirits. This isn't a malevolent place like the dark, frightening forests of old fairy tales. Instead, it seems to regard human visitors with benign detachment. We may be a little larger than the squirrels and birds, more numerous than the deer, but our comings and goings are still of little import in the long lives of the redwoods.
One section of Muir Woods is called Cathedral Grove, for obvious reasons. I assume the great cathedrals were a feeble attempt to recreate the awe-inspiring grandeur of old forests like these. But the whole place, with its towering elders, feels like sacred ground. It's a place to walk softly and with respect.
These trees don't need any hugs from the likes of us. But if you happened to see one of the gnomes, and if you asked nicely, maybe it would shake your hand.