Giant redwood trees.

In 1956, Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” a response of sorts to the more provincial “God Bless America.” In his now-classic folk song, Guthrie sings of the landscapes that characterize America – “wheat fields waving, dust clouds rolling, ribbon of highway, endless skyway.” While the “sparkling sands of her diamond deserts” intrigued me as a child, these days it’s the first verse, which cites the “redwood forest” that keeps ringing in my head.

This past fall, my husband and I traveled by car around the Pacific Northwest. I’d planned an elaborate itinerary, which included visits with family and friends plus stops at a number of state and national parks. At the very end of our trip were two days in the redwood forests of Northern California.

“Two days?” my husband asked. “If we only do one day, we’ll have more time to see my brother.”

We’d had this discussion before. I patiently explained that if we maintained our custom of comfortable-length drives plus some sightseeing, it would take us two days to drive from the Oregon border to his brother’s mountain cabin outside Mendocino, where we had already spent two days at the beginning of our trip. We could race through the drive and gain a day of visiting, or we could take our time and view something unlike anything else in the country. He was dubious . . . but only until we entered the first of the redwood forests.

The coast of Northern California is home to a string of several state and national parks, all devoted to preserving and showcasing native redwood trees. One of the northernmost of these is the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, outside Crescent City, the home of The Stout Grove.

A ranger at the Visitor Center recommended The Stout Grove to us after I explained that we had only allotted a single day to see the highlights of 50+ linear miles of parkland. We followed a rutted gravel road into the mountains, passing at first through ordinary forest. But then the trees started getting taller, and wider. And taller. And wider. So these were the famed redwoods . . . The size wasn’t easy to comprehend until we passed by – actually, through – a tree that had fallen across the road years ago. Lying on its side, bisected close to the stump, it stood several feet over the roof of our car.

We reached the grove and followed a walking trail past some of the larger trees, many of which were fifteen feet around and stood over 150 feet tall. The scene felt like something out of a fairy tale – tiny people dwarfed by giant trees. We were fascinated.

The rest of the day included stops in the Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks, as well as Redwood National Park.

After a good night’s sleep we continued on to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home of the popular Avenue of the Giants, 31 miles of highway surrounded by 51,000 acres of redwood groves. We decided to skip the more-tourist oriented “Drive Thru Tree” and “Eternal Tree House,” and spend most of our day at the Founders Grove, a half-mile trail through some of the oldest and largest known redwoods.

The Founders Grove offers a glimpse of an ancient forest. Here, “ancient” is a scientific term describing a forest containing trees of all ages, including those over 200 years old, plus many layers of canopy, large downed logs, and large standing dead trees. While the Stout Grove felt like a fairy tale, the Founders Grove was downright mystical.

The Centerpiece of the Founders Grove is the Dyerville Giant, a tree at least 1600 years old. Until it was felled by a windstorm in 1991, the Giant stood 362 feet tall – that’s a good deal longer than a football field. Fifty-two feet around, it weighs over one million pounds. You really have to see it to believe it.

We don’t have any ancient forest here on the South Shore – or anything that even approaches it. Our lands were cleared centuries ago to fuel the sawmills and shipyards that helped our towns to grow and prosper. The forests we have now, while impressive, pale in comparison to the great redwood stands of northern California.

Natural settings help us to feel our connection to – and place on – the Earth. Although we may think that we rule the planet, the human race is nowhere near as strong or as long lasting as the force of nature. Standing amidst a grove of giant redwoods, it’s easy to sense just how small we really are.

words and music by Woody Guthrie

©1956 (renewed 1984), 1958 (renewed 1986) and 1970 TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
November 2004

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.