Old Growth

Towards A New Animism
Amos Eno Gallery
January 6-30, 2022

Primary or “late successional” forests are rare on earth and becoming ever more so.  These are forests that have evolved naturally over time, free, or relatively so, from human intervention.  The remaining 3% of California’s unlogged and preserved redwood forests fit this description allowing for the concessions made for tourism.  These forests are irreplaceable because the evolutionary process that creates them takes time on a scale exceeding the human lifespan by millenniums.  They are important because they serve as a model for understanding successional dynamics.  They also provide a home for rare and endangered species, especially those sensitive to human disturbance and they serve as an example of how to live sustainably and successfully on this planet.       

Two hundred million years ago the redwood tree evolved alongside the dinosaurs.  The dinosaurs died out 60 million years ago but the redwood persists.  At one time they populated most of the planet but presently exist only along a narrow, coastal strip of land in northern California and in scattered groves in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Redwood trees are the largest and tallest living things on earth with the Sierra’s Sequoiadendron giganteum being the largest by mass and the Sequoia sempervirens or Coast Redwood the tallest.  They also are among the oldest living entities, some dating to the pre-Christian era.   The root system, which sprouts new trees even when the mother tree is destroyed, may in fact be the oldest living entity on earth. 

Redwoods are known as the “Climate Champions” due to their ability to sequester more carbon than any other species due to their size and longevity. It makes no sense, aside from short term gain, to cut down a redwood tree.  Regardless, approximately 97 percent of these trees were logged within the past 150 years with most of the carnage occurring since World War II. 

The redwood ecosystem is unique.  Species not adapted to the domed and shaded understory environment created by redwood forests won’t make it.  The redwood ecosystem includes specialized plants and animals that make their home there and nowhere else.  Redwood trees have evolved to be impervious to rot, flood, fire and almost all threats except a human with a chainsaw.  Their durability is legendary.  The accumulated knowledge contained in the redwood genome is only now being sequenced and it’s proving to be the largest genomic sequencing project yet attempted.  The redwood’s ability to neutralize threats and withstand every insult inflicted on them for 200 million years is unique, but their numbers are falling, due to accelerating climate change and indiscriminate logging for profit. 

We know very little about the redwood species.  Only in the past thirty years have researchers begun to seriously study redwoods and how they have been able to sustain themselves through two hundred million years of life on this planet.  Understanding how an organism almost the height of a forty story skyscraper can pull water and nutrients up from it’s roots, can accommodate weather extremes of wind and flood and can tolerate wildfire is something we could benefit from understanding.  As we become aware of the fragility of our own existence on this planet we need to look to the species that have successfully navigated climate change again and again.  The timber industry has yet to feel this sense of awe and continues to harvest any recovering, unprotected redwoods for profit, and not unlike the fishing industry, the take keeps getting smaller because trees that take hundreds of years to mature are taken after 30, and are mere fetuses compared to the parents.  It’s been said that trees do everything we do they just do it a lot slower.  Old Growth is a portrait of these giants and their ecosystem, an elegy for their beauty and complex capabilities. Sadly, due to drought and wildfire, the defenses that have sustained these organisms for millions of years may finally have met their match in human-caused climate change.

Grant Johnson

For More Information:

Redwood Genome Project – Save The Redwoods League

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