Atacama Norte

Path at Sequoia National Park

John Muir understood the forests of California better than anyone: “And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.” There are beautiful forests in California, as well as beautiful mountains and even beautiful deserts. Thanks to climate change, however, in a very few years we might still find the mountains, but in place of the forests, we will have greatly enlarged deserts.

Currently, the driest desert on earth is the Atacama, which comprises parts of northern Chile and southern Peru. It is a major event there if the rainfall runs to several millimeters! As California becomes ever drier and the wildfires ever more uncontrollable, I can foresee much of this happening in the dwindling years of my lifetime.

California has both the largest and the oldest living things on earth in its forests. The Sequoia Redwoods can run to 115.5 meters (379 feet) in height. They can—under normal circumstances—live between 1,200 and 2,200 years. In the White Mountains on the other side of the Owens Valley are the Great Basin bristlecone pines, which, unlike the redwoods, look hardly alive. Yet the oldest trees of this species are 4,800 years old, making them venerable oldsters while the Greeks were conducting the Siege of Troy described by Homer in the Iliad.

Bristlecone Pine Tree of the White Mountains

Both types of tree are hardy and have survived multiple wildfires caused by lightning strikes in the last several thousand years. But man is a relatively new factor, and many of the fires that are decimating the forests of California are the result of arson or human carelessness.

Call me a tree-hugger if you will, but there are many things in California that I have come to love. Let me close with another quote from John Muir, who is the bard of the wilds of California: “Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill.”

“The Whole Country Is One Vast Forest”

Deep Forest

A French Visitor Describes a Very Different America

Among foreign visitors to the young United States around 1800 was one Constantin Volney, who was lucky to escape the Reign of Terror and the guillotine in his native France. His The Ruin was one of some seventy volumes of travels in the New World by French visitors during that time.

“Compared with France,” wrote Volney, “we may say that the entire country is one vast forest.” In the year 1796, he had traveled from Pennsylvania through Virginia and Kentucky to Detroit and back by way of Albany. During his travels, he wrote, “I scarce traveled three miles together on open and cleared land.”

This was at a time when Philadelphia was the largest city in the United States, with a population of some 70,000 inhabitants, followed by New York, with 60,000; Boston, with 25,000; and Baltimore, with 13,000. In 1800, these were the only American cities with more than 10,000 population.

I got these facts from Van Wyck Brooks’s The World of Washington Irving, which is showing me a far different picture of my country some two hundred years ago.