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.”

A Little Man With a Big Nose

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.

Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.

Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.

I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.

This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.

Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!