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Letters: Without garlands or twinkle lights

Without garlands or twinkle lights, the Nation’s Christmas Tree lives in Kings Canyon National Park just up the hill from us, designated as such in 1926 by Calvin Coolidge. Its seedling days were once thought to hail from the time of Christ but, alas, the giant is only about 1,650 years old.

That same grizzled Sequoiadendron giganteum, also known since 1867 as the General Grant, was recently demoted to “third-largest tree on the planet.” Only thousands of these living behemoths yet exist in a few dozen groves along California’s western Sierra Nevada.

Giant sequoias and their coast redwood cousins, Sequoia sempervirens, flourished across the entire American West under a very different climate regime as mammals replaced dinosaurs some 50 million years ago. This month’s National Geographic features Humboldt State University’s Steve Sillett and his team of high-wire scientists exploring unmapped aerial ecosystems up to thirty-some stories above sequoia and coast redwood forest floors.

Ecologist Sillett belongs to a small subset of humans scattered across the globe that, seduced by Earth’s tallest trees, fearlessly swing spider-like on gossamer threads inside towering canopies. A number of these eccentrics, Sillett included, evolved daredevil personalities and botanical fascination into respected, if unusual, scientific careers. Richard Preston’s 2007 bestseller, The Wild Trees, depicts Prof. Steve Sillett and botanist-wife Marie Antoine, exchanging vows suspended in midair between two North Coast redwood titans, as Tarzan and Jane of this peculiar set.

Their team recently lingered in local Sequoia National Park sizing up giants as part of a Redwoods & Climate Change Initiative. The aerialists painstakingly measured trunk and limbs at every height while enumerating two billion leaves on a 247-foot-tall behemoth known as The President before declaring this tree the world’s second most voluminous.

One surprising discovery related to climate change, reports Sillett, is that 3,000-year-old trees like The President still grow vigorously, binding atmospheric carbon into yearly growth rings that lay on wood in amounts exceeding trees many centuries their juniors. California’s old growth redwoods are reduced by the hand of man to just a few percent of the forested area encountered by forty-niners.

Sillett’s team suspects these tallest and most massive life forms on Earth are “giving trees” that may illuminate a sustainable path through perilous times.

As you count gifts for which you are grateful this holiday season, consider a jaunt up to salute and contemplate these magnificent natural wonders.

— Tom Willey,



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