Varied thrushes chord the evening shafts of light with one note songs. Alone in the Rockefeller Forest of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California, there can be only one word. Reverence.
The redwoods are breathing. It’s not something to hear like the thrush. You can feel the collective inhale and exhale of the greatest trees on the planet that have stood in one place rooted for some 2000 years and still they grow to diameters of 24 feet, heights of more than 350 feet, and weights of 1.6 million pounds. To touch their thick, furrowed yet soft bark is to know the meaning of sacred.
The Rockefeller forest harbors more 350-foot tall redwoods than anywhere else, and at 10,000 acres is the largest contiguous stand of ancient redwoods remaining–saved from the saw in 1931.
Everywhere I travel where we have managed to protect our ancient forests, I like to know the story of the heroes and heroines who fought to save them. Here, the credit goes to Save the Redwoods League and to the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and one pivotal picnic. In 1926, Newton Drury, the Save the Redwood League first Executive Director made an incredibly wise move. Rather than discuss the threats to the redwoods in some office, he invited the Rockefeller family to dine in the heart of the forest. John, his wife and their three sons reveled in the magnificence that can only be known firsthand.
“These magnificent redwoods far exceed anything I had imagined. I had long heard of the wonderful redwood forests, but before this trip, I had never seen them,” Rockefeller said afterwards.
Then he took action to save the trees with a first gift to protect part of the forest, and then helped the League to buy an additional 9,000 acres by 1931. Without that fortuitous picnic and Rockefeller’s own magnificent actions, the trees would have been felled. He never wanted his name on any redwoods and preferred the anonymity. In 1952, however, the name Rockefeller Forest now gives credit to the family’s inspiring conservation. You can read about the Rockefellers and especially the legacy of David Rockefeller, who was 11 years old at that picnic in 1926 here.
On this day in late March, Wes and I are the only people in this particular grove. Bull Creek rushes by in a spring torrent, yet when you step away into the depths of the forest, the sound is more like an unending sigh. Our steps are slow. We rarely speak and when we do our voices are low murmurs. We crouch down to skim our fingers over redwood sorrels that look like clovers and grow in profusion at the trunks of trees, nestling by ferns and trillium in bloom. Fallen redwoods cloaked in thick moss nurse seedlings. The greenness of the understory casts its own light. Often, we stop to follow with our eyes the massive elephantine trunks skyward until we’re leaning backwards, hands on hips, and ecstatically dizzy.
In the redwoods, trees are breathing. To hear, you must be mindful of your own breath. In yoga, I have learned the mantra of “breathing in I am calm and breathing out I smile.” And here, that’s the natural way of things. In that smile I breathe out lies gratitude for the Save the Redwoods League, for the Rockefellers and all those who came after them, and for today’s conservation champions in dark times. For all who are standing up to save our threatened forests now, my advice is to go out among the big trees wherever you live and let all your anxious thoughts float away. Feel what it is to be serene in the storm, empowered, and alive in every part of your being. Listen. Hear the birds. Attend. The great forest breathes.