Fact: The average Californian Redwood stands well over 300 feet tall at its maturity. They are a species of tree so majestic, so impressive, people from far and wide journey to the sweeping coast of California to see them; wanting to see for themselves whether or not the photographs lie.
The truth is the pictures do not do them justice.
And how could anyone expect them too? Pictures don’t show the liquid kaleidoscope of light on the forest floor, the way even the tiniest rustle of wind can shift that mosaic of leaf and shadow. Flung along within that wind and dampening the air float mingling hints of spray from both river and ocean. The roar of these not so far off bodies of water stand backdrop to it all, humming the never-ending hymns of this ancient world. No moment in the Redwoods is ever the same twice. And attempting to catch details of that one moment with an imprint of light on paper is laughable really. The only sort of impression that can do the Californian Redwoods justice is that of one made on the mind.
My first memory of the Redwoods comes from when I was four. It was my birthday and my parents were going to take me to the magic forest where they fell in love.
To an adult these trees are dwarfing; to a child they are infinite. Little neck craned up at the heavens, it was impressive I didn’t topple backward from straining my gaze so high.
I remember clouds intertwining with the tops of trees and I swear at that moment the canopy was playing doormat to the golden gate of heaven.
“I found out where the angels are,” I informed my parents solemnly as I pointed to the treetops. They laughed and Dad bent down to ruffle my hair.
“Angels eh? That can’t be right kiddo, you’re down here not up there.” And with a scoop of his arm I was up on his shoulders, feeling almost as tall as one of those trees. Mom pulled out the camera with a smile and snapped a picture.
It does not do the memory justice.
Fact: The average Californian Redwood lives to be almost 700 years old.
The average human lives to be around 70.
My father outlived neither.
In the end it was an accident. Slippery roads and too much fog and suddenly all that’s left of Daddy are a tombstone that bears his name but not his face. The man who loved trees and forests and everything about nature, as though they were both his parent and child all at once lies still, buried in a wooden box. It surprises me still that Dad didn’t spring up and out of that hole in the ground and chastise us on killing trees on his behalf. It makes me doubt on if that was even really him in there.
Is there any way that he could lay still in the cool dark of the earth, surrounded by what was once forest, but without the spinning of the kaleidoscope. This is the man who refused to put hardwood in our house because he said it made him nauseous. There is no way he could rest easy without that ever-changing shimmer of light and shadow. And even if it was there, it would pale in comparison that of the day I turned four.
That moment was perfect.
That moment is long since gone.
It’s been almost five years now since the last time I saw my Dad and what we could have had still haunts me. All the days we could have spent together. The stolen glances and murmured words him and Mom could have shared when they thought I wasn’t listening.
All of it gone.
And since then, I haven’t been able to stomach the thought of going back to the Redwoods. Mom has offered that we could go, just the two of us. With a gentle hand tucking loose strands of hair behind my ear she’d say that he would want us to keep visiting the forest and that he’d see it through our eyes.
Biting my tongue was all I could do from asking why he didn’t just see it with his own.
Fact: The Californian Redwood is an endangered species. Logging and pollution and practically every other foul thing humanity does have finally made an impact so gargantuan it threatens the very existence of the tallest living beings on Earth. It is a hard truth to swallow. Looking back on it, I think that might be why Dad loved the Redwoods so much. Not just because they are beautiful but also because they are precious and need protecting. And maybe, just maybe, he saw angels in that forest too.
And as I find myself finally standing once more among the Redwoods, all I can think about is that Dad must still be here. Sitting up on a cloud in the canopy, one too many strains of the neck out of view and watching me. I almost feel like asking him if he’s watching me, if he’s been waiting.
The truth I’m not sure why I’m here. I had taken the car out driving and I had ended up here. The first beams of morning light were beginning to catch in the fog, painting it baby pink. The kaleidoscope sighs in response and begins to pick up the pace of its dance, energized by the dawn.
“Hey Dad…it’s been a while. It’s my birthday, but you already knew that… I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you before. It’s… been hard.”
My words are greeted by an epiphany.
No forest is ever truly silent or still, but I swear at that moment even the river and ocean have fallen mute. And for a heartbeat I can feel both him and the forest listening. With the heart of a child and the body of a young woman I almost wish the forest would replay the part of its ancient song I first heard when I was four. I wish but I know it won’t come true. No forest is the same way twice. And even if it could be, I’ve already made it break one of its rules today.
So I compromise. I finally turn my mind away from memory and allow myself to see the real world before me.
It is still not perfect.
It is still not the same.
But that does not mean it isn’t worthy of notice.
Bird song begins to fill the woods and that is when I know the Redwoods are finally beginning to awake, however groggy they may be. I find myself noticing wet on my cheeks. I don’t remember starting to cry.
I try to find my voice to let Dad know I’m leaving but it catches in my throat. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid. Dad did always say our actions speak louder than our words.
And so that is why decide as I get back behind the wheel, head much clearer than when I first came here, that the thing I want most for my birthday is to plant a tree.