Friday, February 26, 2010

Conserving old things (really old things)

I am at heart a conservative--I want to conserve the past that has survived into the present and allow it to survive into the future. I believe in roots and feeling grounded in the world as a recipe for sanity and I believe in understanding how we got to where we are as a way to understand where we are going. Change fascinates me--to imagine how wildly different the landscape around me has been and will be and how different the fabric of life has been over time. It's a drama of loss and gain. Around here, in Chicago, the recorded past is shallow, the change dramatic. There's a lot to exercise my imagination on.

But last week, I entered an entirely different timescale. Last week, I was among the redwoods in Big Basin State Park near San Jose. The individuals there have stood, drinking in their Pacific mists, for over two thousand years--outliving thousands of generations of squirrels, outliving fires, and outliving whole epochs of human history.

They barely outlived human greed--and the aching desire Americans seem to have to cut all things down to size. A plaque along the trail hinted at the drama played out a hundred years ago.

According to Leonard McKay on, Andrew P. Hill came to California in 1867 at the age of 14 with his uncle, his father having died on the overland trail. He became an unsuccessful painter (apparently specializing to some extent in portraits of chickens) who moved into photography. When he photographed a forest fire in 1899, the dramatic picture got picked up by a London newspaper, which then commissioned photos of the astoundingly large trees seen in the fire. In the process of searching for old growth groves to photograph, he realized that they would all be gone in a couple of years, and he launched a campaign to save the trees here in Big Basin--some of the oldest and tallest. The legislature was reluctant to spend the money and offend the lumber interests, but he found donors to guarantee additional funds and powerful supporters to drive the political will. It took everything he had, but in 1902, it became the first state park in California--just in time. Rebuilding San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 clear cut enormous stands of timber in the West, but these trees in Big Basin remained. The earthquake ruined Hill, who lost his studio, his equipment, and all his art. He died in 1922, without money but with an amazing legacy.

But conservation is never a fight that's over. Change is relentless. The redwoods are still in danger--though the danger is slower than a lumberjack's saw and more subtle than a cry of "timber." 

A study just came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that there is far less fog since Hill won his fight. According to the study, coastal fog from the cold ocean water has declined by one-third since 1901 because the cold ocean water is warming. The redwoods need the fog to survive the dry California summers.

There was fog on the hill between San Jose and the park last week as we drove over, but it was ominously sunny in the park itself when we were there.

It might not hurt the giants, but they are fairly sure it will hurt the young trees, which wait as tiny sprouts at the foot of a mother tree. When the mother falls, they shoot up as a circle of siblings. 

It's these future generations that are at risk--both theirs and ours. As I learned from Thoreau, every choice we make has meaning in the world. Every time I take a carbon footstep, I'll think of Big Basin. We can't control climate cycles, but we can control ourselves. For more on the study,

No comments:

Post a Comment