Miles from manicured parklands and trails, we climbed logs head high and mossy green. Fallen branches made uncertain footing, splitting explosively under a man's weight.
Quickly the forest changed to a somber mood: an almost subterranean dimness. I raised my eyes; like a limitless view of the ocean or a night sky filled with stars, this wilderness of great trees stretched upward and away to infinity.
Overhead, a bar of golden sunlight slanted into our wooded world, treating leaves like stained glass, etching the texture of ribbed bark, finding Gothic gargoyles in the burls. I reached out to touch the dry, coarse bark of a great redwood.
"Visitors always want to touch the redwoods," said Howard A. Libbey, my host and President of the Arcata Redwood Company, owner of this grove in Humboldt County. Now I knew why: Only by touching them can we be sure that these marvels are real.
Apparently the wonder remains even for those who know the redwoods best. I watched as this man, a 40-year veteran of the forests, moved toward another big tree—and spread his hand across its bark.
Forest Giants Set New Records
A voice called us back to important business. "The surveyors have good news!" It was Dr. Paul A. Zahl, senior naturalist of the National Geographic Society, who had hurried on ahead to talk with the team of surveyors measuring these giant coast redwoods for us.
The news was good indeed. It confirmed the National Geographic Society discovery that Dr. Zahl describes this month: finding the world’s tallest known living things. Here, in a hidden valley, Paul Zahl had found—just days earlier—the monarch of all trees, a coast redwood measuring an incredible 367.8 feet. Moreover, the forest cathedral that we now reverently explored also held the second, third, and sixth tallest trees—giants just as awesome as the world’s champion. Two of these record redwoods were found by Chester C. Brown, leader of a National Park Service–National Geographic Society research project.
Dr. Zahl's report offers us a sharp challenge: Within the United States, the Age of Discovery not yet receded into history. Lewis and Clark, Boone and Fremont have left us an exciting legacy, but their explorations did not strip away all mystery from our familiar world.