Perhaps the most amazing thing about redwoods is their ability to produce sprouts whenever the cambium—the living tissue just beneath the bark—is exposed to light. If the top breaks off or a limb gets sheared or the tree gets cut by a logger, a new branch will sprout from the wound and grow like crazy. Throughout the forest you can find tremendous stumps with a cluster of second-generation trees, often called fairy rings, around their bases. These trees are all clones of the parent, and their DNA could be thousands of years old. Redwood cones, oddly enough, are tiny—the size of an olive—and may produce seeds only sporadically. As a result, stump sprouting has been key to the survival of the redwoods throughout the logging era.
The trees have another trick foresters love. With their high tolerance for shade and ability to sprout, some redwoods can sit almost dormant in the shade of their elders for decades. Yet as soon as a dominant tree falls or is cut down, breaking the canopy and allowing new light to enter the forest, the suppressed redwood springs up with new growth—a phenomenon known as release.
"Redwoods are what's known in biology as a very plastic species," says Evan Smith, vice president of forestland for the Conservation Fund. "It's like a machine. Once you get it going, you can't stop it."
It could be said that the history—and split personality—of modern America is carved in redwood, with the calls to save the trees reverberating almost as soon as we began cutting them down. For millennia the Tolowa, Yurok, and Chilula tribes, among others, lived behind an almost impenetrable redwood wall more than 300 feet high, eating salmon, elk, and tan oak acorns and carving long canoes from the logs that fell to the ground.
That way of life ended violently in 1848 when the U.S. wrested California away from Mexico and gold was discovered there. Businessmen from the East thought they saw an easier source of riches: the reddish, straight-grained, rot-resistant wood already in high demand in a state that would quadruple its population in a decade. In time the great forests near San Francisco were virtually leveled. Farther north, timber barons used fair means and foul to acquire thousands of acres of federal lands in the redwoods for $2.50 an acre, beginning an era of corporate lumbering that continues to this day. (Of the 1.6 million acres of redwood forest, 34 percent is owned by three companies, 21 percent by the state of California and the federal government, and the rest by smallholders.) By the 1880s some 400 sawmills north of San Francisco were churning out a mother lode of "sequoia gold," which for nearly the next century would become an inextricable part of every Californian's life—from the redwood cradles they were rocked in to the redwood coffins they were laid to rest in.