The western slopes of the Pacific ranges, from the Canadian border southward to the desert, carry the most luxuriant forest in the United States. The immense stands of yellow pine and Douglas fir of the far north merge into the sugar pines and giant sequoias of the south in practically an unbroken belt which, on Sierra’s slopes, lies on the middle levels between the low productive plains of the west and the towering heights of the east. The Sequoia National Park and its little neighbor, the General Grant National Park, enclose areas of remarkable fertility in which trees, shrubs, and wild flowers reach their greatest development. The million sequoia trees which grow here are a very small part, numerically, of this amazing forest.
These slopes are rich with the soil of thousands of years of accumulations. They are warmed in summer by mild Pacific winds heated in their passage across the lowlands, and blanketed in winter by many feet of soft snow. They are damp with countless springs and streams sheltered under heavy canopies of foliage. In altitude they range from two thousand feet at the bottom of Kaweah’s canyon, as it emerges from the park, to eight thousand feet in the east, with mountains rising three or four thousand feet higher. It is a tumbled land of ridges and canyons, but its slopes are easy and its outline gracious. Oases of luscious meadows dot the forests.
This is the Court of King Sequoia. Here assemble in everlasting attendance millions of his nobles, a statelier gathering than ever bowed the knee before human potentate. Erect, majestic, clothed in togas of perpetual green, their heads bared to the heavens, stand rank upon rank, mile upon mile, the noblest personalities of the earth.
Chief among the courtiers of the king is the sugar-pine, towering here his full two hundred feet, straight as a ruler, his stem at times eight feet in thickness, scarcely tapering to the heavy limbs of his high crown. Largest and most magnificent of the Pacific pines, reaching sometimes six hundred years of age, the greater trunks clear themselves of branches a hundred feet from the ground, and the bark develops long dark plates of armor. So marked is his distinguished personality that, once seen, he never can be mistaken for another.
Next in rank and scarcely less in majesty is the massive white fir, rising at times even to two hundred feet, his sometimes six-foot trunk conspicuously rough, dark, brown in color, deeply furrowed with ashen gray. His pale yellow-green crown is mysteriously tinged with white. His limit of age is three hundred and fifty years.
Last of the ranking trio is the western yellow pine, a warrior clad in plates of russet armor. A hundred and sixty feet in natural height, here he sometimes towers even with his fellow knights. He guards the outer precincts of the court, his cap of yellow-green, his branching arms resting upon his sides.
These are the great nobles, but with them are millions of lesser courtiers, the incense cedar from whose buttressed, tapering trunks spring countless branches tipped with fan-like plumes; many lesser conifers; the splendid Pacific birches in picturesque pose; the oaks of many kinds far different from their eastern cousins. And among the feet of these courtiers of higher degree crowd millions upon millions of flowering shrubs, massing often in solid phalanxes, disputing passage with the deer.
All mingle together, great and small. The conifers, in the king’s honor, flaunt from stem and greater branch long fluttering ribbons of pale green moss. Thousands of squirrels chatter in the branches. Mil-lions of birds make music. It is a gala day.
Enter the King.
The King of Trees is of royal lineage. The patient searchers in the rocks of old have traced his ancestry unknown millions of years, back to the forests of the Cretaceous Period. His was Viking stock from arctic zones where trees can live no more.
Today he links all human history. The identical tree around which gather thousands of human courtiers every year emerged, a seedling, while Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem. No man knows how old his predecessors were when finally they sank into deathmighty fall ! But John Muir counted four thousand rings in the trunk of one fallen giant, who must have lived while Pharaoh still held captive the Children of Israel.
The General Sherman Tree of the Giant Forest, the oldest living thing to-day, so far as I have been able to ascertain, probably has seen thirty-six hundred years. It is evident to the unlearned observer that, while mature, he is long short of the turn of life. A thousand years from now he still may be the earth’s biggest and oldest living thing; how much beyond that none may venture to predict.
Picture, now, the Giant Forest, largest of the several sequoia groves in the Sequoia National Park. You have entered, say, in the dusk of the night be-fore, and after breakfast wander planless among the trees. TOn every side rise the huge pines and firs, their dark columns springing from the tangled brush to support the cathedral roof above. Here an enormous purplish-red column draws and holds your astonished eye. It is a gigantic thing in comparison with its monster neighbors; it glows among their dull columns; it is clean and spotless amid their moss hung trunks; branchless, it disappears among their upper foliage, hinting at steeple heights above. Yet your guide tells you that this tree is small; that its diameter is less than twenty feet; that in age it is a youngster of only two thousand years ! Wait, he tells you, till you see the General Sherman Tree’s thirty-six and a half feet of diameter; wait till you see the hundreds, yes thousands, which surpass this infant !
But you heed him not, for you see another back among those sugar pines ! Yes, and there’s another. And there on the left are two or three in a clump ! Back in the dim cathedral aisles are reddish glows which must mean still others. Your heart is beating with a strange emotion. You look up at the enormous limbs bent at right angles, at the canopy of feathery foliage hanging in ten thousand huge plumes. You cry aloud for the sheer joy of this great thing, and plunge into the forest’s heart.
The Giant Forest contains several thousand sequoia trees of large size, and many young trees. You see these small ones on every hand, erect, sharply pointed, giving in every line a vivid impression of quivering, bounding life. Later on, as they emerge above the roof of the forest, for some of them are more than three hundred feet high, they lose their sharp ambitious tops; they become gracefully rounded. Springing from seed less than a quarter of an inch in diameter, they tend, like their cousins the redwoods, to grow in groups, and these groups tend to grow in groves. But there are scattering individuals in every grove, and many small isolated groves in the Sierra. The Giant Forest is the largest grove of greatest trees. The General Grant Grove, in a small national park of its own, near by, is the second grove in size and importance; its central figure is the General Grant Tree, second in size and age to the General Sherman Tree.
The Theodore Roosevelt Tree, which has not been measured at this writing, is one of the noblest of all, perfect in form and color, abounding in the glory of young maturity.
To help realization at home of the majesty of the General Sherman Tree, mark its base diameter, thirty-six and a half feet, plainly against the side of some building, preferably a church with a steeple and neighboring trees; then measure two hundred and eighty feet, its height, upon the ground at right angles to the church; then stand on that spot and, facing the church, imagine the trunk rising, tapering slightly, against the building’s side and the sky above it; then slowly lift your eyes until you are looking up into the sky at an angle of forty-five degrees, this to fix its height were it growing in front of the church.
Imagine its lowest branches, each far thicker than the trunks of eastern elms and oaks, pushing horizon-tally out at a height above ground of a hundred and fifty feet, which is higher than the tops of most of the full-grown trees of our eastern forests. Imagine these limbs bent horizontally at right angles, like huge elbows, as though holding its green mantle close about its form. Imagine the upper branches nearly bare, shattered perhaps by lightning. And imagine its crown of foliage, dark yellowish-green, hanging in enormous graceful plumes.
This is the King of Trees.