I can see deeper into the forest this winter. The undergrowth has died out some and the deciduous leaves have fallen. The trunks of the ancient growth redwoods come into view when I go into one of the groves close by. Hardly any of this forest is old growth. The lumber barons of a century ago, including the Grover brothers in Soquel, took out whatever trees they could access, leaving me with over-sized stumps to gaze upon. When I see the stumps, as they also show up better in winter, I am reminded of the ancient trees that have been felled, but also the working men who brought them down.
The stumps rot slowly, but they remain connected and firmly planted in the earth, where their lives began a couple of thousand years ago. Will the stumps remain another hundred years? Private land owners have cleared some of them for farming, but I can see where government land has preserved many. The roots from these stumps can sprout new saplings in a circle around the circumference, as the stumps continue rotting. The new trees growing in a circle are affectionately called “fairy rings”. My two daughters make up my own fairy ring.
I see photos around the county that were taken a hundred years ago. They hang on the walls of a few business establishments, such as the Bayview Hotel in Aptos, and in local history museums. In one photo I see determined young men in woolly beards ganged together on a redwood tree, bringing it to the ground. The men peer forward in black and white a hundred years with such a sense of accomplishment, but I sense a painful loss when I see only stumps remaining. The death of leaves brought on by winter’s chill brings alive a better view of these ancient headstones scattered randomly across the floor of the forest, a sort of Gettysburg memorial, lost in the tangle of brush.
The stumps can stick out of the ground ten or fifteen feet. The trees were too thick at the base to cut them down, so the lumberjacks would axe footsteps into the base, climb up a few feet, and insert planks of lumber into holes they made in the sides of the trees, on which to stand while sawing the trees down by hand. A hundred years later I can still see the axe notches. Joggers strengthening their bodies run by me on forest trails, while I linger. I put my feet into these notches to recreate what the workers might have felt long ago. I want to smell the smooth green winter moss that covers the north sides of these slowly decaying headstones, to see if I can recover any memory the tree might leave behind.
The past few weeks, however, the forest and I have strengthened our friendship. A new view has opened up from inside my living room. I have lived across the road from Pringle Grove for many years. Before when I stepped indoors, I could not easily view the woods because the windows were not tall enough to see much. The new view has come about during the remodel of my house. I added two large new skylights. They look like over-sized eyeballs that have fallen out of the sky and landed on my roof. From the living room I can now study the red-tailed hawks that hover in lively fashion over the tops of these old trees.