A Cathedral Hush

I climbed to a ridgeline and walked along, mesmerized by the expansive views in almost every direction. Before me a massive, pyramid-shaped butte rose up from a valley like the back of some prehistoric creature emerging from the primordial forests below. I then dropped for what seemed like an eternity down to the Suiattle River and entered a magical section of old-growth forest. As John Vaillant writes in his book The Golden Spruce, "the atmosphere in an old-growth coastal rainforest borders on the amniotic; still and close, sound moves differently in here, and the air moves hardly at all." Steinbeck wrote similarly of the giant redwoods of his native Northern California: "There's a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates silence." He continues, "To me dawn and dusk are quiet times, and here in the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound. Underfoot is a mattress of needles deposited for over two thousand years. No sound of footsteps can be heard on this thick blanket."

My pace slowed as I passed through, my head swiveling in all directions, entranced by the sheer girth and height of those trees. It was almost disorienting and with the silence, stillness and heaviness of the air, it felt more like I was hiking along the ocean floor rather than through a forest. It wasn't hard to imagine those trees as sentient beings, aware of my presence in the forest as I passed through, watching me as much as I watched them. I felt like an intruder in their domain, lucky to be granted passage and grateful to hike through in such solitude and silent reverie. Steinbeck, and I imagine many others lucky enough to experience the ancient old-growth forests of the West, felt similarly. Rereading Travels With Charley I noticed a similarity in our observations:

To me there's a remote and cloistered feeling here. One holds back speech for fear of disturbing something - what? From my earliest childhood I've felt that something was going on in the groves, something of which I was not a part ... these huge things that control the day and inhabit the night are living things and have presence, and perhaps feeling, and, somewhere in deep-down perception, perhaps communication.

As it turns out, Steinbeck was right. Trees do in fact possess a means of communication, though not of course speech as we know it. Fungi help to form subterranean communication networks that connect the root systems of the old-growth trees. Through those networks, mother trees can recognize their offspring and adjust their competitive behaviors accordingly. When one tree becomes shaded from the sun and its ability to photosynthesize thus hindered, another can funnel sugars to it. When a tree is attacked by pests it can in turn send out chemical signals to warn its neighbors, so that they may hastily produce defensive enzymes.

I crossed over the river and ticked off the last few miles of the day through a forest grown dark with the early evening. Every so often little spots of sunlight would appear on the trail or forest floor, a warm and rich color amidst the ever growing shadows. It was nearly 8 pm when I found a secluded campsite at the foot of the next day's massive climb. I pitched my tarp under large cedar fronds abutting a rocky bluff, at the top of which I could make out the light of a campfire glowing in the surrounding darkness. The fire's smoke drifted down and scented my tarp and all of my belongings with its lingering smell.


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