Her sleek body flexed, as if coiling for a dive. I could not look away. Every thought slipped my mind. We moved to the Pacific Northwest, and months later she gave birth to our son.
But I never had a chance to shared my own secrets with her. Years earlier, I had wiped my own psyche clean. Instead, visions of the old-growth redwoods and their exotic grains dominated my being. I'd lived under and near the giant redwoods in Northern California.
The coastal redwoods are the tallest trees on earth. Their natural habitat is a narrow band within a few dozen miles of California's coast, where the morning fog forms consistently, originally running from near Los Angeles to the state border with Oregon.
In southern Humboldt County where I lived, a hundred miles south of Oregon, the huge redwoods seemed to surround you, on every horizon so tall you wondered if you were hallucinating. Sometimes I was hallucinating. My partners and I treasured the afternoons when we sat in silence, on a bluff above the Eel River, under the coastal Redwoods towering 300 feet overhead.
We also salvaged redwood stumps that storms washed up onto shorelines and riverbanks, and we recovered logs that some 19th century operator left behind. We never cut down a live redwood. Many redwood stumps featured large wart-like growths, called burls, that encircled the tree at ground level. The burls' grain formed interesting, unpredictable patterns. We relished the instant we finished sawing a fresh slab from a salvaged stump and the staggering beauty of its burl grain first revealed itself, fresh and vivid.
But my partners preferred growing pot to sawing up stumps. They were hippies so gentle if they'd captured a housefly, they'd release it outside, rather than crush it. However, I knew that someday they'd be shooting a shotgun at a San Jose teenager trying to rip off their pot field.
I didn’t want to shoot anyone. So I packed up the finest redwood slabs I found and moved to Berkeley. Sometimes I drove to the Sierra Nevada foothills. That's the only natural habitat of the Sequoia redwoods, a related species of the taller, but thinner coastal redwoods.
Timber barons had logged most of those Sequoias, turning the 100-foot-thick, 2000-year old trees literally into matchsticks. National Parks harbor most of the surviving trees.
While I felt at one with the redwoods, my attachment to these trees was far different than the feelings of some of my companions.
One morning in the old growth redwood grove in Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, my friend fell to his knees, eyes tearing, overwhelmed in the shadows of a particularly massive tree. "Isn't it unbelievable," he sobbed,"I see it now, we are all one. Can you see it too?"
"It is unbelievable," I replied, "There must be 100 thousand board feet of good lumber in just that one tree." I think I missed his point.
Back in Oakland, I took my time finishing my Redwood Burl slabs. A couple of the slabs were rare Bird’s Eye Lace Burl grain, found in one of a thousand stumps. I sanded those with progressively finer sandpaper grits. Commercial furniture makers would have sanded with 16 (very coarse) grit to remove the chain saw marks, buffed the wood with finer 80 grit, and then put on the varnish.
Instead I laboriously worked my way through 16, 36, 80, 120, 320 and then 640 grit on those slabs, polishing them for hours. As I smoothed the wood, the black lace grain unveiled itself like a lover slowly undressing, more beautiful every moment. I felt as if I was sanding away not only the saw marks, but I was also sanding away the barrier between wood and man.
When I finished sanding the largest slab, I lay on it, shirt off, cheek and chest against the soft smooth warm wood, and the boundaries between man and wood vanished. One moment I was in my skin against the silken wood, the next moment I was in the wood feeling my own skin.
I never told my wife what I had felt then. I brought those slabs with me to the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes I sought solace with those tabletops, secreted away in my man cave. Although years of wear had scratched their varnish, I could still find some escape by gazing for long minutes into the hypnotic bird’s eye and lace grain patterns.
But the immediate responsibilities of parenthood dominated my life for the next two decades, and the living redwoods were now far away.
Some mornings on the way to work, as we crested on a bridge, I’d catch my wife gazing down at the Willamette River for long minutes, as its salmon-sheltering waters surged towards the Ocean. I’d wonder if she was remembering life as a wild being, not a dutiful parent. I wanted to suggest I shared those feelings, but words failed.
My longings for the redwoods grew after our son left home. I dreamed of their long-limbed California beauty. I pondered leaving the Pacific Northwest. I considered the 24 years I’d invested in the Pacific Northwest, and weighed it against the memories of those Redwood-dominated California ridgelines.
Yet in the middle of this angst, one evening I saw the immediate world all around me with new eyes. Twenty paces from my mailbox, a coastal redwood towered 70 feet overhead.
Ten feet from my vegetable beds, a seven-foot-thick Sequoia Redwood formed a natural isoceles triangle that projected into the evening sky. I'd spend the prior weekend unknowingly pick-axing that redwood's roots out of my compost pit.
Doug the Squirrel was cavorting in a smaller redwood, just over the fence in my neighbor’s yard.
Had these redwoods always been there? Of course they’d been. But I had not recognized them, away from Humboldt County. I'd taken them for red cedars in these suburban yards, until just a few weeks ago. The larger trees are about 60 years old, planted by the dozens after the developer leveled the area and built homes. The Sequoias form lush, distinct triangles, and now I saw their shape everywhere.
Perhaps on the day I was born in the 1950s, those redwoods set root in the Pacific Northwest, waiting to welcome and comfort me decades later. I look around more, and now see redwoods everywhere, even though my Oregon County, near the Columbia River, is hundreds of miles northwest of their natural range.
There must have been some Johnny Redwoods, wandering out here a century ago planting redwood sprouts throughout the Pacific Northwest. Large redwoods tower above many parks and municipal properties. Here’s two nice Sequoias, already tall in 1910, at the Courthouse.