redwoods1Visited Muir Woods for the first time this weekend.

I sensed it was my cathedral (albeit one in which people were walking around snapping photos – kind of like an outdoor St. Patrick’s), a place infused with grace. I am not a religious person, and in fact have tried over the years to puzzle through and articulate what it is that I believe. I used to say that I believed in people, that I was a secular humanist. But I wonder if what I actually believe in is redwoods.

It’s not like Muir Woods is a place of pristine nature far removed from society. There were tons of tourists – including me and my family – wandering the well-maintained paths. I did wish that more people took their time to look up and marvel at the crowns of these massive trees, or that they were more reverential and less talkative. But actually it was fine. Ultimately, I cared only about the little mule deer nibbling grass, just feet away, the late-afternoon light slanting through the trees in an almost stupidly picturesque way, the textured reddish bark, the cross-section of the 1,000-year-old trunk with its astonishing historical markers (“Charlemagne’s death”; “Revolutionary War”).

As a kid, the trees I saw and played on sprouted out of cement sidewalks. Most often, they were oaks or maples, and their extensive root systems buckled the surrounding concrete. So of course we’d ride our bikes as close to the trees as possible to feel the bounce over that uneven cement reverbrate through tire and leg and body. I’m sure the trees were choked over the years by New York City soot and car exhaust and stunted in their growth. My memory of them is that they were worn and tired.

One tree, though, stands out. The Weeping Beech, in Flushing – where I grew up. It had long, wispy tendrils that drooped down to the ground. I always thought the name perfectly suited that tree. As a kid, I knew it as the place in the middle of Bowne Park where we would run to for shade on those unending summer days full of play.

A few months ago, I was in Flushing, visiting my dad. I happened to walk past the spot where the Weeping Beech once stood and saw a memorial signpost that said the tree I knew as a child was planted in 1847, the first of its kind in this country. A man named Samuel Bowne Parsons brought a cutting of the tree from Belgium and later provided many of the original trees for Central Park.

In 1966, the tree was given landmark status – the first living landmark in New York City. The tree died – the sign didn’t say from what – in 1998, though it is believed that all Weeping Beech trees in the US are descended from this first one.

(Incidentally, John Bowne – namesake of the park and my elementary school when we weren’t referring to it as P.S. 20 – was one of the first practicing Quakers in this country and stood up against religious intolerance to the point where he was jailed and sent back to Holland to stand trial for his beliefs.)

John Muir wrote that “no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.” And I say no temple made with hands can compare with the California Redwood. Or, for that matter, the Weeping Beech.

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  1. Caroline

    I share your awe in the presence of those majestic redwoods, and I think that your description of that space as a cathedral is perfect. I also think that nature can be your religion, if you want it to be; I know that when I walk in the woods I contemplate (the possibility of) the divine more than in any other place.

    Here’s a quote from Emerson–a man who truly understood the power of the natural world!–that I thought you might appreciate:

    In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and a sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

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