Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Methuselah redwood

The California redwood (also known as the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens) is the tallest species of tree on earth, reaching heights of well over 300 feet*.

Redwoods are found along a stretch of the Pacific coast about as far south as San Luis Obispo and as far north as Oregon. They thrive along a fairly narrow strip of the coast close to the ocean, obtaining about forty percent of their necessary water from the fog generated by the interaction between the cold Pacific waters and the air.

Redwoods can live for thousands of years, but due to the extensive logging that took place from the early nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, almost all of the original "old-growth" redwoods were cut down for their valuable timber. This webpage from the US National Park Service explains that about 96% of the original old-growth redwood forest was cut down, and much of the remaining old-growth redwood forest is located in the Redwood National and State Park in the very northernmost part of the state of California.

Around the mighty stumps of the ancient redwoods that the loggers cut down throughout northern California, "daughter rings" have grown up, and today there are thick forests containing trees between one hundred and one hundred fifty years old, many of which are well over a hundred feet tall, although not as massive in girth as the old-growth trees, which had more than a thousand years to grow before the loggers arrived in the early 1800s.

In the redwood forests that blanket the Santa Cruz mountains, however, there are one or two old-growth trees which were spared from the logging operations of the previous centuries (often because they were in inaccessible locations or because the tree itself exhibited undesirable characteristics, as explained in this 1996 article on logging in the Santa Cruz mountains).

One of the only old-growth trees remaining is the Methuselah Redwood (shown above), a massive and gnarly redwood with a base circumference of about 45 feet. Its height was estimated to have been 225 feet before its top broke off in 1954, leaving the tree almost ninety feet shorter.

The tree's name refers to its great age, estimated at over 1,800 years. It is not as well known, perhaps, as another tree bearing the same name, a Bristlecone Pine known as the Methuselah Tree (also in California but located in the mountains farther south and east, between Mono Lake and Death Valley and close to the border with Nevada). With an estimated age of over 4,800 years, the Methuselah Bristlecone is the oldest known individual non-clonal tree.

However, the Methuselah redwood shares more than its name with the Methuselah Bristlecone, and that is the fact that the location of both trees remain deliberately unpublicized due to the likelihood that vandals will deface or otherwise damage them. This is a sad statement about human nature and about the times we are living in, and brings to mind the discussions found in previous posts such as "Gungywamp" and "How does barbarism win?"

In spite of the fact that the location of the Methuselah redwood is not marked by any signs visible from the road, I have been saddened to find new evidence of vandalism (large squares of the tree's thick bark cut away so that despoilers could carve initials in the tree) on subsequent visits over the years (there were no such cuts the first time I ever visited this lonely survivor in the woods).

In their disrespect for this old-growth tree, these vandals are worse in some ways than the clear-cutters of previous centuries, operating as they do out of petty ugliness, and living as they do in a time when the damage done in the past is obvious and well-known, and the need to preserve the remaining few old-growth trees far more pressing.

Finally, the use of the name Methuselah is notable, because it points to the extreme length of lifespans recorded in the book of Genesis for those who lived prior to the flood (and, to a lesser degree, those who lived after the flood). None of the lifespans recorded is as long as that of Methuselah, who was the grandfather of Noah and who is said to have lived 969 years.

These lifespans are so long that they are widely dismissed without much thought as completely legendary by many readers today, but Walt Brown notes that the decline in lifespans given in Genesis immediately following the flood follows a mathematical curve typical of an exponential decay: quite remarkable if the recorded lifespan lengths were simply dreamed up as a fiction or legend.

He posits that, if a catastrophic flood took place the way his theory describes it (and the way that hundreds of pieces of evidence around the world suggest that it did), then the events surrounding that flood would have created most of the radioactive isotopes on earth, and that radioactive isotopes may have been almost nonexistent beforehand: this could be connected to a dramatic decrease in lifespan after the flood.

Such a theory, if true, would have incredibly far-reaching implications.

* One of the best books to depict and discuss the size and mass of the largest species of trees (most of which are found in North America, with the exception of the mighty kauri trees of New Zealand) is Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, by Dr. Robert van Pelt of Humboldt State University.