I fall in love

with the big old trees the moment I walk into Muir Woods. Same as everyone.

It’s a funny place. On the one hand these redwoods, ancient marvels of nature, on the other a precious tourist attraction.

I go there accompanied by two smart people, Bay Area denizen Lisa, my friend of fully 45 years, and local landscape architect and pro urban forester Karla.

We enter amid the startling hush of trees, relatively uncrowded because it’s not yet the height of the season.

Lisa says, The new foliage looks so soft, doesn’t it? It’s gorgeous.

Karla: Did you know that the redwoods get fifty percent of their water from the fog? And the fog patterns have been changing.

Muir Woods is a careful, considered sort of place.

At the entrance you’ll find a carved map of the terrain, helpfully imprinted in braille. Interesting choice. As a young inventor John Muir nearly went blind when a piece of metal flew off of a project and damaged his cornea. He recovered his sight, thankfully.

It is no wilderness. The paths are paved or wood plank. Over them tower the gentle giants. We admire them, same as everyone.

We see some marvelous wildflowers. Trees and trees and more trees. A creek. We experience awe, same as everyone.

Karla worked at the nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest off and on for two decades, most recently as vice president of operations, before going off on her own as a landscape architect. She also is helping the Society of Municipal Arborists fine tune its high-level leadership program, called the Municial Forestry Institute, to better serve the urban foresters of the future, looking at possible gaps in curriculum, study materials, teachers. Karla and I both graduated from MFI in different years. Rethinking the program is a big job, and she’s “like the head spider, weaving it all together.”

We stop at a fairy circle of redwoods as we go – the center one burned in a long-ago fire and youngsters sprung up around it. This piece of land was saved when the wealthy couple John and Elizabeth Kent saw the future and bought 611 acres in 1905, afterward deeding it to the federal government and insisting it be named after Muir.

We wonder at the felling of these incredible trees before the turn of the twentieth century. How could people do such a thing? I have often found that arborists can be counterintuitive when it comes to trees, even unsentimental. Karla comments, My apartment is built of redwood. The gold rush helped build the city too, but without the redwood trees San Francisco would not exist.

People come from all around the world to experience these trees, to learn about nature.

Us too. I am wowed by some intricate fungi.

We admire the velvety moss all around, same as everyone. I tell Karla and Lisa that in the Muir biography I am reading I have learned that Muir had a close relationship with a married woman who started him on his naturalist road and who had a proficiency in mosses.

We speak of peoples’ feelings about trees in everyday life, apart from spectating in Muir Woods. Karla says, In San Francisco there really are some people that just don’t want a street tree. Either they don’t want you to put a tree there, or they don’t trust that the city will take care of it, or multiple people live in one house and there’s no parking, so they want to park on the sidewalk.

I mention the bugaboo I’ve come across in New York City, where people complain that falling acorns dent the roof of their car or that leaves are a mess to rake up. We admire the plants edging the paths here.

I ask Karla about invasives, a hot topic where I live on the east coast. If you’re asking about whether only native plants should be planted, or are invasive plants destroying our natural ecology, it’s two different things, she says. In California we have a type of broom that is invasive. When we have a massive fire and it grows under the trees, the flames spread even more quickly. Broom is really difficult to get rid of.

Karla says she wants do more professionally with fire protection, telling me, It’s a national problem, not only in California, as well as all over the world. And it’s only going to get worse.

We pass lots of educational signage.

Commemorative plaques.

I say, I know a lot of people who are serious hikers who might not touch this place with a ten-foot pole, it’s so civilized.

Karla says, Not everybody has the ability to travel far or hike long distances, or even to figure out where to go and make their way there. And in fact, despite the paved paths and inescapable signage, you can still hear the trees rustling in the breeze, the waters of the stream burbling, the birdsong all around. It’s pretty great that a person confined to a wheelchair can come here and experience these wonders.

Lisa shows me some graffiti. You know that humans love a place when they make the effort to carve an autograph.

Emily from Australia comes over with grandmother to chat, her pigtails swinging as she jumps up and down. She makes us guess her age. Six. I saw a spider web hotel!

Down the path, I insist that Karla and Lisa take a pose in a redwood crevice so I’ll have a souvenir, same as everyone.

We ooh and ahh about the redwood sorrel. They fold up when direct sunshine hits them. Little umbrellas, says Karla.

Lisa notices a plant that looks orchid-like, and in fact is a type of orchid.

And a giant horsetail.

Karla says, That might be one of the most primitive plants, along with gingkos.

Then we come to a massive timeline.

It gives the usual chronology of Muir Woods, but has been annotated to relay different facts, facts that might have been thought unimportant in the past.

What about the timeline? I ask Karla.

What about adding all those new factoids? What’s up with the revisionist history?

I would say it’s the broader history, the true history, she says firmly. THE history.

Karla was good enough to spend time with me and make sense of some of the more important issues of our day. The National Park Service was not quite as forthcoming. In answer to my query about meeting with a ranger on May 25, Public Affairs Specialist Julian Espinoza with the Office of Communications & External Affairs at Golden National Recreation Area sent apologies for the delay in getting back to you on this. Unfortunately, given the limited capacity of our staff at Muir Woods, we aren’t able to participate in an interview of that length. Okay.

In the very-small-world department, we discover that Lisa’s aspiring landscape architect nephew Alex, who attends the Merritt College Urban Forestry Program, founded in 2018 to train workers for the blossoming tree industry, just recently interviewed Karla for an assignment, asking questions about her career, how she got to her position, and what a typical day is like.

One of the most significant things I took away from the Municipal Forestry Institute was the suggestion that we find a mentor, she says, someone that I could go to for guidance, advice, unconditional support. Having someone who was always in my corner gently pushing me gave me the encouragement I needed to make big career decisions. It’s become important to me to do the same for others. I love giving support to people who are beginning their careers and helping grow new urban forestry leaders. Sharing my own work experiences seems to give hope, inspiration and motivation – and we all need a little bit of that no matter where we are in our careers.

Karla, Lisa and I make our way to the exit. We see a token of the recent past, already hopelessly dated, oddly out of place in these pristine but yet not so pristine woodlands.

Exiting through the gift shop there are carved bears.

There are baubles.

I forego the fog globe but get a few books, John Muir’s writings on the wonders of the natural world. I want something to take with me that will help me remember Muir Woods.

Same as everyone.

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