This week I left Washington, D.C., behind and returned to the coastal town in Northern California where I grew up for a brief respite from the late-summer heat and humidity pervading the capital. To mark my homecoming, here’s a bit of E. R. Sill’s haunting “Among the Redwoods,” from our December 1884 issue:
Farewell to such a world! Too long I press
The crowded pavement with unwilling feet.
Pity makes pride, and hate breeds hatefulness,
And both are poisons. In the forest, sweet
The shade, the peace! Immensity, that seems
To drown the human life of doubts and dreams.
Far off the massive portals of the wood,
Buttressed with shadow, misty-blue, serene,
Waited my coming.
I was born and raised just a short drive from the sort of forest Sill describes. He captures the experience of standing among the redwoods that I can still clearly recall from when I was younger: the incredible vastness of the trees; the mist and the light filtering through their close-grown trunks; the resounding sort of quiet they exude, so ancient and so far removed from anything man-made.
Even with all the 19th-century tokens of its romanticism and rhyme scheme and formal language, Sill’s poem vividly evokes that familiar place and those familiar feelings. It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve found in our archives, a little bit of my home set down a century before I was born.
And it’s not the only reminder I’ve found. John Muir described the same woodlands in his 1897 case for saving “The American Forests”:
The redwood is the glory of the Coast Range. It extends along the western slope, in a nearly continuous belt about ten miles wide, from beyond the Oregon boundary to the south of Santa Cruz, a distance of nearly four hundred miles, and in massive, sustained grandeur and closeness of growth surpasses all the other timber woods of the world. Trees from ten to fifteen feet in diameter and three hundred feet high are not uncommon, and a few attain a height of three hundred and fifty feet, or even four hundred, with a diameter at the base of fifteen to twenty feet or more, while the ground beneath them is a garden of fresh, exuberant ferns, lilies, gaultheria, and rhododendron.
These forests were not destroyed by the clearings Muir denounced—by which, he wrote, “these vigorous, almost immortal trees are killed at last, and black stumps are now their only monuments over most of the chopped and burned areas.” Instead, when I was younger I was able to walk into much the same woods as Sill and Muir described in the late 19th century, and stand at the foot of some of the world’s tallest and most ancient trees. I can read these old writings and find something familiar, some sense of home. And when I return to the California coast the redwoods are still there, waiting my coming.