About Place Journal, Volume II Issue I
I have known from the beginning that I cannot stay. I carry this knowledge close to me like a secret, through every day that passes in the sequoia forest. It has become part of me now, woven in layers beneath my skin, entwined in muscle and bone. It is deep like the roots I’ve planted in the hard, rocky granite earth at the edge of a mountain peak, the roots which make this my home. It speaks to me, calls to me late at night on wind that rises from the San Joaquin Valley and wraps around the trees. Sometimes I almost forget that in a few years, every part of my life here in Giant Forest will be gone.
In a box underneath my bed I keep an old print photograph, its edges now curled, the image scratched and dull. The season had been late spring, in the fleeting weeks just before the shift into summer. In 1992, Rachel and I spent three weeks crossing the country in a wandering, crooked path from Indiana, driving farther and farther south until we reached New Orleans, and then west toward our summer concessioner jobs in Sequoia National Park.
A tall wooden sign stood at the park’s entrance in the dry, dusty foothills. I pulled the car to the side of the road and stood next to it while Rachel held the camera clumsily. I leaned my back against the sign, the wood worn smooth, bleached from years of central California sunshine. The sun that afternoon was hot on my face and my stomach tightened with a nervous twisty ache. The figure of Chief Sequoyah was painted on one side of the sign; the colors settled in the deeply carved lines were faded and blurred.
In the photograph, Chief Sequoyah looked off into the distance and up the side of the mountain, eyebrows etched into the hard stare of the stereotypical Indian. That afternoon I imagined he looked into the future of what would become my own history with the forest and mountains, already being written. I thought for a moment about the millions of others who had stood in that same spot, taking snapshots as they began their drives up the hill, something permanent to remember that they were really there.
This season, four years later, is my last here. I’ve said that before. Each October when the days grow short and cold and I decide where to go for the winter, I say, I’m not coming back. It’s time to move forward with my life, go back to school—can’t hide in the mountains forever. And then as the winter ends and brings the first faint taste of spring, I am unable to imagine a summer without being here. Often during the season I wish to be anywhere else. But in the same instant I understand intuitively the strong sense of longing I’d feel if I never saw these trees again.
A vaguely unsettled feeling surrounds me here in the forest, like a tiny grain of sand in an oyster. It is there no matter how many years Sequoia has been my home, or how familiar I’ve become with the shape of the trees and the landscape’s subtleties. It’s strange to begin in a place this way, always waiting for the inevitable ending. I’ve had lovers like this. From our first, passionate meeting I’m able to see with absolute clarity that it will end.
This time the decision to leave isn’t mine. Next spring when I pack my belongings and prepare to leave my winter residence in the desert, the National Park Service will begin tearing down the buildings in Giant Forest. They will undertake the arduous process of undoing a hundred years of damage that humans have caused to this landscape. Just a few years from now, my home here will be gone, replaced only by the stillness of the forest as it existed long before me, long before all the other humans who have also called it home.
Scientists believe that the sequoia trees’ range was at one time diverse, existing in such states as Pennsylvania and Texas, and as far away as Western Europe and Asia. The sequoia trees now form seventy-five scattered groves in a 260-mile stretch along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The largest clusters are found in the southern region, which extends from Yosemite National Park into Sequoia National Park. One of the largest and most spectacular groves is Giant Forest, where sequoias 200-feet tall overshadow most of the other trees and plants. In 1852 when Hunter Dowd first stumbled upon a grove of sequoias in what is now Yosemite National Park, he had trouble convincing his fellow miners of the existence of such immense living things.
I, too, live in the sequoia shadows. From my cabin window I see the broad, spreading bases of the trees, the dense leaves growing at the very tops. It can take as many as twenty people grasping hands to encircle a single sequoia. Their fuzzy bark is the exact color of sweet cinnamon sticks. I stand at the foot of the tree just outside my house and touch it gently with my hands. The bark is soft and fibrous, almost fur-like, and it feels like I’m petting a large, docile animal. If I knock gently on the wood, the sound is low, an almost-hollow echo.
Some trees bear the scar of fire that has swept through the area—ashy black gashes that cut through their bark, shallow in places, deep in others. The sequoias rarely die as a result of fire. Along the nature trail I can stand inside one of the trees, its underbelly hollowed out by the intense heat of fire, the upper trunk and branches still curving and growing up and around the charred, damaged parts.
I am amazed at their resilience, their adaptation to the elements. Sequoia bark is thick and strong despite its soft and vulnerable appearance, and is nearly impenetrable to insects and other pests which would kill an ordinary tree. Some of the trees are estimated at three or four thousand years old. I think about young saplings standing in the dizzying sunshine of this forest during the rise and fall of empires, the exploration of the planet, the birth of nations and generations of people. I am drawn to the sequoias’ ability to remain solid and unwavering in the midst of flux, chaos, and disaster.
But no matter how I’d like to believe they’ll stand guard watching over Giant Forest for many more lifetimes, the sequoias are not invincible. Human impact from logging and tourism has been more destructive to them than any natural element. In our desire to respect and protect them, we have overlooked the consequences of our devotion and admiration. And the only solution to this problem, the only way to truly preserve Giant Forest, is to remove the buildings and concession facilities from among the sequoias.
Sequoia was the first park created in California and is the second oldest U.S. national park. The Giant Forest area has housed tourist facilities, such as restaurants and lodging, since the early 1900’s. Over a century ago, news reporters George Stewart and Frank Walker of the Visalia Weekly Delta recognized the need for preservation and waged a written anti-logging campaign. Native tribes also believed in preservation; local Mono Indians held the Wawona, or sequoia tree, as sacred and warned that bad luck would follow anyone who destroyed them.
Instead of destroying the sequoias, people came to appreciate and worship the Big Trees, amazed by their immense size and tremendous age. They came to photograph them, touch them, and trample them. And now the trees show subtle but distinct signs of wear below the ground in their roots and in their halted growth.
The long-range plan for the removal of facilities in Giant Forest is the culmination of a lengthy and long-standing preservation battle, begun in the early days of Sequoia National Park’s growing visitation and tourism. A 1926 report first documented that many trees in Giant Forest, particularly the sequoias, had already suffered significant root damage as a result of human footsteps which compacted soil surrounding the trees, and from the construction of roads, water lines, and buildings. The report recommended that all Giant Forest construction be halted and recreational activity be moved to a less-sensitive location.
Others had less scientific concerns. Colonel John Roberts White, the park’s longest administrator, expressed concern for the quickly diminishing aesthetic environment in Giant Forest, writing in 1930 that “If we do not plan carefully and transfer the major part of present activity away from the heart of Giant Forest, the beauties of that area—already badly tarnished—will be further impaired.” The same day that White penned his words brought nearly 1,200 cars and 4,300 people into Giant Forest. The heart of the grove had become a sprawling maze of cabins, tents, people, and traffic. But to close the facilities would mean taking part of Sequoia National Park away from the people who loved it—an impossible dilemma.
Over the next several decades, the debate over Giant Forest continued alongside increased visitation and development. In the 1960’s scientists discovered that rapidly growing nearby towns’ air pollution was being trapped in the San Joaquin Valley and spreading to the mountains, killing young sequoia saplings and oak trees. From the huge granite boulder of Moro Rock which overlooks this valley and the Great Western Divide, the coastal mountain range used to be visible. Now I take my parents there when they visit and we see only a sepia-colored haze on the horizon, hanging in the sky above the valley floor three thousand feet below.
During my seasons here I’ve been asked why the National Park Service is closing Giant Forest so many times I’ve lost count. My friends and I are not employees of the Park Service—we work instead for the concessioner which operates guest facilities within the park’s boundaries. The rangers lead nature walks and patrol the park; we are the ones who make beds in the hotel, sell kitschy souvenirs in the gift shops, or serve three-course meals in the fine-dining restaurant. Yet we’ve each memorized the answer to this question. It is deeply embedded inside of us: we are inseparable from the knowledge that Giant Forest as we know it will eventually be gone.
I’m still not used to the sound of the words I say nightly to the guests who question me in the Lodge Dining Room where I work. The rehearsed speech about Giant Forest’s closure is automatic, instinctive; the words seem to come from someone other than me. I wonder if uttering the words aloud, really hearing them, will bring acceptance about this changing landscape. I can’t reconcile the idea that once the forest is restored, my images of it will be just still-life memories kept in a box of photographs beneath my bed.
The answers are complicated. During two out of the five seasons I spent in the park, one of the sequoias fell—the most common way for a sequoia to die. The Park Service has determined that nearly a dozen others lean at dangerous angles. The sequoias have a root system only three to five feet deep, which spreads out in every direction surrounding the trees and intertwines and tangles with the roots of other nearby trees and plants. These root networks, often encompassing up to an acre, tether the trees to the ground and maintain their stability and structure. It is remarkable that the roots’ small fraction of the trees’ actual size maintains such a vital function. If anything should interfere with the roots, the sequoias’ tenuous grasp is compromised. The unnatural weight of too many human footsteps directly above these fragile root systems, and the complex underground water pipe system, can only weaken the trees from the ground. During the park’s early years when visitor use was not closely regulated, guests could actually park their cars and pitch their tents right next to the sequoias.
I didn’t see a sequoia fall during my first season, but arrived almost immediately afterward. I’d just finished work at the gift shop when the noise rumbled and shook the ground as if we were in the midst of an earthquake. I followed the direction of the sound to the source, a tree near Round Meadow. From the exposed mass of taproots, a violent rushing river poured back into the earth. The sequoia trees depend heavily on water, pushing an average of 300 gallons through their roots every day. The roots had become so saturated that the tree snapped in half, unable to withstand its own weight any longer. For weeks afterward, the tree’s broken inner wood was deep, crimson red, like a raw, open wound.
When tourists ask why Giant Forest is closing, I also mention fire, which plays an integral part in forest regeneration. Sequoia trees need occasional fire to clear out the duff—the forest floor’s debris and underbrush. Unlike the park’s white firs which can thrive in the shade, sequoias need clear areas of direct sunlight for saplings to survive the inter-species forest competition. Natural wildfires occasionally spread through the forest, the heat cracking open the small green cones and scattering seeds throughout the forest. But because more than a million people visit Sequoia National Park each year, allowing natural wildfires in Giant Forest would jeopardize people’s safety, destroy buildings, and of course, negatively affect the tourism industry.
Instead, for many years the National Park Service has relied on the technique of “prescribed burning” to mimic this vital natural force which keeps the sequoia species alive. But prescribed burns don’t always remain within the control of the park rangers and biologists. I’ve seen huge, raging fires spread through the parched foothills, taunting and teasing dangerously, creeping up the mountains toward the forest, as we uneasily wait for the word: evacuation. Ironically, the park’s long history of overprotection from fire has severely slowed the trees’ repopulation rate. And to manipulate the land, the natural elements, can only be a temporary solution to the question of fire in Giant Forest.
The sequoia trees within the park are already “protected,” safe from the long-ago days of commercial exploitation and other dangers. Yet they aren’t thriving and regenerating as they have for thousands of years. While the sequoias’ diminished range can also be attributed to climatic changes—an increasingly warmer, drier environment—there is an increased emphasis now on encouraging regeneration of the remaining groves.
All these reasons are part of the story I tell each night. I spend five or ten minutes giving my speech, while the visitors nod their heads as if they’re really paying attention to the answers. They don’t notice my pained expression or understand that each new retelling is a reminder of a difficult and inevitable knowledge. When I finish, one of them usually says something like, “Yeah, that’s too bad. But they really shouldn’t close Giant Forest.” So I wonder if they’ve been listening at all, if they’ve heard a single word. The well-being of the forest overshadows everything else. It really doesn’t matter how I feel, how any of us feels about it.
The nature of working in a national park is that you come in contact with many tourists from all over the world, a six-month blur of faces. Some of these people you may see for a day, two or three days, occasionally for as long as a week. When it happens that you remember someone from one season to the next, the impression is clear, distinct, and surprising. Each season that I’ve worked in the Lodge Dining Room, the Stantons have come to visit.
An older couple from near Bakersfield, for over a decade they’ve spent their yearly two-week vacation in Sequoia National Park, staying in cabin number 65 at the Lodge. On the first night of their stay each year, Mrs. Stanton greets me with a warm hug and asks me about my winter. During the off-season, which I occasionally spend in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona, she writes letters and sends photographs of her life outside the park. The Stantons know each of the staff members’ names and home states. During their nightly visits to the restaurant we linger at their table, sharing stories about Sequoia. They are the sort of people who still have something to say to one another during dinner, after forty years of marriage. And they have many more things to tell us about the park.
This is the last year the restaurant will be open. Even though the rest of Giant Forest will be closed gradually over the next several seasons, the Park Service has decided that the Lodge Dining Room will be one of the first structures removed. Like most of the other buildings in this part of the park, it was constructed in the early part of the twentieth century. Each successive concessioner has neglected the buildings’ upkeep, hesitant to invest any time or money repairing what will eventually be reduced to splintered boards and nails.
This is another reason for closing Giant Forest. Most of the buildings were never designed to endure more than half a century of visitors, families and children on their summer vacations, bear break-ins, and rowdy employees—many are literally falling apart. The management plan calls for all the buildings in Giant Forest to be replaced by a new, large hotel six miles up the road. The new facility, Wuksachi Village, will be a self-contained complex, with hotel, restaurant, and gift shop all in one central location. It will stand surrounded by fir, oak, and lodgepole pine trees, away from the sequoias. The building which houses the Giant Forest Market is the oldest building in the park, and will be one of the few structures spared during the deconstruction process. It will remain standing just as it does in vintage photographs, becoming an informative visitor center.
To celebrate the Stantons’ last night in Sequoia this season, each of us signed a card, knowing that we would not see one another like this again. The whole dining room staff gathered as a group around their favorite table by the window. Mrs. Stanton took a sip of white zinfandel from her stemmed goblet and smiled at all of us. As she opened the card and read each message, her eyes filled with tears.
“Thank you. You all mean so much to us. This place means so much to us.” She tried to maintain her composure. “Do you know that I used to work here? Fifty-some years ago I was a waitress in the restaurant, where the cafeteria is now. Just like most of you are.”
As she spoke, she seemed to look past us and out the window to the two unnamed sequoia trees overlooking Round Meadow. I glanced at the family at the next table. They had stopped eating and were listening to our conversation.
“I was a busboy,” Mr. Stanton said. “I was a busboy in the restaurant. That’s where I met Ruth, when she was a waitress.” I pictured the two of them, twenty years old, taking long walks through these trees, using the same winding trails that I do now. How much the same had the forest looked to them? I could only imagine the years and years of changes Mrs. Stanton has seen in Sequoia. Some have passed almost unnoticeably. The next ones will be huge, perhaps shocking. What emotions will Mrs. Stanton feel when she returns next season and the next?
“Of course,” Mrs. Stanton said, “things were a lot different then. We had to wear stiff, starched dresses to work.”
We laughed. “I’m sure that’s not all that’s different,” I told her.
She clutched the stem of her wineglass, as if holding it tightly would prolong and capture this moment. For as long as she held on and didn’t let go, she could preserve this memory, adding it to many layers of images in her mind. That instant became a mental picture we would all remember, when the forest itself was different, when it was no longer our home.
The stillness of the moment was broken. “Well,” Mrs. Stanton finally said, thoughtful, “it’s just something you get used to. Something you just can’t dwell on.” She said what we’d all been trying to convince ourselves of, words we didn’t share out loud but all wanted to believe. Words that lingered, long after we returned to work that night.
I cannot know it now, but years later, long after the wintertime letters from Mrs. Stanton stop arriving, I will think about that conversation and it will remain vivid and present. The September night I drove away from Sequoia for the last time, I had glanced over my shoulder out the car’s back window, trying to memorize the trees as their shadows faded into the twilit forest. Never forget, I promised myself.
In 2000 and again in 2004, I will finally return to Sequoia and see a transformed landscape. During those visits, I will take the Round Meadow trail alongside where the Lodge Dining Room once stood and eat lunch at a picnic table where the employee cabins used to be. As I wander through the now-recovering forest, climb illegally over Park Service barricades and past signs detailing the forest restoration project, I search for specific details, tangible and concrete. I want to invoke some slivers of memory, exact signs or fragments of the life I had once known so clearly. That might be it right there, I think, where my cabin was. And I will realize that I no longer know, with certainty, any particular trees or features or landmarks. This place will finally have become just a forest again.
As I say goodbye and turn from the Stantons’ table, it occurs to me that I’m not the only one who is affected by the sound of the words or by the knowledge that it will all eventually be gone. Others have lived, worked, and loved here before me. Others have found a home in this same place. People like Mrs. Stanton, whose histories and memories are intricately woven with the mountains and forest, surrounding the trees, spreading in every direction. Providing stability, much like a sequoia tree’s roots. Even though I know the preservation of the trees is the only way, it’s hard to ignore the pull of my memories, hard not to dwell on it. Still, to feel sadness about Giant Forest is selfish. I have neglected more than just the trees.
Mrs. Stanton’s voice reveals no sense of sadness when she talks about Giant Forest’s closing. She speaks fondly and reverently, undisturbed by the idea that the forest is changing as it always has. I admire her acceptance. It is as if her memories and images are enough, enduring as strongly as the sequoias themselves. I must believe that my own memories will also be enough.
For the first time I can see past my nostalgia and sadness to the real life I am leaving here. Here beneath the General Sherman Tree, on a rocky ledge along the High Sierra Trail, at the summit of Mt. Whitney, in the clear, snow-melt waters of Buck Creek. My home is not about the buildings and the places where I have lived. It is not about the physical shape of the landscape. My history remains, always, in the moist, fertile earth of the forest floor. I am able to look through and past what I thought was the ending, to what lies beyond. The hope of healing and room for the trees to grow.
In addition to receiving a notable mention in Best American Essays, an AWP Intro Award for nonfiction, and a Pearl Hogrefe creative writing grant, Melanie Fox’s work has appeared in literary journals such as Bayou Magazine, Fourth Genre, Flyway, and Sketch. Her essays have also been included in the anthologies American Nature Writing, Figuring Animals: Essays on Animal Images in Art, Literature, Philosophy, & Popular Culture, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, and Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. She currently directs the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University, where she also teaches online literature and writing courses in creative nonfiction and nature writing. She also teaches interdisciplinary writing and ethics courses at Radford University. She makes her home at the confluence of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains in the New River Valley of southwestern Virginia.