The Ancient Redwoods: Witnesses to a Fading Republic

“Man needs…the sense of wonder.”

— George Orwell

It was early May, 2004, and almost dusk in northern California, near its border with the state of Oregon. The Pacific Ocean was close by; I could feel its cooling breeze. I was tired from driving all day, but my wife, Ann said, “We’re getting close. Keep going.” She had the map out and was doing the navigating. I remembered thinking to myself, “I’ve heard that one before.” Then, as if on cue, we were there! There was no entry sign.

It was like I was driving the car through one of those stately European cathedrals. However, instead of the light coming in through stain glass windows, it was pouring in between a long line of massive trees on either sides of us. It was also falling in from above, through a canopy of branches opened at the top.

We were in a forest of ancient Redwoods! It was magical, dreamlike and spiritual. If God exists anywhere, surely, he’s here! This is a special place, not only because of its beauty, but because of the ambiance that it creates. No wonder my ancestors, the Celts, performed their sacred rituals in spaces, like this one. [1] This is truly a church, without walls or a ceiling! The silence of the forest added to its mystery and to its unique ability to enchant all of the senses.

Some of the Redwoods here are so old that they have witnessed this nation’s gallant birth struggle, its terrible Civil War, its rapacious expansion westward, and its grasping imperial hubris. They are also, sadly, observing our present rapid decline as a people. By the time the Bush-Cheney Gang gets done ripping off the country for eight hellish years, (aided by complicit Democrats and a mostly mesmerized populous), raping our fragile environment, out sourcing our jobs, and making more enemies for us in the Islamic World, the grand Republic, created by the Founding Fathers, will be but a fading memory. [2]

Towering giants, the Redwoods are: skyscrapers without the costly gas and electric bills and the noisy, ever humming elevators. Some of these huge behemoths were as wide as the length of my vehicle. Redwoods can live to be over 2,200 years old. At every turn, I was struck by their innate majesty. They stood like mighty sentinels, faithfully, guarding our coast. They are big and strong and durable. There is something wise about them, too. They have seen it all; the good, the bad and the ugly. They are survivors. Even when they fall, they lie on the forest floor and make a grassy bed which then becomes a safe and comfortable haven for new trees and the many little creatures of the woods.

The coastal Redwoods are found only in the northwest corner of America. This make them even more exceptional, more holy. I think they have something to teach each of us, if we are open to the experience. In his lovely poem, “The Redwoods,” Joseph B. Strauss, put some of the possible lessons this way:

“Here, sown by the Creator’s hand.
In serried ranks, the Redwoods stand:
No other clime is honored so,
No other lands their glory know.

The greatest of Earth’s living forms,
Tall conquerors that laugh at storms;
Their challenge still unanswered rings,
Through fifty centuries of kings.

The nations that with them were young,
Rich empires, with their forts far-flung,
Lie buried now-their splendor gone:
But these proud monarchs still live on.

So shall they live, when ends our days,
When our crude citadels decay;
For brief the years allotted man,
But infinite perennials’ span.

This is their temple, vaulted high,
And here, we pause with reverent eye,
With silent tongue and awestruck soul;
For here we sense life’s proper goal:

To be like these, straight, true and fine,
to make our world like theirs, a shrine;
Sink down, Oh, traveler, on your knees,
God stands before you in these trees.” [3]

What made Strauss’ tribute to the Ancient Redwoods even more remarkable, is this fact: He was the legendary builder in the 1930s of the fabled “Golden Gate Bridge” in San Francisco, one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th Century. [4]


[1]. “The Celtic World: An Illustrated History of the Celtic Race-Their Culture, Customs and Legends,” by Barry Cunliffe. In the chapter on “The Sacred Places,” the author wrote: “Some indication of these sacred groves is given by the distribution of the place-name element ‘nemeton,’ which can be traced across Europe from Spain and Britain in the west, to Asia Minor in the east. Reference to a wood called ‘Nemet,’ in an eleventh century cartualary in Brittany further emphasizes the strength of the tradition.”

[2]. “Res Publica Est Res Populi” – The Republic is the Property of the People.


[4]. Kathleen Elliott wrote about the magnificent man-made symbol, long associated with that great California city. She said that the spectacular bridge, whose construction was once thought to be impossible, spans “the mile-wide bay from Fort Point to the Marin County shore.”