A redwood trunk with a deep, dark hole.

Untold Secrets

The idea of enchanted forests has forever captivated human imagination.

Our myths and stories are rife with them. Full of mystical potential, they are the known homes of fantastical beings like goblins, trolls, elves, fairies, pixies, unicorns and more. Yet, whether serving as a threatening or benevolent backdrop in tales of the strange and unusual, the woods are captivating characters unto themselves and deserving of our full attention.

Sadly, as a result of human activity, many fewer wild forests exist today than in the past, so many fewer of us ever experience their mysteriousness. No local grove or preserve will do for this experiment. To get the full effect, you must to visit a forest with its soul intact – a large one whose spirit has not been broken by the saw or axe.

Such are the coast redwood forests in northern California.

Over the past four weeks we have had the great privilege of residing in old-growth forests of coast redwood (not to be confused with their even larger cousins, giant redwoods). From Mt. Madonna to Pfeiffer Big Sur to Samuel P. Taylor to Hendy Woods to Humboldt to the grand Redwoods National and State Parks, we’ve been working our way north.

With the Oregon border now just 10 miles away, we discover that California saved the best for last in our visit at Jedediah Smith State Park. The forest here is more isolated and closer to its original state than all the others. That makes it wilder – and a little less welcoming – than its friendlier southern neighbors.

Despite these differences in degree, all of these forests are enchanting.

But to get the full experience, you have to do it right. A quick stop and a short stroll into a famous grove next to a parking lot will grant you access to a few of the striking named trees. Once you reach them, you’ll stand with the crowd of chatty tourists on the wide, well-worn walkway as you wait your turn for the requisite photo in which your small form serves as proof of the tree’s gargantuan scale.

While a tourist necessity, this is not the experience I’m recommending here.

Giant Tree
Human for scale.

To experience it properly, you need to seek out less traveled paths. These longer trails twist, turn, and tiptoe their way through the remotest parts of these woods, granting glimpses of a forest’s true, untamed nature.

A path through the redwood forest
Roots web the trail’s surface in the redwood forest.

I’m currently reading a book called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllben. He describes the incredible interactions between trees, other plants, fungi, and insects. Science has uncovered one of the forest’s secrets: they are superorganisms that manipulate environments to suit their needs – reducing wind and increasing humidity, for example. We’ve found that trees communicate with each other through their root systems and even use this network to help nurture neighbors through sickness to keep their community strong.

Over hundreds of years (or thousands in the case of redwoods), this cooperative effort results in a complex biome that we’re learning we could never reproduce or rehabilitate by simply “planting more trees.”

So, it turns out that your sense of a forest’s presence or awareness cannot be dismissed as pure magical thinking. Perhaps this also explains why people have the feeling of being watched in the deep woods. In a very real sense, they are.

The atmosphere created by an old-growth redwood forest is especially distinct. The transition is felt upon crossing the threshold from a warm, sun-soaked road into the cool, shaded woods. Now, you realize, your experience in this realm will be made on the forest’s terms.

Looking up, you see a canopy three hundred feet above, a protective boundary shielding these environs from the effects of sun and wind. Without those two brash attention-getters, the space feels muted … yet sharpened in a way. It is under this vast shelter that the forest’s mysteries grow.

Drawing on deep wells of primordial magic, the air of a wild forest hums with a communal binding, a hushed quality that borders on sentience.

Clustered here, spread evenly there, fifteen-foot-wide, bark-fluted pillars suspend the arbored gables of this imposing open-air fortress. Between those countless redwood buttresses, snarls of shrubs and bracken sit hunched over the forest’s darkest secrets, guarding them from prying eyes. These defensive tangles form islands in a dark green sea of six-foot-high sword ferns dense enough to disorient the most seasoned hiker in moments.

Beneath all this runs a carpet of wood sorrel a few inches high and miles wide. Resembling shamrocks with their lobed form and emerald color, their tidy, cheerful presence becomes your hiking companion as it lines the entire length of the trail. A little further along your way, you notice that wherever the sun has broken through the ramparts above to peer at the forest floor, the sorrel folds down its tender leaves like a tiny umbrellas to keep them from burning.

Wood sorrel after rain.

Every other undisturbed surface is covered in moss, moss, and more moss. Rocks, soil, and trees – dead and living – are all fair game.

While the redwoods resist its creeping advances, maples, oaks and madrones lack this rectitude. Whole trunks are clad in the sumptuous velvet of moss stockings. Banishing shame, they sport this jaunty chartreuse accessory with glowing pride. Some take the look even further and dare to add moss-fringed sleeves to their branches for added flair.

This young maple just couldn’t say no to velvety chartreuse moss.

At regular intervals, thorny blackberry and its hostile compatriot, poison oak, reach across the narrow trail toward your pantleg to remind you not to stray. Like humorless sentinels along a border, their presence reminds you not to try anything foolish. Don’t even think about bushwhacking your way across this terrain. Just stay in line, and we’ll all get along fine.

Glowing like opalescent gems in this endless ocean of green, trillium sometimes join the sorrel to light the edges of your path. Rising on one stem with a single-minded purpose, the bright face of one three-petaled bloom shines up through the shadows and suffuses the air with its delicate scent. This mingles deliciously with the fresh cedar of the redwood and the spicy bouquet of the ferns and rich humus. Fresh after a rain, these all blend with the petrichor into an intoxicating perfume.

Blooms of the Trillium ovatum, or Pacific trillium start white, and turn pink before they fade.

Abundant mushrooms add to the fragrance. You are surprised to find that many smell of honey or syrup. Some, squeezing out of a dead tree trunk in layers, look like the stack of pancakes calling for that syrup. This lowly crew of recyclers do the necessary work of returning the remains of expired trees back to the forest they helped create. Fancy fungi of every stripe adorn those fallen pillars of the community in one last celebration of their long, long lives.

These shelves of fungus look a little like pancakes in need of syrup.

Rivers, ravines, and streams trace their way through the forest like the vital capillaries they are. Combined with the hilly terrain, these form rushing watercourses, waterfalls, and cascades that chatter and whisper as you cross them on the logs of fallen giants.

Crossing a river on a fallen redwood.

The surface of the narrow trail is composed of thick humus except for the areas near the great trees where shallow roots web the surface and threaten to trip you when your attention wanders. On the soft earth, you can feel the loam spring back under your silent footfalls. As a whole, sounds in the forest seem simultaneously muted and amplified. No branches or leaves risk rustling the still air, and all other small sounds are absorbed by the trees, plants, and moss. Yet your voice or a bird’s call rings with clarity throughout this wooded theater.

Roots on the trail threaten to trip hikers whose attention strays.
Roots on the trail threaten to trip hikers whose attention strays.

Birds are fewer here. Efficient squirrels extract conifer seeds from their tightly packaged cones, and there aren’t enough grasses and other seed producing plants to attract most song birds, so they and their constant chirruping are absent. A redwood forest is better suited for more clever, omnivorous birds. From across the forest you can hear the distant drum of a woodpecker, or an excited blue jay or raven announce their newly discovered treasure. And no shadows are dark enough to dampen the plucky, resourceful wrens who trill and tweet and warble their delight at simply being alive.

The varied thrush (a relative of the familiar robin) serves as a feathered clocktower in this land of perpetual twilight. With uncanny precision, it announces the coming of dawn and dusk with long, eerie whistles. But the oddest-sounding bird here is the saw whet owl – a tiny thing that devotes is springtime nights to mooning for a mate. It does this by tooting for hours nonstop. The sound is so precisely toned and timed that it could be mistaken for a mechanical squeaking and forces campers to burrow deep into their pillows in futile efforts to escape his relentless serenade.

Small creatures like squirrels and chipmunks abound, darting across the trail or scurrying behind trees or into thickets as you pass by. While we couldn’t see one, we learned of a species of vole (typically known for ground-burrowing) that resides in nests high in the canopy and lives on a diet of redwood leaves.

Unique local denizens like the ubiquitous, sizable, and weirdly brazen banana slug, along with the more understated species of salamanders – including one that barks – can be found if you’re especially observant.

Banana Slug
Yet another banana slug crossing our path in the forest.

Except for the Roosevelt elk, which are numerous and alarmingly aggressive toward hikers, other forest creatures like river otter, racoon, and fox are stealthier and harder to find. It’s no wonder, as the forest also provides ample housing for all shape and manner of creatures. Small, sandy waterside otter holes, dense bowers any fox would love, and woody crevices of every shape can be found for any other creatures who need them. Many of those last kind are even people-sized.

Redwoods are famously resilient, surviving disease, breakage, rot, and even fire. Just as with humans, though, surviving a trauma doesn’t mean they’re unchanged by the experience. Trunks ravaged by flame or disease are hollowed out, yet the tree continues its business of living, shuttling nutrients and water up and down its remaining perimeter.

Another opening under a tree
A people-sized opening under a living coast redwood. Is it inviting us to live here?

Walking past such a survivor produces an irresistible urge to step inside the opening. Once there, you imagine you can sense this ancient fighter’s indomitable spirit. It seems to be welcoming you inside. Maybe you could live inside this dry, inviting hidey-hole. Yes, you see a spot for the door. Maybe a chimney would go here, and that is definitely a window. Soon enough, a part of you wishes you could reside here forever, living in harmony with the forest.

Once you’ve crossed that threshold, is it so hard to believe that other, more mystical creatures haven’t also done so? Just because you haven’t seen them doesn’t mean there couldn’t be fairies or pixies or gnomes living with the giants in this ancient enchanted forest.

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