The Understory of the American Forest: Walking a Thousand Miles With John Muir

benje williams
Dec 2, 2020 · 11 min read

Over 150 years ago, John Muir set out on a thousand mile journey across the US, from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, on foot. He was 29. The Civil War had just ended. Railroad tracks were just starting to staple their way across the land. Families were slowly migrating across the country. And wilderness was both everywhere and rapidly disappearing.

Along this walk, Muir met slaves who didn’t know they were free. Alligators bigger than boats. Bandits who would try to rob him, only to discover he had nothing worth stealing. Malaria that would knock him unconscious for weeks. Above all, though, he met the forest.

Throughout his long life, Muir, a mostly self-taught naturalist, spent more time in the American forest than perhaps any other environmentalist-turned-nature-writer before or after him. Live oak, chestnut, mangroves, palm, and, eventually, after his thousand mile journey, the conifers of the west coast — pine and Douglas fir and incense cedar and the giant sequoia. It was in the west where Muir, who was born in Scotland, first wrote that going to the woods was going home, concluding that we all originally come from the forest.

Like Muir, I set out at the beginning of this year on a new journey, to meet the forests. Unlike Muir, who went on to co-found the Sierra Club and help establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, I haven’t made it past the seedling stages of a new forest venture, which we’re calling the Understory. But also, unlike Muir, I haven’t been traveling alone. Accompanied by many lovers of the wild, and by the journals from Muir’s own adventures, I’m learning to see the forest in news ways, through novel senses, with rain-soaked questions, and sometimes with soil-stained hands. Through these writings, a new manuscript, underneath the forest canopy, is beginning to emerge: the understory of the American forest, a paradise that makes even the loss of Eden seem insignificant, in Muir’s words. It’s a history of the past, of the American wilderness and man’s presence in that wilderness, but it’s also a quiet story of the fragments that remain today, and what we, at the Understory, are trying to do to protect and restore those fragments for tomorrow.

What follows is a glimpse into that understory, harvested from the forever-wild pages of Muir’s journals (A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, The Mountains of California, Our National Parks) and seeded with pictures I’ve taken in the forest over the past year.

American Forests: a paradise that makes the loss of Eden seem insignificant

Muir was enthralled by all of nature, as if it was the food he survived on. At times, he would walk up to 30 miles in a day, without a single thing to eat, nourished by the fascinations of the wild. Along the way, he collected specimens and jotted down notes, like the ones below, recording these fascinations so that he could come back to them and eventually share them more broadly. As his letters and essays eventually broke ground and began to blossom, we can almost touch and smell the forest that came to fulfill Muir the most.

When a page is written over but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and overtaxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written over and over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world.

How little we know as yet of the life of plants — their hopes and fears, pains, and enjoyments!

American forests! The glory of the world! Surveyed thus from the east to the west, from the north to the south, they are rich beyond thought, immortal, immeasurable, enough and to spare for every feeding, sheltering beast and bird, insect and child of Adam… With such variety, harmony, and triumphant exuberance, even nature, it would seem, might have rested content with the forests of North America, and planted no more.

The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted… Exuberant, mantling forests, with the largest, most varied, most fruitful, and most beautiful trees in the world.

These forests were composed of about five hundred species of trees, all of them in some way useful to man. And the Sierra of California is the most openly beautiful and useful of all the forest reserves… [They] are the grandest and most beautiful in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting and accessible of mountain-ranges, yet strange to say they are not well known.

Coniferous trees, in general, seldom possess individual character, such as is manifest among Oaks and Elms. But the California forests are made up of a greater number of distinct species than any other in the world. And in them we find, not only a marked differentiation into special groups, but also a marked individuality in almost every tree.

American Forests (from top left to bottom right): Tahoe National Forest (NF), CA; Monongahela NF, West Virginia; Broome County, NY; Plumas NF, CA; Monongahela NF, WV; Adirondacks, NY (photos by author)

Giant sequoia: the king of all the conifers in the world

Muir writes at length about the forest friends he meets along his journeys. Live oak, bald cypress, Florida palm, nut pine, Douglas spruce, incense cedar, tamarack pine, juniper, hemlock spruce. Climbing silently above them all, though, Muir writes about the sugar pine and the giant sequoia, the noblest pine and the king of all conifers.

Between the heavy pine and Silver Fir belts, we find the Big Tree, the king of all the conifers in the world, “the noblest of a noble race.”

Walk the Sequoia woods at any time of year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic on earth… No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

Sequoias, kings of their race, growing close together like grass in a meadow, poised their brave domes and spires in the sky, three hundred feet above the ferns and the lilies that enameled the ground; towering serene through the long centuries, preaching God’s forestry fresh from heaven.

No other Sierra conifer produces nearly so many seeds. Millions are ripened annually by a single tree, and in a fruitful year, the product of one of the northern groves would be enough to plant all the mountain-ranges of the world. Nature takes care, however, that not one seed in a million shall germinate at all, and of those that do perhaps not one in ten thousand is suffered to live through the many vicissitudes of storm, drought, fire, and snow-crushing that beset their youth.

The roots of this immense tree fill the ground, forming a thick sponge that absorbs and holds back the rains and melting snows, only allowing them to ooze and flow gently. Indeed, every fallen leaf and rootlet, as well as long clasping root, and prostrate trunk, may be regarded as a dam hoarding the bounty of storm-clouds, and dispensing it as blessings all through the summer, instead of allowing it to go headlong in short-lived floods.

I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death; barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all the diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.

It appears, therefore, that notwithstanding our forest king might live on gloriously in Nature’s keeping, it is rapidly vanishing before the fire and steel of man; and unless protective measures are speedily invented and applied, in a few decades, at the farthest, all that will be left of Sequoia gigantea will be a few hacked and scarred monuments.

Forest light through sequoias in Big Basin, destruction of a sequoia, and thousands of redwood cones collected by CAL FIRE nursery in Davis, CA
Coastal redwood scars from fires in Henry Cowell and Big Basin State Park (photos by author)

Sugar pine: the noblest pine, the sun-tree of the Sierra

The Sugar Pine is the sun-tree of the Sierra… The noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size but also in kingly beauty and majesty.

No lover of trees will ever forget their first meeting with the Sugar Pine… View the forest from beneath or from some commanding ridge-top; each tree presents a study in itself, and proclaims the surpassing grandeur of the species.

No other pine seems to me so unfamiliar and self-contained. In approaching it, we feel as if in the presence of a superior being, and begin to walk with a light step, holding our breath.

In most pine-trees there is a sameness of expression, which, to most people, is apt to become monotonous; for the typical spiry form, however beautiful, affords but little scope for appreciable individual character. The Sugar Pine is as free from conventionalities of form and motion as any oak. No two are alike, even to the most inattentive observer; and, notwithstanding they are ever tossing out their immense arms in what might seem most extravagant gestures, there is a majesty and repose about them that precludes all possibility of the grotesque, or even picturesque, in their general expression.

They are the priests of pines, and seem ever to be addressing the surrounding forest. The Yellow Pine is found growing with them on warm hillsides, and the White Silver Fir on cool northern slopes; but, noble as these are, the Sugar Pine is easily king, and spreads his arms above them in blessing while they rock and wave in sign of recognition.

The sugar, from which the common name is derived, is to my taste the best of sweets — better than maple sugar. It exudes from the heart-wood, where wounds have been made, either by forest fires, or the ax.

There are over 100 species of pine: pictured here are sugar, ponderosa, jeffrey, pitch and white pines throughout Northern CA and upstate NY (photos by author)

Wind: advertisements of all they touch

Muir writes that there are no fragments in nature: everything is connected to everything, including the wind, that invisible substance that brings to life the trees of the forest.

The mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty.

Two thousand years ago our Saviour told Nicodemus that he did not know where the winds came from, nor where they were going. And now in this Golden Age, we know about as little of winds in general as those Palestinian Jews, and our ignorance, despite the powers of science, can never be much less profound than it is at present.

The substance of the winds is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, and their spoken language mostly too faint for the ears… All things in the creation of God register their own acts. The poet was mistaken when he said, “From the wing no scar the sky sustains.” His eyes were simply too dim to see the scar.

Most people like to look at mountain rivers, and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the winds, though far more beautiful and sublime, and though they become at times about as visible as flowing water.

Winds are advertisements of all they touch, however much or little we may be able to read them; telling their wanderings even by their scents alone.

There is always something deeply exciting, not only in the sounds of winds in the woods, which exert more or less influence over every mind but in their varied waterlike flow as manifested by the movements of the trees, especially those of the conifers… The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to be the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.

We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings — many of them not so much.

To move from the understory of this journey into the overstory— exploring man’s presence in the woods and what can be done to protect the wild that still remains — go to The Overstory of the American Forest.

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benje williams

Written by

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

Climate Conscious

Bringing people together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

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