A group of +2,000 year old giant sequoias in the Giant Forest (Sequoia National Park) threatened by fire and cedar bark beetle (picture by author)

We Belong to the Earth and to the Earth We Shall Return

Giant sequoias, ultra cyclists, and cedar bark beetles

benje williams
Apr 6 · 21 min read

Garrett’s voicemail says to meet him “in the meadow right underneath the giant rock that is El Capitan.” It’s the first left turn as you enter Yosemite Valley, he says, just across a bridge, over the Merced River. I meet him there at 2:45, underneath three thousand feet of granite. We can’t see anyone climbing, but Garrett hears them, and then I do too.

“It took us almost as many centuries to climb up this rock as it did to reach the moon,” he says, adjusting his hat and sunglasses as he stares up at the wall. I’m trying to play it cool, trying not to fanboy, so I don’t ask if he’s climbed it or how many times. But I feel something flutter inside when a couple notices his green Park Ranger jacket and asks him about Alex Honnold, the first person to free solo the rock, without any rope or safety equipment. “Have you done that route?” they ask. “I have,” he says, “it took Alex four hours; it took me four days.”

The three of us shake our heads in disbelief. He’s being modest, but some things are so badass that even humility can’t make them humble.

The couple turn to leave, and I follow Garrett a minute or two into the meadow, where we won’t be interrupted. The spring air is warm but a cold wind blows across the field as the sun slowly descends towards the canyon walls behind us, casting an afternoon shadow that will eventually ascend up El Capitan faster than any human ever has. Nature doesn’t follow the laws of man, Garrett is suggesting, as he tells me about the $9 million damage from a wind storm I experienced back in January, when I was camping just outside the park. “We even lost giant sequoias,” he says, pointing towards the distant direction of the Mariposa Grove, where the world’s largest tree species have been growing for millennia. He’s been working with these forests for nearly fifteen of those years — first as a tree physiologist, then at the US Forest Service, then as a ranger in Grand Teton, and now as the chief botanist in Yosemite — and he’s shaking his head as if to say he’s never seen anything quite like this.

He tells me about the bark beetle, which has killed over 100 million pine throughout the southern Sierra. “Seventy percent mortality in some forests,” he says, as a raven flies overhead, then lands heavily on the ground behind us. We both stare at it, as if we don’t know what else to say. I know these numbers by now. I’ve walked through forests with seventy percent mortality. And I still don’t know how to respond.

“The beetles could never kill the sequoia though,” he says, pausing midway through the sentence. I turn to look up at him, thinking that he’s about to say something hopeful. But then he finishes the sentence: “At least not until now.” Now the beetle has killed over thirty giant sequoias, mostly in Sequoia National Park, where I’m heading next. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go, Garrett is saying.

Eventually I tell him that the last time I was inside the Yosemite Valley was with my family, who live in Auburn, three hours north, in the foothills of the Sierra. “I’m really worried about that place,” he says, pausing to see if he needs to go on. “I’m worried it could be another Paradise, that the whole thing could…” His voice trails off. I’m staring at the dead brown grass under my feet, but I’m sure he can still see the fear across my wrinkled forehead.

“I know,” is all I can manage to say, lifting my head up. The thought of my hometown burning is so big even El Capitan now feels small.

I think about my parents, who have lived in Auburn for nearly thirty years. I think about my niece and nephew, who have never lived anywhere else. I think about the black oaks and white pines my dad and I hiked underneath just two days ago. About the dark red manzanita trunks that were blooming into clusters of light pink flowers. The patches of bright foothill sedge grass decorated in sunrise-colored fiddle necks and sunset-colored poppies and afternoon-sky-blue forget me nots.

“Auburn hasn’t had a fire in over 100 years,” I told my dad as we descended towards the north fork of the American River. His response was as silent as mine is now, underneath El Capitan.

So do you think your organization can help? Garret is asking, as if sensing this is the one question I most desperately want to answer.

We’re walking back to our cars now, and the face of El Capitan has turned into cold grey, as a cloud covers the late afternoon sun. “I hope so,” I say, trying to sound optimistic, even while knowing hope won’t be enough to save Auburn, or the foothills, or the sequoias, or my parents.

(Pictures by author, from Auburn, CA and Yosemite National Park)

That evening, I walk along the Valley Loop, with the sun veiled behind the canyons and Bridalveil Falls booming in the distance. I’m thinking about the last time I walked here, during our family’s 2017 camping trip. My dad had just turned sixty one, and my mom and I had gotten him a new road bike. Actually, it was my mom who bought it; I was responsible for the procurement, which turned out to be harder than expected. All the options I found were too cheap or too expensive. Too big or too small. Too racy or too climby. Too sprinty or too long distancy. Until I finally found the perfect match: a black and green, fifty-four centimeter, high-end carbon fiber Cannondale Synapse.

The only problem was that I could only find it used, from a small bike shop in Portland. It looked perfect when it arrived though, even after our local Auburn bike shop inspected and assembled it. Our plan was to ride around Yosemite together and break it in. Except that it ended up breaking us in, with one problem after another: first, we forgot the key to unlock the bike rack; then my tire had a pinch flat and I realized my spare tube was at home; then, worst of all, my dad started having some obscure issue with his rear disc brake on our first ride around the park. With each setback, I had to hunt around the Valley, scavenging for a solution: the makeshift mechanics at the fire station who ripped through our locked bike rack with some sort of power drill; the Yosemite Valley Lodge Bike Rental, which didn’t keep road bike parts but just happened to have a spare tube someone had left behind; and finally a cyclist at the Yosemite Village coffee shop who told me about a road bike shop on the southwestern side of the park, a bit beyond the entrance, that might have the proprietary part my dad needed.

I’m walking by each of these places now, in the evening Valley Floor light, remembering the drama but also reliving the joy once we finally got on the road. The breeze cooling our tanned summer faces. The Merced River sending up mist as it flowed beneath us. The shadowy Cathedral Rocks quietly emerging above the evergreen canopy. My dad’s bike wasn’t perfect, but it eventually became perfect, purring through the headwind as we rounded the Valley Loop, leaving my fear of a catastrophic mechanical failure in the campgrounds behind us.

Until it caught up, several years later, after the bike became, in a way, too perfect, and my dad became too comfortable riding it.

We were riding in Auburn the summer before I would move back from Pakistan, and he was going nearly fifty miles per hour around a long downhill turn. For the briefest second, he turns to look back for me, to see if I’m okay, and veers just a fraction of an inch off the pavement. His bike wobbles and then immediately collapses, skidding across dozens of dry riverbed rocks. A small herd of horses squeal and buck inside their corral. My dad slides across a long strip of black asphalt and grey gravel. I hear the crash and the horses and the skidding, but my dad is already standing when I get there, only seconds later. His left jersey sleeve is entirely gone, ripped open to reveal white flesh now being filled with bright red blood, which slowly drips down his shoulder, towards another patch of blood pooling on his elbow. His left knee is in the same shape. The back of his jersey is smeared with dirt and gravel. But his head is fine, his face is fine, the right side of his body is fine, his chest and neck are fine.

I run to get his bike, before a car comes. His entire handlebar is bent ninety degrees. He has a broken spoke. His left bar tape has ripped off. His headlight and water bottle are somehow still fastened in place. I’m too shocked to say anything, as I re-adjust the handlebar, then bend down to see if I can fix the spoke.

When I stand up, he asks if I think it’s still rideable. For some reason I say yes, not realizing he means rideable right now. “Seriously?” I ask, when he says we don’t need to call home for a pick-up. Let’s continue with the ride, he says. I don’t know what to say. I’ve been telling him for years he needs to slow down on these descents. That the smallest fraction of a second — a car poking out of a hidden driveway, a squirrel running across the road, a misplaced pebble on his path — could lay him out on the pavement. And now, when it finally does, and he’s still able to walk away from it, he wants to get right back on the bike.

But I’m too upset to say any of this. And I feel like he is too. Maybe he still hasn’t “learned the lesson,” but it seems just as likely that maybe he has, and that getting immediately back on the horse is what he needs to recover from that lesson. I wish I knew about these things, but I don’t. And so instead of pushing back, I stare at his bleeding shoulder as he clips his shoes back into his bike; I watch his red knee circle around as I follow silently behind; I listen to the clanking of his missing spoke as we climb up each hill; I replay the fall again and again, as we ride past dry clay soil and patches of dying summer wildflowers, sharp granite edges and wet mossy boulders, gnarled oaked limbs and thorny blackberry thickets.

(Pictures by author, from Yosemite National Park in 2017)

From Yosemite, I head to Sequoia National Park and meet Dr. Christy Brigham, the park’s chief scientist. I’m wearing a heavy coat, hat and a mask, and she doesn’t immediately recognize me, even though we’ve talked on Zoom, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t any other plus-six-feet tall black dudes in the park. At least not this early.

And yet, I find something refreshing, almost endearing, about her not assuming who I am. As if her mind has much more urgent things to think about.

We only chat for a few minutes before beginning our hike through the Giant Forest, where the bases of the trees are wider than most of the cars in the parking lot we’re leaving behind. Perhaps even wider than some of the houses I passed down the hill. It’s the last week in March, and even though it was almost 70 degrees at the park’s low-elevation entrance, it’s now barely above freezing and there’s still snow on the ground as we walk up the path, towards 6,000 feet.

We’re joined by Savannah Boiano, who is the head of Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. They’ve been around since 1940, but unlike Yosemite Conservancy, who raised nearly $20 million in grants alone last year, SPC raised less than $1 million. “There are a lot of reasons for that,” Savannah says, including the absence of the iconic landscapes that Yosemite enjoys: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, Vernal Falls. “People have memories associated with these places, and they want to ensure they’re around for generations to come,” the Yosemite Conservancy CEO said when I spoke to him on the phone. And yet, sequoias are the most iconic trees in the country, maybe even the world, Savannah says, gesturing with her mittens towards the ancient trees that surround us.

“And they’re a keystone species,” Dr. Brigham says, adjusting her mask so I can hear her clearly. I want to ask what she means, but I also don’t want to be the basic dude who needs obvious things spelled out. Fortunately, Savannah helps me save face: “Keystone meaning that other species in the ecosystem largely depend on sequoias for survival.” Sugar pine, incense cedar, Douglas fir, mountain oak. Bighorn sheep, mountain yellow-legged frogs, California black bear, western scrub-jays. Even the soil and microbes and mycorrhizal.

We are walking by a collection of logs lying on the forest floor, and Dr. Brigham says these are trees that died naturally, toppling over after growing too big, over the course of millennia. For millions of years, this has been the only thing that has killed sequoia. And only a handful each year, maybe just a few dozen. Not only were they thought to be fireproof, but they even need fire to propagate: heat to open their cones, a forest floor burned bare so their seeds can reach the soil.

But there’s a difference between fire and high-intensity wildfire, and last year, the wildfire grew so intense that it did what fire had never done before: killed giant sequoias. And not just a handful of them; over 2,000, throughout Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest. “And not 2,000 young trees,” Dr. Brigham clarifies, “but monarch sequoias.” Trees that are over 1,000 years old, nearly four times as old as America itself. Scorched by fire so intense it climbed over 100 feet into the air, where the monarch sequoias’ lower branches begin.

If just five percent of their crown survives, then the whole tree can survive. But the fire was too strong — fueled by drought and warm temperatures and the 100 million dead standing pines killed by bark beetle — that even just five percent was too impossible for the great monarchs.

“We’ve never lost this many before,” Dr. Brigham says. “I wept every night.”

I glance up at her. Her eyes are dark and her skin is wrinkled around her mask and glasses and beanie. She doesn’t seem like the type of person who cries easily or often. Instead, I see reflections of my dad, who is also a doctor — scientific, factual, a surgeon who cuts people open for a living. Growing up, I only saw him cry once, completely from left field, during the final scene of Old Yeller. And yet, my mom later tells me that when he read an article I sent them, about Dr. Brigham and the sequoias, he started crying too.

The article tells the story of the 2,000 monarchs and also includes an audio recording of Dr. Brigham, tearing up after she sees one of the dead monarchs for the first time. The tree, named Lazarus, didn’t die from fire though. It died from something potentially even worse: bark beetle.

Her audio recording replays in my mind now, as we walk towards one of the bark beetled sequoias:

It’s hard to see these trees that are dead without feeling emotional about it. This is a tree that’s lived through 2,000 years of fire, other droughts, wet years, dry years, cold years. It’s been here longer than Europeans have been in this country. And it’s dead. And it shouldn’t be dead. This is not how giant sequoias die. It’s supposed to stand there for another 500 years and then, with all its needles on it — being this quirky persistent impressive amazing thing — fall over. It’s not supposed to have all its needles fall off, from the top to the bottom, and then stand there, like that. That’s not how giant sequoias die…

That’s the thing about trees, they spend hundreds of years growing and then hundreds of years dying. It was not about to die anyway. We pushed this tree over the edge.

As we walk further up the path, she tells me they’ve identified thirty-eight monarchs killed by beetle. “This is one of them,” she says, pointing in the distance towards a tree that I can’t make out. Then I see it, standing like a leafless toothpick in between the green forest that surrounds it.

“Dead standing sequoias,” Savannah says, as if she’s still processing. Even in the warm morning sun, the tree looks dark and grey, its signature orange glow vanishing like the color of a human body sitting in a coffin.

It feels sacrilegious to even think that thirty eight seems like a low number, but I can’t fight the idea. And yet, I know better than to ask what thirty eight could become. There are over 100 million dead pines already answering that question.

“This beetle is a different species,” Dr. Brigham says, “the cedar bark beetle. But possibly just as catastrophic.”

I’m staring up at the dead tree and my head feels heavy, as if dizzy from searching for a hope that doesn’t exist. “Are there any sequoias that have fought it off?” I ask, still searching. She says yes, and we hike to another two dead sequoias, standing next to a third, which has only partially lost its leaves, at the very top of its crown. “This one is fighting,” she says; this one might still win. “We don’t know what allows one to survive and another to die, but we’re trying to find out.”

I want to tell her that I can’t imagine anything more meaningful. That I can’t imagine anything with more at stake. Anything more urgent. But I can’t figure out how to say any of this without sounding sappy or without inflating expectations about what our nonprofit, Understory, can do to help. And so we continue on in silence.

Finally, I thank her for everything she is doing and for allowing me the chance to try to contribute. I tell her I don’t know if we’ll be able to help, but that I want to try and that I would be really grateful if we can keep the conversation going and see where it leads. She invites me to come back in the summer for their prescribed burn season and then gives me a side hug before heading back into the forest, to check on another sequoia that she has heard might be infected with beetle.

(Pictures by author, from Sequoia National Park)

I eventually leave the Giant Forest, descending through the cold with my Jeep windows rolled down, as if trying to take the mountain air with me. I think about the last time I was here, when I picked up a sequoia cone, smaller than the center of my palm, from the foot of General Sherman, the largest tree in the world, as a way to remind myself where the biggest ideas sometimes come from.

The monarchs are behind me now. The pines are now surrounding me, then oak woodlands, then foothill chaparral, and finally rows of almond and pistachio and lemon and orange. Mostly orange. I’ve seen these trees my whole life, stretching up and down the great Central Valley, the food belt of the state, the country, maybe even the world. And yet, I’m looking at them differently now, knowing where they come from, knowing the water from the forest that they depend on.

“Without the Sierra, there wouldn’t be a Central Valley,” Savannah had said. She meant this quite literally, from a geological point of view, but also that the ag industry depends on the Sierra for water. And yet, “they’ve barely given a dollar to forest health.”

In Visalia, Uncle Bruce welcomes me to “the flatlands” with a giant wrestling hug. I haven’t seen him in over five years, when we both got really excited about possibly setting up some type of cultural exchange program between his high school students in the valley and our Amal Academy fellows in Pakistan. He has retired since then, and his face is now outlined in soft white hair and a rusty-red suntan. He’s more of an extended uncle than a biological one: one of my dad’s closest college friends who would probably take a bullet for him or any of us if he ever had the chance.

After he lets me go, I hug my extended cousin and aunt who are visiting from New York, and the rest of the family, before we all sit down for Friday dinner: barbecue that Uncle Bruce has “prepared himself,” which really means that he picked it up from the BBQ joint down the block. He asks what I’m doing in Visalia, and I tell him, in between bites of salad, about the new nonprofit I’m helping set up and the visit to Yosemite and Sequoia. He stares at me blankly and then tells me their family has lived up there for six generations. He says, “I’m the first flatlander,” and his mom, who is ninety-four, still lives in Badger, off of Highway 245, just outside the park. “She wants to die up there. She said if there’s a fire, we should just leave her there.”

I knew his family loved the forest up there, but I didn’t know they loved it like this. Or that, maybe, the forest also loved them back. I push the baked beans around on my plate and carefully try to tell them about the monarch sequoias. About how many died from the fire, which they can’t fully believe. And about how many might die from bark beetle, which they don’t at all believe.

“That’s not possible,” Uncle Bruce says, repeating all the same things about sequoias that I had believed and that even Dr. Brigham had said: about them depending on fire, about them surviving wet years and cold years and dry years. I tell him what I saw and open Dr. Brigham’s Guardian article on his phone. The table grows quiet for a while as he scrolls through the story until someone eventually changes the topic, as if knowing this type of death and disaster is too much for the family to handle.

Over tea, on their living room couch, Uncle Bruce starts telling stories about my dad, who he sometimes still calls Benje. About the aquarium my dad apparently had in his Lompoc house, “bigger than a grand piano.” About the time my dad threw him on his back when he mistakenly challenged my dad to wrestle, thinking he had a forty-pound advantage on him. About all the other wrestlers my dad had beaten, including a hot shot state champ who was apparently Chuck Norris’s stepson. About the budding nursery my dad kept in his Cal Poly dorm room and the nickname, Meena Mina Mona, they gave him after he struggled to pronounce the name of one of his Ficus Benjamina plants: “Benjameena Benjamina, Meena Mina Mona, does it really matter?” About the wilderness backpacking they did in Sequoia and their barely-five-foot friend “Red” who bought a bear-sized hiking pack that eventually buried him face first into three feet of snow. About Uncle Bruce visiting my dad at my grandparents’ house. “Even though I only met them a few times, I always felt at home there.” About how unexpected my grandpa’s drowning in Okinawa was, “from his scuba regulator coming off,” and how it always puzzled him why they couldn’t figure out the exact depth of the water. About how Cal Poly’s wrestling coach pulled my dad’s scholarship after he decided to focus on med school instead of Olympic training.

Uncle Bruce finally pauses to sip his tea, which must be lukewarm by now. I’m fixated inside the warm couch. I want to ask him questions or share fragments of other memories I’ve heard — anything to keep him going. These are stories I’ve never heard before. Stories I didn’t know existed. Stories my dad never told. For the longest time, I resented him for this. For not trying harder to remember. For staying quiet at family gatherings. For not telling his stories. But listening to Uncle Bruce, I realize they are stories even my dad probably doesn’t remember. “We forget our stories if we don’t have someone to tell them to,” and my dad didn’t always have someone: his parents both passed before I was born; his only sibling passed when I was seven or eight, and growing up, we hardly saw any of his friends, including Uncle Bruce.

“You gotta get him back in the wilderness,” I tell Uncle Bruce as I get up from the couch. It’s the closest I can come to “you’ve got to help my dad remember these stories” without sounding too dramatic. He says he’ll definitely work on it, and I pull out my phone to read him a text my dad had sent that morning. About how Mineral King, a wilderness in Sequoia, was his favorite spot in the Sierra. The place where he wanted to get married, but the idea got vetoed, mostly because you had to backpack over thirty miles just to get there and back. A destination wedding ahead of its time.

Uncle Bruce laughs, a full Friday night BBQ belly laugh, and then wrestle hugs me again. “I’ll work on Mineral King,” he says and tells me to let him know how he can help with the forest work. “Even if it’s just carrying some equipment around.”

I say I will, and as I’m driving out of their driveway, I think about my dad’s sixty-fifth birthday, just two weeks away, and realize these things are not unconnected: my dad — the Olympic wrestler, orthopedic surgeon, ultra cyclist, and only surviving Williams family member turned Williams dad of ten — and the Giant Sequoia, who we thought lived forever.

The sky is dark when I pull back onto the highway, heading towards Auburn. The new moon is only a sliver, and there are clouds over the stars, shielding out the light that might have otherwise reflected off the snow-capped range. I can no longer see the Sierra, but I know it is there. Towering above us, watering the ground beneath us.

Three days later, just after finishing my last spring hike with my dad, I get a text in a group chat about one of my closest cycling buddies. His dad — a practicing doctor who I just met a few months ago, joking over chicken kebabs, helping his three grandsons with their school work, accidentally telling politically incorrect stories over chai — has unexpectedly passed away. From brain hemorrhage, after falling in the bathroom.

My dad hears me say something and asks what happened, but I don’t tell him at first.

Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un, several messages on the group chat say. It’s an Arabic phrase people share after someone in Pakistan passes, except I can never remember the exact translation. We belong to nature and to nature we shall return, I think, before someone in the chat writes it in English: We belong to God and to God we shall return.

The next day, I hug my parents goodbye, wish my dad an early happy sixty fifth, and drive towards SFO, for my flight back to New York.

I’m staring out the window as the plane rises above the San Francisco Bay, then Oakland and Hayward, Berkeley and the Berkeley hills, the great Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra, and finally the Sierra itself. I try to make out the canyons of Yosemite, like my mom always does, but can’t find them. Instead, I approximate where they might be. El Capitan and the Valley Loop, Vernal Falls and the Merced River, the Cathedral Rocks and Half Dome, the Giant Forest and Mineral King, General Sherman and Lazarus. But from this level, everything is indistinguishable from everything else. The canyons and the valleys, the falls and the rivers, the cliffs and the ranges, the wilderness and the sequoias, the living trees and the dead. Everything is connected to everything. We belong to the earth and to the earth we shall return. Lift a small cone of a sequoia, and you may find it attached to every part of nature. Lift a small story of the beloved, and you may find it attached to every part of you.

(Pictures by author, of the East Bay and Sierra Nevada)

Climate Conscious

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benje williams

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“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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