The World’s Largest Living Things
WHAT seemed to be “wild tales” once came out of America’s Far West. Men talked of trees more than three hundred feet high, with trunks a hundred feet around. “Nonsense,” people thought; “who could believe such a thing?”
But the trees were there. Nothing else on earth has grown to their massive size, and few things have lived longer. How have these giants succeeded in growing so large, and surviving so long? The answers might interest you, for these astounding examples of creation are unusual in more ways than most persons imagine.
Called Big Tree, Sierra Redwood, Giant Sequoia or Sequoiadendron giganteum, these masters of the forest reign only in a limited area, about 260 miles long, generally between the 4,000-foot and the 8,500-foot level, along the west side of a single mountain range—California’s Sierra Nevadas.
Usually they are found in groves, which may contain from as few as six to as many as several thousand trees. Many groves are in country that still can be reached only by hikers, but some of them are easily reached by roads leading up from California’s fertile central valley.
The long, winding roads that climb toward Big Tree country go through great stands of pines. But suddenly you have an impression of something bigger. You get your first glimpse of a Giant Sequoia.
At first you do not realize the Sequoia’s size, because the surrounding trees are so large. It is only when you stand at the base of a Big Tree and look up, or when you walk around it and count your paces, that its awesome majesty begins to dawn upon you.
To illustrate how big these trees are, imagine a tree as high as a twenty-five-story building. Think of a single limb more than six feet thick, and visualize that limb so high up the trunk of the tree that you could put a twelve-story building under it. Consider a tree whose trunk is thirty feet in diameter. Cut and laid on its side in a city street, it would reach the top of third-story windows!
The largest of these trees contain more wood than is used in building forty five-room houses—though their wood generally is not put to use for construction.
The General Sherman tree, in the Sequoia National Park, is considered the world’s largest living thing. It is 272.4 feet high, and 101.6 feet around. It is far from the tallest tree in the world, but its massive trunk tapers very little, and it contains an astounding quantity of wood. Recent studies suggest that it may also be the world’s fastest-growing thing—not in height, but in mass.
The Birth of a Big Tree
The birth of one of these mighty trees is a relatively rare event. The world’s largest living things grow from a seed kernel as small as a pinhead. It takes 90,000 of these seeds to make a pound. They come 5,600 to the ounce!
An individual Sequoia produces millions of such tiny seeds, but few germinate. Even fewer grow into full-size trees. It has been said: “It is no uncommon thing to see trees that have been bearing seed year after year for one thousand years or more yet show no reproduction beneath them.”—Big Trees, Walter Fry and John R. White, page 59.
The tiny Sequoia seed requires exposed mineral soil. It finds this only after some disturbance removes the foliage and branches that normally litter the forest floor. A lightning-caused fire can burn this litter away. Or, an ancient tree can fall, exposing the earth in its root pit.
Then a seed may flutter down, to be lightly buried. If conditions are just right, it swells and a tiny root pushes downward. A timid stem reaches up toward the light. Even then, its chances for survival are not great. A bird may spy the seed hull, still attached to the sprout. Or a tiny ant may nip it off, and drag home what might have become one of the world’s greatest living things!
But once infancy is past, the Sequoia develops incredible vigor. At the end of its first century it is six feet in diameter and 150 feet tall. It can survive severe physical damage.
Exceptional Resistance to Fire
The Sequoia’s spongy red-brown bark may be as much as two feet thick. It is thought to be an outstanding factor in the long life of these Big Trees.
Lightning may stab out of the billowing mass of a summer thunderstorm, and set the forest afire. Other great trees are destroyed, consumed in torches of flame. But the Sequoia’s spongy bark—soft enough to give when you push it with your finger—enables it to withstand furnace-hot wildfire. Over the centuries Sequoias live through fire after fire. They are singed and wounded, scarred and scarred again, but they continue to survive, standing head high above the rest of the forest.
Most of the older Sequoias have such fire scars. Visitors can stand within the blackened recesses burned out of some of these trees and look up through the burned center of the tree’s trunk. Two hundred feet of a tree’s vitals may be consumed, yet it lives on till successive forest fires have cooked so much of the wood that the sap can no longer pass.
Generally the fire injuries heal. Little by little new bark creeps over the wound, at a speed of perhaps a quarter of an inch a year, until, in a few centuries, it completely covers the burn.
When the fire has consumed smaller trees, and the sunlight again bathes the ground, new Sequoia seedlings may sprout. In time, these too may become giant trees.
Roots and Enemies
Despite their tremendous size, these trees have an exceptionally shallow root system. Their roots may be only four or five feet deep, but they can spread out to gather nutrients from an area 400 feet across—perhaps two acres. It would take 500 persons, standing at arm’s length, to encircle such a root area. It is difficult to imagine such a shallow root system successfully anchoring, against the storms of centuries, a tree structure as high as a twenty-five-story building, and weighing as much as a small ocean-going freighter.
No Sequoia has ever been known to die of disease or old age. Its enemies are fire, erosion, wind and man. Erosion by a nearby stream may undermine the tree, which leans more and more, over a long period of years, till finally it comes crashing down. Loggers have destroyed in a day trees that were old when Jesus was born, and that may have been standing when Solomon built Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem. But little profit came from this destruction, as the wood is brittle, splits badly under the shattering crash of such a tremendous tree’s fall, and is not very useful for building. Many groves are now preserved in national parks, to protect them from such destruction.
They Praise the Creator
Man is humbled at the foot of such giants. Their ability to withstand the heavy snows of three thousand winters, and the droughts of innumerable rainless summers, is beyond our limited comprehension. Literally hundreds of generations of bustling squirrels have busied themselves in such a tree’s shade. Uncounted generations of deer, porcupines and gray foxes have nosed through the twigs at its base. Other trees have sprouted, matured, grown old, died, and been replaced by generations of their descendants, while the Big Trees stand, silently supreme.
Thousands of visitors have stood at the base of these trees, struck first with awe, then with reverence. Some have been stirred to a greater appreciation of God’s creation, and of the wisdom of the One who made such splendors possible. They remind us of Paul’s words: “For his invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship, so that [persons who do not glorify him] are inexcusable.”—Rom. 1:20.
Foretelling the conditions of God’s righteous new order, now near at hand, the Bible says that the lives of God’s people will be “like the days of a tree”; that is, they will enjoy long life. Even in Palestine there were trees that lived a thousand years or more. (Isa. 65:22) The existence of such trees helps us to appreciate that it is well within the scope of God’s power to accomplish his promise of permanent human life on earth.
The Bible’s promise of everlasting human life is made by the One whose creation made the growth and life of these great trees possible. It is no more a “wild tale” than were the reports of the existence of such trees—which people did not wish to believe a century ago.