Lessons From a Sequoia Grove

By   ∙  

This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Weather, No. 24 

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I.

Whenever I talk about sequoia trees, I feel the inadequacy of my words, how wildly they fall short. Some experiences run too deep for narration, though, as a writer, I continue to try. In the 13th century, the German nun and poet Mechthild of Magdeburg put it this way:

Of all that God has shown me
I can speak just the smallest word
Not more than the honeybee
Takes on his foot
From an overspilling jar.


To speak of the trees, I could offer facts: sequoias live to be 3,000 years old; they can grow as tall as a 26-story building; they can reach the diameter of six people stretched out head-to-toe; their weight can exceed that of a hundred elephants; when wildfires demolish other trees, sequoias survive thanks to their thick and spongy bark. Or, I could tell you that the first time I entered the Giant Forest, at the age of 17, I experienced it as a sacred site, a temple to nature, a cathedral not only older than the stone cathedrals of the religion in which I was raised, but older than that religion itself. I was that bee. The jar overflowed. My foot was never the same.

I was traveling with my mother and sister. For many of us, 17 is an age when we discover what’s possible inside and beyond ourselves. I was not prepared for the effect of the Giant Forest; though we only stayed an hour — nature is not my mother’s cup of tea — it was enough to shift my consciousness toward, to use an old-fashioned term, the ecstatic. I opened my arms wide and leaned into a sequoia trunk. Alive. Prescient. All the history they’d lived through, the past two millennia, raced through me. Two thousand years and more. The tree stood calm, breathed oxygen toward me.

Who was I?

What was reality, if it contained this too?

What was my own tiny life, and what could I forge with it in the brief time I’d be alive?

I didn’t understand myself yet as queer or gay, not with my conscious mind. I couldn’t possibly have known that nine years later my parents would break off contact with me, when I married a woman, or that in the process, they’d say I could no longer be Uruguayan because I was gay, that gayness was so foreign to Uruguayanness, such a first-world invention, that it could expel you from the culture. In the late ’90s, when immigrant and Latinx modes of queerness were not in reach at the tap of a hyperlink, my parents’ words held psychic power. Their words would propel me on a search for the hidden queer narratives of Uruguay, and that search would ultimately give birth to novels, as well as to an authentic life once deemed impossible, with a family of my own creation that I love so fiercely it almost hurts, like staring at the sun. None of this future was visible to me as I stood in that forest at 17 years old, euphoric, high on trees. I knew only that the sequoia grove had opened me, filled me with awe, and shown me, if not myself, a vast, glowing complexity to which I hungered to belong.

II.

I returned to the sequoias 27 years later, with my wife, son, and daughter, wanting to share with them the sacred wonder I’d felt. It was the summer of 2019, my birthday week. On the first night, my six-year-old daughter threw her arms around a tree and said, “I love you, sequoia,” and just like that I was accompanied in my once-private state of grace.

One afternoon, as we were sitting in a public plaza in the National Park where tourists from all over the world could study maps and nibble snacks, a white man in a red-white-and-blue USA T-shirt walked by us and muttered something about “environmental nuts and the gay Bay.” I hadn’t seen the man approach, and was slow to grasp what he had said. (Later, I’d learn that he’d been upset that the park would not allow him to use a deep fat fryer at his campsite, angling for people to blame.) It probably didn’t occur to him that members of those identities were sitting right in front of him: gay, environmentalists, from the Bay. As an interracial family with two mothers, we are often invisible in mainstream public spaces. But invisible and absent are two very different things.

My wife Pam responded immediately, and her voice rang clear. “I’m gay. And I’m right here. Please be respectful. We’re all in this place together.”

My daughter watched this exchange wide-eyed. This was her first experience with public homophobia. At six years old, she was accustomed to celebrating Gay Pride with all the pomp and joy and friends-come-on-over of a High Holy Day, a summer festivity more treasured than the Fourth of July. She adores her mothers and rainbow unicorns and rainbow flags. She’s always been free to wear tutus and neckties, at times together, to live as expansively as she likes. You might even call her a child of the Gay Bay. To hear her home culture disparaged by a stranger was a surprise, an interruption of her world.

Meanwhile, the man kept walking toward the table where his partner and son sat waiting for him. He acted as though he hadn’t heard, but what blossomed open in the air between us was danger. The plaza crackled. I braced myself for heat, conflict, anything, made a furious calculation of what I would and wouldn’t do in front of my children. And then the strangest thing happened: his family rose from their seats and started floating away from the plaza, without exchanging a word, without looking at us, almost as if they’d turned into ghosts.

I took my daughter’s hand as they walked past, and said, “There’s no need for bigotry in a public space.”

It was striking, how assiduously they pretended not to hear as they drifted away.

Over dinner that night, at a Park restaurant where the kids ate chicken strips and searched the adjacent meadow for wildlife through binoculars, my daughter asked to talk more about what had happened.

In the conversation that ensued, I told her I was proud of her Mama, not only for standing up for the dignity of our family, but for doing so without resorting to putting the other people down based on, say, the shape of their bodies, or the color of their skin, or even telling them off as jerks for what they’d said. And this was true, I thought as I spoke. When we travel outside metropolitan California, my wife is more of a target than I am. As a black woman, she is constantly disrespected in public spaces in ways I, a white-presenting Latina, am not. And yet, she’d managed to be gracious and declarative at the same time, stating an objective fact that hummed inside me now like a refrain: we’re all in this place together.

Every time our kids learn a new layer of the bigotry that surrounds us, their world is subtly rearranged. The knowledge arrives in gradations. The public display of homophobia, sudden and flaring, was new — but they’d heard of it, knew of the concept. One of their sources for understanding homophobia is the story of my parents, whom they’ve never met. For years, I struggled with how to frame my parents to my children, afraid they’d be hurt by my parents’ homophobia and racism. Over the years, I’ve been startled to find that, in fact, they’re less hurt than baffled and outraged on my behalf. Why would we want to be around such mean people anyway? How could your mom and dad not love you the way you love us? Their world is so whole that hostile grandparents, far from causing a wound, become almost irrelevant, made obsolete by their own recusal, by their choice to float away like ghosts.

But let us be clear: not all aggressors float away. Just a few weeks after this family trip, a six-year-old child, Stephen Romero, was gunned down inside a bouncy house at the Gilroy Garlic Festival by a white supremacist seeking brown bodies to destroy. Bigotry flares, sharp and sudden. Gilroy is not so far from our home. My children love bouncy houses. They have brown bodies too. They might have been instant friends with Stephen Romero, jumping, laughing, doing silly flips, chatting in both English and Spanish, delighting in simple joys and in the very thing white terrorists cannot abide — the fact that we are all in this place together.

III.

Sequoias have a mystique of endurance, able to live so long they seem immortal to the human eye. But climate change is coming for us all. The recent drought in California did not leave them unscathed. The sequoias, these immense, seemingly indestructible giants, began to show signs of stress — brown leaves, dehydration — and a few have died, at least in part from the dry conditions. Even the largest living beings on this earth need us to protect them from what we’ve wrought.

The air is also affected. Pollutants have a way of sweeping right into the sequoia groves, which stand downwind of California’s highways, cities, and industrial agriculture. Sequoia and Kings Canyon have the worst air quality of any national park. Packing for our family trip, I’d left my daughter’s inhaler behind, thinking, erroneously, that air quality would be the least of our concerns in the middle of a forest. Her asthma is mild, and she hadn’t needed the inhaler since the wildfires that had devastated Northern California the year before. And yet, on this trip, surrounded by gargantuan trees, my daughter at times struggled to breathe, for the weather is a mutable reality, shaping us all constantly, and shaped by the collective sum of our actions and inactions every day.

IV.           

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the future of our climate, which should come as no surprise given the circumstances. But I’ve also been thinking about the phrase “cultural climate,” how crucial it is to our understanding and survival. The climate crisis is not separate from our cultural crisis, which is also happening all around us all the time, a kind of weather system impacted by the rise in heat or storms or bigotry whipped up by the winds, caught in our lungs. Before the 2016 election, my daughter said of Trump, We’re not beautiful to him. When I asked her where she’d heard this, she added, Nobody told me this. It’s just a feeling I had. She was three years old.

Some people’s lungs are more susceptible than others. Some of us live in more impacted ecosystems — people of color, immigrants, queers. The shifted cultural climate doles out harm unequally. But all of us are inside of it. It is up to each of us to decide how we respond to the weather around us, how we claim the commons, how we shape what’s next.

Not only that: our physical climate depends on our shifting the cultural weather we inhabit. We will not solve one crisis without also addressing the other. Anyone who thinks we can save the planet without dismantling bigotry may want to take a closer look at the facts.

The problems are inextricably linked, but so are the solutions.

So are the sources of our power.

V.

You might think the most mind-blowing
thing about sequoias is their colossal height, or width, or incredible age.

To which I say: Hold up. Let me tell you about the roots.

Contrary to what people expect, sequoia roots do not run deep. There is no tap root anchoring these giants down into the earth. In fact, sequoia roots generally run a maximum of 14 feet into the ground — to anchor trees that soar 250 feet into the air.

Where do such roots find the strength to hold up giants?

They grow outward. They extend beneath the earth, occupying as much as an acre of terrain. And, because sequoias grow in close proximity with fellow sequoias, those roots interweave with the roots of other trees, forming an entwined, meshed webbing underground. It is this webbing, this interlocking community, that gives sequoias the power to weather fire, wind, centuries, millennia. Underground, they hold each other. They keep each other strong as they reach for the sun. 

VI.

Everything you do will make a difference. I invite you to believe this. I extend my roots toward you, underground.

VII.

That night in Sequoia, after the chicken strips and binoculars and debrief of what happened on the plaza, my wife and son walked from our rustic cabin to the bathrooms to brush their teeth, and when they returned my son was breathless with excitement. An incredible thing had happened, a miracle, a form of retroactive divination.

On their walk back, he told us, he and his mama had turned off their flashlights to stare up at the stars. They were bright and copious, far more than could be seen in the city. He searched for constellations, and found a pattern in the stars. It was in the shape of a shield. What could it mean? He’d thought hard about this.

My son is 10 years old, and not given to superstition. His great passion is science. He dreams of becoming a biologist and working to protect endangered species, whose possible demise pains him to the depths of his soul. Once, when he was seven, he came home from summer camp and said, Today a boy told me that God made me. I explained that different faiths hold different beliefs about God, and that some religions teach that only their beliefs are valid and therefore apply automatically to everybody else. He thought about this for a long time, then finally said, If God made me — if God made me — then God is nature, evolution, and time. Because that’s what made me: nature, evolution, and time.

It was therefore surprising to hear that my son had sought a message in the stars. But he was older now, and the Harry Potter books, which we’d been reading aloud together, had exposed him to the idea of divination. Perhaps more important: this was not just any night.

“I saw it,” he went on. “The shield was for Mama! Because today she was the
Defender of Gay.”

His face was wide open, exuberant.

In his world, the stars could do this, could chime in on behalf of a Defender of Gay and shower her with cosmic light.

In his world, the stars were on our side, on all of our sides, prepared to back us up when we stand tall, tell truths, insist on love and justice.

And, if you ask me, it’s his world that matters most, by which I mean the world of his generation — because they’re the ones who will inherit what we’ve done, what we’ve failed to do, what we’ve forged or abandoned or risen to joyously defend.

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Carolina De Robertis  is a writer of Uruguayan origin. She is the author of four novels, most recently Cantoras. She teaches at San Francisco State University, and lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children.