The Redwood, or A Tall Tale is currently available in eBook and Paperback from Amazon.com. Set in the redwood forests of California, The Redwood is the tale of one tree’s journey to the top. Featuring a colorful cast of flora and fauna, this fairy tale is intelligent, charming and full of heartwood. If you’re interested in learning more, click here for a full description.
Below you’ll find second chapter of The Redwood in its entirety. You can find chapter one here. Enjoy, and thank you for reading.
There are three things valued above all else by any right-minded tree: a plot of rich soil, enough water for one’s roots, and open sky above. Such things are not given freely, but must be earned through hardship, perseverance, and ingenuity. From the moment the radicle emerges from its seed it must labor till the end of its days. This is especially true in old-growth forests, where the floor itself is often lost in dense thickets of ferns and bushes, in caked duff and detritus. Out of the hundred thousand seeds shed each year, and uncountable pollen, the percentage of trees that successfully survive the first three years is, remarkably, less than one.
Nor are trees guaranteed an easy life after three years. Trees must always weather scarcity. They must compete for their fair share, coexist with their neighbors, compromise over driplines and root hairs, and plan for their growth, for a place to stretch their limbs and lift their crown into the sky. A tree must labor with every leaf and spray to churn its sugar. It must be rational, spending and saving, deciding whether to thicken its bark or save its starch. A tree must draw up water to its highest limbs, fighting unforgiving Gravity, which every moment is working against it. All this is done in the expectation of a proper annual (or biannual) flourishing, and the hopes of rising, higher and higher, to the top of the canopy, to bask in the brightness of the Sun.
Yet despite all this, sometimes a sapling gets lucky.
This was the case of one sapling, a coastal redwood, who just so happened to sprout in the most advantageous of places.
The stand in question was once overrun by mounds of hearty sorrel, but had recently been cleared away by a brief but fierce forest fire. This left a rather conspicuous clearing, one that was close enough to the river to make the soil bed soft but not too damp. A nearby tree had also fallen not long ago, and this had made the topsoil rich with humus. Such a promising stand was considered an excellent piece of real estate, and the sapling sprouted with relative ease.
In hardly any time at all it stood fifty feet in the air. Its bark was rufous, its grain dense with bird’s eye. Its branches were skinny and green. It lifted up the soil with its roots, which was not an easy feat for a sapling. This particular tree grew so quickly that its neighbors called it Odin Tall, for they were sure that such a tree would tower above the grove with its crown in the canopy.
When Odin Tall was three years old, old enough to understand the language of trees, he took in the scent of a welcoming neighbor, a pacific madrone named Arbutus Menzies. It was Arbutus who told him his name, and what the other trees thought of his remarkable growth spurt.
“Where are these other trees who speak of me?” Odin Tall replied, his very first words as a member of the plant species.
“All around us, of course,” Arbutus explained. The words rolled down the roof of his crown, making invisible curlicues as they fell.” If you temper your greens to the air pressure, this will give you an idea of where you are, and who’s around you.”
Odin Tall did this instinctively, without even knowing what the madrone had meant. Suddenly, all at once, the world seemed to take shape, and the redwood could see the forest for the trees.
It was dark and dreary so close to the floor. Everything was damp and smelled sweetly of decay. All around him the symmetry of trunks bent and converged upon the sky, shutting out the daylight. Noon darkness. But here and there bars of white light filled with cascading dust. There was dim, translucent light upon his crown. It was just bright enough that he could feel its warmth. Around the base of his trunk were mats of fern and lichen. And underneath the ground he could feel his roots stretch out comfortably.
Arbutus Menzies was to his east, standing eighty feet or more in the air, so that only the bottom of his tilting crown stuck out beneath the middlestory.
“Your bark is peeling,” Odin Tall noted.
“Like the rolled cuffs of gentlemen,” Arbutus said proudly.
“What’s a gentlemen?” Odin Tall asked.
“Oh, just forest talk. I’ve never stood in front of a human myself, but these things make their way around the woods.”
Indeed, Arbutus was peeling. His bark was orange and papery. Sleeves of bark peeled back from his trunk like rind, revealing smooth, bright-green wood underneath, whose color went nicely with the sprays of white flowers that filled his branches.
“You may also perceive the plant life around you, not through the organs of your greens, but with your very roots.”
Odin Tall did this, turning his attention to his roots and suddenly sensing every natural thing within the soil. He could taste the various elements, and found that he was well acquainted with them even before he noticed them.
“I can feel you,” he said.
“Wonderful!” Arbutus said with fragrant glee. “Then you are officially a member of the neighborhood. I’m so pleased to be the first to introduce you to the grove. Such an honor, to have a sturdy young redwood in our midst.”
“There’s something else down there.”
Odin Tall could sense the large cap head of a toadstool nestled beside the base of his trunk.
“Your fungus,” Arbutus explained. “Not many saplings are lucky enough to foster a fungus. And not just any fungus. This is a fly agaric, a hard-working, mycorrhizal fungus. It will join your roots to all the right trees.”
“What’s your name, fungus?” Odin Tall asked.
“I work for you,” it said. “My name is Odin Tall’s fungus.”
“Is that what others call you?”
“They don’t seem to require naming,” Arbutus said. “Best just to say fungus, and it will know who you mean.”
Arbutus Menzies also had fungi around the base of his trunk. Their wide, flat bells teetered this way and that, and looked like pancakes.
“Well it’s just the two of you then,” Odin Tall said.
“What about your parent?” he asked. “It’s common for trees to grow near their parent. That’s how they usually survive this long. Are you saying you haven’t heard from your parent yet, after all this time?”
Odin Tall, as it turned out, couldn’t sense his parent anywhere. This was strange indeed, since a parent always supported its seedlings, especially once they’d germinated. But Odin Tall had taken root anyway, which was surely lucky. They agreed he must’ve come a long way from wherever his parent was, too far away to send any roots, or too tall to waft down any perfume, or perhaps both. It may have been that his seed was carried off by a mouse or a crow, and dropped importunely. Or perhaps his parent had reached the utmost treetops and, having grown so tall in the interim of three years—and maybe longer than that, for redwood seedlings can lie dormant for many years—simply forgot about its children below.
“This is probably why they haven’t contacted you with their odors,” Arbutus said.
He explained how the world above their crowns was quite different from the one they were standing in. Arbutus himself stood eighty feet or so, which was tall enough to know most trees, but not nearly tall enough to know the tallest trees. This was because, in a forest of redwoods and Douglas-firs, the canopy was around three hundred feet in the air, raised upon some of the tallest and firmest wood. Most plants lived their entire lives only knowing the Sun through the tangled branches of the tallest redwoods and firs.
Odin Tall gazed up into the checkered halo, and felt the sunlight tickle the chlorophyll in his greens.
“I have no doubt you’ll soon be standing with the tallest of them,” Arbutus proclaimed.
“Perhaps even with the emergents themselves.”
The emergents, Arbutus explained, were the very tallest trees. Taller than the canopy itself. Their crowns peaked out of the crowded rooftop and bathed in the full, undisguised light of the Sun. Their numbers were so few that it was thought to be a solitary existence. An emergent always hailed another emergent from a great distance, waving their crowns at one another in lonesome salutation. They did not speak with the rest of the forest, but became instead a part of the landscape itself, like a mountain or a river.
Arbutus, of course, was being obsequious. Even though Odin Tall had grown impressively, the chances of any tree becoming an emergent was even more unlikely than taking root in an old-growth forest. The latter happened inevitably, while the former was always an anomaly. Every tree knew this was the case, for trees are extremely rational in their judgement of things. Arbutus, however, was gregarious, and talkative, and one became that way by saying many flattering things.
“Of course he’ll reach the top,” another tree added.
The unexpected scent floated around the stand and tasted rather tart in Odin Tall’s greens.
He could, by absorbing its odors, retrace its path back to the tree that exhaled it, visualizing the indolent stain in the air. The smell, like the shifting of red light, hung frozen for a time until it melted into the background of the forest.
It had wafted to him from the north, where a large nurse log stretched out lengthwise before him, running the entire length of the stand, its body rootless and crownless. It was overrun with tufts of moss and sticky liverworts and bells of rosy gomphidius. There, in front of the nurse log, Odin Tall spied the wispy figure of a yew tree who seemed to lean back into the log and spread its greens over the mossy, decaying trunk.
“Pay no mind to her, young Odin Tall,” Arbutus said. “She’s quite disagreeable and rude.”
“I only speak the truth,” she said. “If you find the truth disagreeable, that makes you a fool, Arbutus.”
The yew, which was standing only thirty feet or so in the air, had flimsy, fanning greens that looked more like the pinnæ of a fern than the branches of a tree.
“You believe I’ll reach the top of the canopy?” Odin Tall asked, excited by the news. And from someone who only spoke the truth, no less.
“You certainly will,” she said with the same air of sourness as before. “Just like all the other redwoods. Stealing the sunlight for yourself, leaving nothing for the rest of us.”
“Oh, sink into the earth with your nonsense, Folia,” Arbutus said. “Don’t pick on a sapling. Besides, he just wants what every tree wants. Sink into the earth with your resentment at once.”
“He’ll put you in the shade, too,” Folia said.
“There’s plenty of sunlight for all,” Arbutus declared.
“Exactly,” Folia retorted. Her odor was pungent, and grew more offensive in the midst of an early morning mist. It clung their greens. “Plenty of sunlight for all, hardly enough for some.”
“Why don’t you grow tall yourself?” Odin Tall inquired earnestly. “Then you’ll have as much sunlight as you need.”
“You’re right,” Folia said. “Why didn’t I think of that? Listen, sapling, I’ve lived in this stand for hundreds of years. Longer than you, that’s for sure. Longer than Arbutus Menzies, too. You think I don’t know how these things work? You think I’m dumb as a dandelion?”
“What’s a dandelion?” Odin Tall asked.
Folia the pacific yew was indeed hundreds of years old, though precisely how old was something unknown even to herself.
It was the case that, if a tree happened to lose a good deal of its neighbors, either from forest fires or dieback or some other tragedy, eventually it lost its sense of age, too, as it no longer had any way of keeping track of time. New generations succeeded, and newer ones after that, and they would keep time between themselves, and learn of their years through each other. But older trees, the ones who survived, had no way of knowing exactly how old they really were.
This was true of Folia, who had lived in the stand longer than any of its current residents. She’d experienced a good deal of time, and this had turned her bitter. She criticized the tall redwoods and firs for taking all the sunlight and water for themselves, and lamented the treatment of fungi on the forest floor. She even criticized the Mother Tree for favoring redwoods over other plants. Folia was so disagreeable that many of her neighbors had even cut off their roots from hers. This, too, she criticized.
Odin Tall, who was unfamiliar with the bitter taste of her words, had no clue yet about sarcasm. He simply assumed Folia didn’t know the proper way to grow tall, or she’d gotten too used to the musty, cold understory. But instead of cutting off contact with her, as many plants did, he offered to join his roots with hers, so they could grow tall together.
Arbutus Menzies implored the redwood not to take on any deadweight—Gravity was crushing enough, the madrone complained. Even Folia refused Odin Tall countless times, saying she would never accept pity from a redwood. But after weeks and weeks of convincing, eventually she agreed, if only to shut him up about it.
His confidence and passion for growing made Odin Tall many friends among the shrubs and ferns around the stand, but Folia wasn’t buying any of his hot airs. When the redwood would spray the floor with enthusiasm, earnestly declaring his intent to grow as tall as the mountains, she, with the sharp flavor of her tannins, would mock his naïvety.
Yet Odin Tall was convinced all she needed was a helping branch, and he reminded her of this almost daily.
“When I reach the top of the canopy,” he said, “and meet my parent in that crowded roof, you’ll be standing just as tall as me, Folia, and we’ll both enjoy all the sunlight in the sky.”
The yew tree let out an air of reluctant assurance that, to anyone else but Odin Tall, smelled entirely unconvinced.