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Tree power

Saturday January 19, 2002

Anthology chronicles the ancient spiritual force of the redwoods 


Imagine an anthology of poems, essays, diary entries and stories so consistently well-written, spiritually transformative, fact-filled, honest and comprehensive that it actually meets the challenge of authentically describing the majestic, ancient, and somber beautiful strength of a 2,000 year old, cinnamon-barked, California redwood. 

“Giants in the Earth: The California Redwoods,” edited by Berkeley resident, Peter Johnstone, and just released by local publisher, Heyday Books, is one of those extremely rare books that are actually worth the paper they’re printed on. (From a tree-hugging, organic cloth-wearing, inkjet-recycling, purse-made-out-of-an-inner-tube fanatic like myself, that’s high praise.) 

Contributors include literary icons, such as the Nobel Prize-winning Czeslaw Milosz, the passionate voice of America Walt Whitman, the melancholic nature-loving misanthrope Robinson Jeffers, the adventurous Robert Louis Stevenson and the sparkling Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Tom Wolfe.  

Also included are famous distinguished local writers such as Jack London, the exquisitely observant John Muir, Armistead Maupin, Gary Synder, Jack Kerouac and Julia Butterfly Hill.  

Equally worth reading are the excerpted works of lesser-known documentarians such as Anna M. Lind – who wrote about starting work as a waitress and cook in a Humboldt County logging camp in 1926; and Lucy Thompson (1853-1932), a native of the Yurok village of Pecwan – the U.K.Leguin of the 19th Century, in my opinion -- who tells the story of a custody dispute over a Yurok child who lived among the redwoods.  

This anthology is simply tremendous. Peter Johnstone, Peter M. Palmquist and Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books did an amazing job.  

Giants in the Earth: The California Redwoods opens with philosophical essays which introduce botanical and other facts about these unusual trees, and which provide the reader with a historical perspective on the logging practices which caused massive destruction, and which continue to threaten this plant species’ future.  

This book contains some of the finest naturalist writing I’ve seen, such as Elna S. Bakker’s ecstatic verbal paeon to the redwood forest floor: "The pink petals of oxalis (redwood sorrel) open tiny whorls among shamrock-shaped leaves. Sword ferns arch green fronds over log and root." Ninetta Eames writes: "we rode through lofty branchless columns keeping their ranks closed in and supporting a plumy roof more than two hundred feet above us." 

Explanations are provided for what is termed: "redwood mysticism and aestheticism." There are descriptions of the different types of redwood groves and of their astonishing longevity. Redwoods date back to the age of the dinosaurs. Their existence predates today’s continental configuration, mountain ranges such as the Alps, and the existence of flowering plants.  

Later in the collection, Peter E. Palmquist describes the challenge photographers face in trying to represent the moist, foggy, fragrant ecosystem and metaphysical grandeur of a redwood grove… using a medium as flat as a photograph. Included in Giants in the Earth are a selection of historical photos from his personal collection.  

Giants in the Earth closes with works such as Dana Gioia’s deeply moving and brilliantly written memorial to his stillborn son: "Planting a Sequoia," a poem with the aboriginal eloquence and stature of the most ancient and silently momentous Sequoia Gigantia. 

An excerpt from Julia Butterfly Hill’s The Legacy of Luna describes the spiritual learning she acquired after sitting hundreds of feet up in a redwood during the fierce lashing of a winter storm. Her words help bring the reader to a most tumultuous and transcendent finish. An unforgettable book. 

Sari Friedman teaches writing at local colleges and can be reached at 


Additional inset: plate 26 with photo credit, will be sent by publisher.