Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter One:
The Natural World of the Southern Sierra

Before We Came

At the end of the sixteenth century, before a single European had entered the great valley that is the true heart of California, before anyone but Native Americans had seen the mountains we call the Sierra Nevada, the world that now contains Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks at its center was an unseamed, unitary whole.

From the human point of view, and humans were already very much a part of the landscape, the heart of the region was the tule swamp later known as Tulare Lake and the oak forests that insulated the rivers from the surrounding dry grassland. The lake itself, if seen from the air, was a giant oval of concentric rings. The innermost ring, miles across, was open water, too deep for tules or other reeds, but green with other kinds of floating life made possible by the warm water of summer. Closer to the lakeshore were miles of the thick tules that would ultimately share their Spanish name with the lake itself. Six to ten feet tall, grey-green and tubular, the tules were a world unto themselves, endless and regular.

On the eastern side of the lake, opposite the dry rolling hills of the coastal mountains, the marshlands fringed into the oak forest. If still on wing an observer would look down into an inconsistent and confusing forest of dark, drooping, rounded oaks and slightly higher and drier islands of grass. Scattered along the meandering streams, the bright green marshes added another hue. The forest belt of the Kaweah River averaged perhaps fifteen miles in width. To the north and south brown, open grassland stretched toward seeming infinity; herds of pronghorn and tule elk lived in the brown openness. To the east, distantly visible above the oak forest, rose a miles-high blue and grey mountain wall—the Sierra Nevada.

map of topo cross section
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

No clear and abrupt color line separated the foot of the Sierra from the valley. The first foothills did arise abruptly from the surrounding prairie, but they shared the same colors and textures as the lowlands they bordered. A little higher up, more commonly on the slightly less severe northern slopes of the lowest hills, the first of the dryland oaks appeared—well-spaced compact trees making no pretense at being a forest. Above, on the looming mountain face, darker and denser forests began to come into view. These were the forests that gave the mountain its dark blue cast on clear days from the distant lake. First there were oak forests of increasing density, then steep, thick mountainsides of intertwined brush, and finally the great conifer forest itself.

The forest of tall, densely packed angular trees rose steadily, rank upon row, up the steep flanks of the Sierra—broken only occasionally by a small, wet meadow or a gleaming, gray-granite dome or ledge. Above the forest, visible from a hundred miles away, the granite asserted itself at last as the dominant and crowning feature of the range—clean and spare, angular and symmetrical. Bare rock in summer; shining ice in winter and spring. And above the rock, on hot summer afternoons, would grow towering blue-white thunderstorms, rising another four or six miles into the sky.

All this was visible to any creature who chose to look. And looking at this land already, and changing it, were thousands of people. It is time to remember them.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap1d.htm — 12-Jul-2004