A friend of mine returned from California recently all excited about, of all things, a bunch of stumps. It must be admitted that the stumps which so aroused Richard H. Pough, who is head of the Conservation Department of the American Museum of Natural History, were king-sized. In fact they are the biggest in the world, having once supported giant sequoias.
Americans have come to accept the huge sequoias (not to be confused with the coast redwood) as a part of our national heritage. The remaining groves, most of them safe in national parks and forests, have become a botanical wonder. Millions have visited these awesome giants on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. But most persons who see them are unaware that these monarchs of the plant world came close to not being saved at all.
AFTER 50 YEARS
Dick Pough wanted to see an area where the big trees had been cut down. He wondered what such a spot would be like more than 50 years after the trees had come crashing to earth. He visited the Converse Basin in the Sequoia National Forest to find out. In this bowl in the mountains there once stood one of the finest groves of Sequoia gigantea. The Converse Basin was logged off at the end of the last century. After the trees were cut down a great fire swept the basin, burning lesser trees and debris left by the lumbering operation.
It was the destruction of this grove that stirred public resentment and led to the preservation of most of the remaining stands. The campaign to save them still continues; only last April, John D. Rockefeller Jr. gave $1,000,000 to help purchase a forest of giant sequoias, sugar pines and ponderosa pines in California.
The basin—an area of some four square miles—presented a strange sight. Great stumps dotted the view as though some mighty race had gone away and left wooden monuments. The stumps were 10 to 12 feet high and up to 30 feet in diameter. Solid cylinders of wood, they had sat there lifeless but still defying destruction for more than half a century.
"They hadn't even begun to rot," Pough says. "And furthermore, when I went to the spot where an old sawmill had stood, there were piles of sawdust which hadn't rotted either. They're right when they call it the wood eternal."
He prowled around among the stumps, studying them and measuring them. At the edge of the basin, standing on a slope with the magnificent sweep of King's Canyon beyond it, he came upon the Boole tree, the only mighty specimen which had been left standing. This tree, one of the largest of the living sequoias, has a diameter of 35 feet at its base, and at a point 200 feet above the ground it is 10 feet thick. It is 261 feet six inches tall. This lone giant was named after Frank Boole, the lumber foreman who issued the order that one big tree in the basin should be left standing.
Pough stood beside it and tried to imagine what the basin was like before the other trees there were reduced to stumps. The Boole tree and many of the others had been growing for more than 3,000 years.
Looking out over the basin, Pough noticed the only cheerful aspect of the scene: throughout this land of stumps there were young sequoias, mere saplings 60 to 70 feet tall and from 24 to 30 inches in diameter. They were only four or five times as tall as the stumps but they were vigorous and growing.
In order to germinate and thrive the tiny seeds of these trees must fall on bare soil. If they come to rest on the leafmold of the forest floor they won't grow. Fire is one of their soil conditioners. The big fire, which swept the basin after the lumbering, had burned away the soil covering and provided the necessary conditions for the seeds to prosper.
Among their many unusual characteristics, the world's largest trees have learned to live with fire and hence stand for centuries. When great conflagrations sweep through the forest they destroy lesser trees, but the sequoias are almost unaffected. Their bark, which is up to two feet thick, will hardly burn. This asbestoslike covering had enabled the trees in the Converse Basin to survive all threats until the loggers came.
FINE GROVE COMING
It was late afternoon when Pough made his way back over the dirt road. His car got stuck on the way out but he managed to get it going again and finally got back to the groves of living sequoias which are one of America's greatest national playgrounds. He shook his head and smiled as he finished his story.
"Three thousand years from now," he said, "there will be another fine grove of sequoias in the Converse Basin."
THE ERRANT GIANT
In the pennant stretch, 46 years ago this week, first baseman Fred Merkle pulled baseball's most agonizing boner. With the score tied and two out in the ninth against the contending Cubs, New York scored a runner from third on a single. But Chicago claimed that Merkle, who had been on first, failed to touch second. Agreeing, umpire Hank O'Day called the game a tie. Chicago won the play-off and the pennant.