Photograph by Zane J. Cornett

Trees of Mystery

IN PLANTS it’s not called aging, it’s called senescence, which sounds so much more elegant, serene even, than what happens to humans as time wrinkles us, like it’s drying us out, how it deepens our sockets, bends our spines as it brings us down, shortens and grays and blinds and deafens us, makes some of us forget almost everything, makes others of us obsess over the good old days if only because our days left are numbered.

Old age is not senescence, and we don’t last even close to as long as the oldest trees alive today, which have even outlived human empires. Some trees will outlast this American one. The undisputed tallest and among the oldest are the redwoods. Their bark is red, the brown kind of red, with a kind of furriness about them. They always seem animal-like, or even sometimes Muppet-like to me, these trees I grew up seeing in the Oakland Hills—even to the point of taking them for granted.

The first school I went to was called Redwood Heights. Redwood trees were a five-minute drive up the hill from school. I certainly didn’t know that the trees I was visiting were second-and third-generation Oakland trees, merely hundreds of years old, just as I wasn’t taught that the redwood forests I grew up taking field trips to were home to the thousands-of-years-old Saklan Miwok people.

On my mom’s side I’m a third-generation Oaklander. My great-grandfather used to deliver baked goods from a horse-drawn carriage in North Oakland. These second-and third-generation trees are part of what is called a fairy ring. A fairy ring is the name for a group of redwoods that grows in an almost perfect circle around an old-growth redwood stump cut down by loggers. This is a survival technique that precludes the need for seeding the soil, new trees growing from the preexisting root system. That trees know how to live as long as they do, and how to survive us is some kind of wisdom, and some kind of grace, considering all the logging we have done, all the logging we continue to do, plundering the world as we do instead of cultivating it.

When the Bay Area, and specifically San Francisco, was being built, the redwoods in the area were vital to the town’s making. Every single tree but one of the old growth in Oakland was cut down and used to build the city, and then to rebuild it after the 1906 quake and subsequent fire. The name of one old-growth tree that remains is Grandfather. Standing at 250 feet and 26 feet wide, it is the tallest of any redwood in Oakland, and more than five hundred years old. This makes Grandfather among the rarest and most precious of trees, but also a survivor of the unspeakable atrocity of the unfettered logging industry that cut down 96 percent of the old-growth redwoods in existence.

For my son’s tenth birthday, we celebrated with a picnic right next to a sequoia tree, which towered above us higher than we could see. We ate and played hide-and-seek, finding our best spots on a nearby fallen redwood. Redwoods and sequoias differ in three main ways: Redwoods are taller, whereas sequoias are larger and thicker at their base. And redwoods like to live near the ocean, whereas sequoias prefer the subalpine, between five and seven thousand feet, where it still gets hot and dry enough for fires. Sequoias have thicker skin, too, with bark up to two feet thick, which makes them even less susceptible to forest fires, a natural occurrence in any forest, but sequoias need fires to release the seeds of their well-protected cones, and they need fires to clear the forest floor for their relatively small seeds to get into the loam.

I’ve been thinking a lot about life and life span during the pandemic. I come from a people with the shortest expected life span in this country. My dad’s brother, who was my dad’s age, just passed this week, so I’m thinking about him, and I’m thinking about my older sister, who is not doing well at all. Living through this pandemic and hearing about people dying in such vast numbers can be numbing, Numbers can be numbing, and death can be made abstract, but the pandemic has disproportionately affected Native people, including dozens of elders from my tribe. Having survived genocide and disease, forced removal and boarding schools, how did we not make circles around one another in our communities, keeping the living root system alive?

There is a strange and kitschy amusement park of sorts in Klamath, California, called Trees of Mystery. It features redwood trees and has a Skytram that carries you through the forest hundreds of feet in the air. Paul Bunyan is heavily featured. And the End of the Trail Museum there is one way Americans have said that Native Americans did not survive them. You’ve probably seen the symbol of a Native man on horseback slumped down in sadness, in defeat, at the edge of a cliff. The museum features a collection of Native art and artifacts probably not acquired in any honest kind of way. Once, at a natural history museum of dinosaur statues in Utah, I saw a Native American artifacts display on the second floor featuring Navajo powwow regalia. People must think Native Americans are gone, or belong to nature, or both. That the amusement park itself has survived all this time is itself a mystery.

I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand where survival strategies come from. Like these fairy rings growing around a stump, clones for the future of their kind around a life cut down too soon. Or trees that need fires to plant their seeds in the loam. The act of survival in any living thing is its center, no matter where it is pushed or pulled, no matter how many years aged in lines on the skin, wrinkles and folds, in rings you don’t see until they are irrevocably severed.


Subscribe to Orion Ad

Tommy Orange is the author of There There, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.


  1. The Redwoods have been my companions since I was born. They are amazing trees but greater than that they have a special mysterious quality about them that defies any explanation. Maybe we just have to sit near one quietly enough to understand.

    Thank you for your article!

  2. Thank you for this lovely essay. As you so eloquently show, we have much to learn about community and survival from trees.I live in south Louisiana and am heartsick at the number of oaks we lost last month in Hurricane Ida. And now we’re losing even more because people fear one will fall on their house so they’re cutting them down. I hope they are planting one for every one they take, but I can’t be sure.

  3. Thank you, Stephen, for sharing your perspective. I grew up with no history about our native American brothers and sisters; nothing about trees. Anything you share with us is of great value and will enrich our lives.

  4. thank you for sharing with such intamacy. The sacred circle once again shows its depth through mother earth. i hope we change our ways

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.