I spent a lot of time this weekend around the redwood trees in Northern California. I had visited them once when I was a kid but my tiny brain hadn’t seen enough in this life to comprehend them. As an adult, it was an absolutely fantastic experience I feel kind of giddy even thinking about.
It is amazing to witness these trees reach hundreds of feet straight up into the air. And it wasn’t a forest that started gradually, getting taller the deeper we walked. The forest had a very clear boundary. Our sandy, treeless plain ended abruptly at a wall of hundred-foot trees. They are almost impractically tall. Looking at them, walking under them I was struck over and over again with this idea of “Yea, but how?” Staring at them made my brain crave an understanding of science of which I am not capable.
I thought standing closer to one, looking up at it would have it make more sense. So I did just that. It did not make more sense. It just made the whole experience trippy. Looking up I saw a trunk that was both massive and stoic. My eyes continued to the top section of the tree which swayed back and forth in the wind. How could it be both immoveable and yet, stoic? How could it do both?
They don’t feel like I imagined they would either. I thought they would be abrasive like cement but their bark is supple, almost spongey. It makes a crinkly sound when you push on it. Later on, I found out their bark has a particularly high tannin content which makes it naturally repellant to insects. In addition, redwood trees are resistant to all but the hottest fires.
Bug-proof, flame retardent skin which enables them to grow 300 feet tall and live for hundreds, even thousands of years. Naturally, it made me think of my own non-redwood like skin.
We talk a lot about skin in our culture. Not only the look of it but the durability of it. Having a thick skin or tough skin are attributes that are given to those who survive and endure. It is a hallmark of successful individuals. It is something we expect boys to have, and tell girls they need to develop.
While the gendered expectations are ridiculous, the need for anybody to have thick skin kind of makes sense. I don’t know anybody who brags about having thin skin. I have never heard this celebrated. When talking with a friend of mine in college about this she said, “I don’t think my skin is thin, my skin is fine, I just think some parts are thicker than others.” It broke my brain a bit because until that moment I had never thought about the phrase as anything but all-encompassing. You either had it or you didn’t. Maybe some parts of my skin were thicker than others too.
As we get older our skin gets if not thicker, than perhaps a bit tougher. Life hardens us but also wears on us. Partly it is beneficial. If everything impacted us as much in our 30s as it did in our teens, it would be like the emotional maelstrom of puberty never ended. Can you imagine?
But sometimes that makes us more closed off as opposed to stronger, more brittle as opposed to flexible.
While the bark of redwoods is certainly crucial to their development and their survival, it is not their only attribute. What I think is most fascinating is not necessarily how tall they grow, but how they do it with such a shallow root structure. Their roots are often less than 10 feet deep, but can extend as much as 100 feet from their trunk. It is not how deep they are dug in, but how broad their foundation is, that matters.
We also don’t see the gallons and gallons of water constantly being pulled from the soil and transported into the sky. We see the end result of all of these elements put together. And it is when they are put together that they manifest in the height, width, and age of these incredible trees.
We might think we lack the height, thick skin, or other attributes that others have. We might think that we must be able to push through everything, to be impenetrable and tough. And yes, those are qualities that can help you get where you want to go in life. Nobody will argue that.
But they are not the only attributes. There is no best way, or only way, there is only the way that works for you, for me.
While I’ve waxed poetic about these incredible trees it is important to realize something else: They do not exist everywhere. They, like us, are a product of both their makeup and their environment. You cannot separate one from the other.
You can only witness their harmony.
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