Thursday, September 28, 2006

Valley of the Redwoods

Some years ago, when I was suffering from a broken body and heart, I sought healing along the river pathways and among the cathedrals of tall trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The 1,750 acres of redwoods, riparian forest, sandhill and grassland communities were practically in my back yard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and it did not take very long to reach the burbling waters of the San Lorenzo River, the park's sun-kissed meadows and the calming shade under redwoods, sycamores, bay laurel and oaks. Even before that, I had often celebrated Christmas Day with a family hike along Fall Creek and up to the ruins of a lime kiln in the northern unit of Henry Cowell, a 2,390-acre section added to the park in 1972, over 40 years after Henry Cowell had first been established as Big Trees County Park.

As parks go, Henry Cowell is dwarfed by the much larger state and federal redwood parks in northern California, and it sits in the shadow of Big Basin State Park, its cousin to the north, the first state park in California established in 1902. The preservation of the redwoods in Big Basin was the subject of my doctoral dissertation in 2002, and research from that study was used in the writing of The Sempervirens Story, a book I produced for the 100th anniversary of the Sempervirens Fund in 2000 with the help of Denzil and Jennie Verardo.

But Henry Cowell has its unique delights, and a new book co-authored by Robert W. Piwarzyk and Michael Miller, Valley of Redwoods: A Guide to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, does a wonderful job of telling its story. What is particularly interesting about the way Piwarzyk and Miller present the park is their inclusion of cultural history on a par with natural history, something you don't see that often in park guides. In fact, when the property of Nisene Marks south of Santa Cruz was deeded to the state for a redwoods park it was specified that all cultural traces should be removed before the park was open to the public. And the fact that Nisene Marks was logged almost to extinction by a city of workers, complete with homes, stores and schools, was largely hidden from a public conditioned to seeing nature unadulterated. But just as new generations of nature lovers have spurned dance floors made out of tree stumps, and deer feeding for the benefit of campers, visitors to California's parks today are learning that nature and culture are inextricably combined. Piwarzyk and Miller's new book makes a major contribution in this respect.

Valley of the Redwoods, which is published by the Mountain Parks Foundation, begins with natural history, starting with a geological review situating the park on the east side of Ben Lomond Mountain in the gorge of the San Lorenzo River near the town of Felton, 13 miles north of Santa Cruz. There is a good map of the main park (but the Fall Creek section is lamentably missing). Four natural aspects of the park are described (and beautifully illustrated): Redwood Forest, Riparian Corridor, Sandhill Community, and Grassland Community. Both flora and fauna are included.

Cultural history in the park goes back 10,000 years and for most of that time the Ohlone Indian people lived in relative peace. The authors trace modern history from the arrival of the Spanish in 1769 through the settlement of the San Lorenzo Valley in the mid-19th century when loggers and tanners, as well as paper, gunpowder and lime producers, found the area to their liking. The history of the park itself begins with Lt. John Charles Fremont's fabled visit in 1846 when he slept in the hollow of a redwood tree which forever bears his name. The small redwood grove remains preserved only because its value for tourism exceeded the profit that might have been made from logging. A succession of tourist destinations, from Welch's Big Trees Grove to today's Roaring Camp, have educated generations of conservationists.

Until the publication of this handsome book, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park had publicized its riches through mimeographed and cheaply produced trail guides. And the book makes a welcome complement to new Visitors Center which was recently given a magnificent makeover by the Mountain Parks Foundation. Piwarzyk, who wrote the text, once discovered a lengthy shovel used in a lime kiln buried under a pile of dirt and straightened it for the Visitors Center. He has written extensively on local history and his work will be included in Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County which will be published by the Museum of Art & History next spring. Miller took many of the photographs and collected additional drawings and photographs from notable area artists and photographers. He also was responsible for the design and production. Piwarzyk and Miller's efforts will make a visit to the park much more enjoyable and informative. And if you're in need of healing, the park is a wonderful physician.

In Memoriam
Claude A. (Tony) Look, who was responsible for envisioning and putting together The Sempervirens Story mentioned above, died in August at the age of 89.

I treasure the time we spent together on the trail of the stories of Big Basin's redwoods and the members of the Sempervirens Club who saved the last remnants from destruction by logging at the turn of the last century. Tony was a pharmacist from over the hill who led hikes for the Sierra Club. And when he learned in the 1960s that developers were trying to carve up Big Basin for resorts and condominiums he helped organize the Sempervirens Fund to take over the work of the then defunct club. And the Fund continues today to add land to Big Basin and Castle Rock state parks.

"I'm enamored with the natural state of anything," Tony told me during an interview, and that love of the natural motivated him and his photographer friend Howard King to almost single-handedly make Big Basin and Castle Rock the wonderful monuments they are today.

A celebration of Tony's life and the dedication of a tree to honor his memory will be held by the Sempervirens Fund on October 8 in the Campfire Circle of Big Basin Redwoods State Park at 2:30. For more on Tony, click here.

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