On a recent hike through the coastal redwoods, my wife and I saw a handsome banana slug and many dainty wildflowers. Though we weren’t far from a road, traffic was light. As a result, we heard nothing but natural sounds — birds chirping, a stream splashing — for most of the time we were in the woods.
As always, we marveled at the gigantic trees that make us feel so humble. And, as so often happens, we slipped inside the pocket of one. That is, we came across one of those redwoods that has a cavity at its base, and we couldn’t resist going in.
It wasn’t until this hike that we came up with the name “pocket trees.”
Call them what you will, we’re not the only ones charmed by trees with an opening in them. On the more popular redwood trails, Charlotte and I often find our passage blocked momentarily by family groups taking pictures of each other posing inside one.
Even when such a tree isn’t right along the trail, people are drawn to it. The proof is in the line of trampled vegetation, veering toward a pocket tree many yards off the trail.
Though there isn’t much to see inside a pocket, I always enjoy taking a whiff of the wood-scented interior. Anyway, there’s just something magical about experiencing a redwood, one of nature’s most magnificent creations, from within.
When our daughter was a little kid, our family hikes inspired many wondrous conversations. I can’t recall discussing these alluring pockets, in particular; but the Q & A could have gone like this:
Our daughter: How did this tree get this little cave in it?
Charlotte or I: Gnomes carved it out, of course.
Well, the gnomes use trees like this as shelters to wait out rain storms. It rains a lot here in the redwood forest. And they store things in them, too.
Like fern leaves and flowers and mushrooms and seeds. Gnomes make lots of tasty dishes from things that grow in the forest. Oh, and during the Gnome Marathon every year, these trees serve as mile markers. And volunteers stand next to them and hand the runners refreshing cups of fern juice as they pass by.
Where are the gnomes right now?
They’re very shy. As soon as humans make a trail, they abandon the area and go someplace else.
Bigfeet are shy, too. Right? That’s why we’ve never see one?
On the day after our recent hike, we stopped at the visitor center across from Jedediah Smith State Park on California Highway 199, the Redwood Highway. There, Ranger Jeff Kulp was happy to talk trees with us, though from a factual, not a fantastical, perspective.
He explained that the tree pockets are formed by wildfires. Flames will sweep across the forest floor, consuming low vegetation and menacing the trees. Redwoods, which are very fire resistant, usually suffer just superficial burns, and occasionally a pocket.
This information didn’t surprise us. Because the bark around the pockets is usually blackened, we had assumed it’s fire that sculpts them. Still, it seems inconceivable that lightning, the most common cause of wildfire, is a major player in a damp, coastal forest.
“True, lightning storms are rare here,” said the ranger. “But keep in mind, we’re talking storms over the span of centuries.”
In other words, while three pocket trees along a two-mile loop through old growth might give the impression of frequency, the fires that formed them could have happened hundreds of years apart.
After the catastrophic Almeda and South Obenchain fires of 2020, I have trouble thinking of a wildfire as anything but a grave danger. Yet, as a lover of redwoods, I should appreciate fire. Intense heat induces redwood seeds to sprout vigorously.
Ranger Kulp pointed out that, for centuries, the indigenous Tolowa residents used controlled burns as a stewardship strategy. Some of the blackened bark that hikers see today could be from those forest-managements efforts.
He told us that trees that have been completely hollowed out by fire, so that you can sit within them and look up into the sky, are known as chimney trees.
I like to think that gnomes use chimney trees as gathering places for their storytelling circles.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer who lives in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.