High up in the Sierra Nevada

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Spanning an area of over 400 miles by 60 to 80 miles across – exceeding the area of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps combined – the Sierra Nevada is a ‘snowy, saw-toothed mountain range’ where the air is of the purest, so fresh and bracing that one can quite literally feel it upon taking a deep breath, a cold turned cool stream as it gradually warms its way down through the nasal passages into the lungs. A few more of such inhalations, and one is ready to begin the journey and partake of Mother Nature’s bounty both along the way and at destinations whose very appellations give rise to an instant thrill: groves, meadows, trails, creeks…

No wonder, I reflected, that doctors recommended treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis in sanatoria that were purposely built at high altitudes in the days when antibiotics had not yet been discovered. Since tuberculosis was essentially a disease of the lungs, what could be better than to give the patients doses of the freshest and purest air throughout the day, in the hope that it would help to halt the progression of the malady, as it must surely have done in many a case? One of the oldest sanatoria in the USA was situated in upstate New York, in the Adirondacks, a region of hills and lakes, of which the George Lake is the largest and a well-known travel attraction, its waters crystal-clear – and the boat trip on offer at nightfall aboard the Minehaha most enchanting. Another one that I know about and have visited was the Lady Linlithgoth Sanatorium in the Simla Hills in North India, in the army town of Kasauli, where the air on that morning that we were there was so thin that you could have sliced through it with a knife!

Indeed, the first page of the handout given at the entrance to the National Park we were going to visit had ‘Healthy Parks, Healthy People’ as headline, the invitation starting with the lines, ‘You knew that amazing scenery awaited you in these parks. But did you consider the health benefits of your visit?’ A most apt reminder, I thought, that people should make the connection between outdoor activity and their health, which they most often do not do. It would seem that here, in the US – where the problems of diabetes and non-communicable diseases are equally a matter of great concern – ‘some doctors are even writing “park prescriptions” to get their patients out and active in nature.’ I wondered how come people don’t realize by themselves the amount of good they could do to their bodies and their minds by going into the natural outdoors and just enjoy what is available for free! Surely one does not need a prescription for having a great time in nature’s lap?

Tree hug

A few years ago I had visited the Yosemite National Park, so this time we decided on travelling to the Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park located more southwards in that central eastern part of California. As we left the foothills and began our gradual climb, by the by the landscape changed to conifers as we neared the Wuksachi Lodge. Reaching it, we checked in. It was then time for a nice hot soup and lunch – well-deserved indeed, as it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon. A bit of a dull day, sky covered and reminding me of Curepipe, but the sheer idea of being away from it all and the anticipation of adventure soon dispelled all dark associations with the weather in my home town!

After the lunch, for the next two and a half hours nearly, we were in total immersion at a height of about 6500 feet in the Giant Forest, which we entered through a well-worn trail where other hikers were already exploring. We were greeted by the soft rustle of leaves in the trees and the swishing sound of water flowing about the rocks in the several small streams that we passed by. On the slopes were sheets of snow that awaited warmer days to melt completely and swell the streams, and interestingly on the bare vertical edges of the fallen snow we could make out that there were different layers, indicating that falls had taken place at varying intervals. We were walking among some of the world’s largest and tallest trees, several of which had fallen, and we came across a few whose trunks had been cut through, exposing the concentric tree rings that gave away the age, as we had learnt in our early biology lessons at school. Later, I had met someone from the University of Arizona whose specialty was, in fact, the study of these tree rings to make as accurate as possible an estimate of their age – a field known as dendrochronology, so had told me the specialist visitor who had the opportunity to accompany us in some of the walks with our group of walkers in the woods back home.

As we proceeded we met a senior citizen from Dublin, who requested us to take a picture of him doing a ‘tree hug,’ and he reciprocated by snapping us too against a background of Sequoia trees. In a short time we would reach the area where stood General Sherman Tree: a Sequoia, the world’s biggest tree (by volume). It peaks at 275 feet, and has a ground circumference of 103 feet. Its trunk weighs an estimated 1385 tons, equivalent to approximately the weight of ten blue whales, and every year it grows by an amount equal to a 60-foot tree. If laid flat on the ground, it would occupy practically the length of a football pitch! It was at least 2200 years old, but the oldest Sequoia could go up to 3200 years. The bark of the tree was over one foot thick, and was cinnamon-coloured. Chemicals in the wood and bark protected Sequoias from insects and fungi, and the thickness of the bark gave protection from fire. The Sequoia, therefore, was not prone to disease – and it died by toppling over, part of the reason being its shallow root system which does not have an anchoring tap root. I have not been able to find out why this is so, but there must surely be a biological reason.

Sequoia Belt

Sequoias grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, at an elevation of between 5000 to 7200 feet, where the ground is humid but not soggy. Above 7200 feet the temperature is too low, and below 5000 feet it is too high, so the trees are confined to a strip of about 2200 feet of elevation in what is known as the ‘Sequoia Belt’, which has about 75 groves in all. Naturalists have studied all this in detail, and pursue their research to uncover more and more fascinating facts about these wonders of Nature. We shared a thought: just a look at any Sequoia tree evoked a feeling of wanting to show respect for it, and it may therefore come as a surprise that when they were seen by some of the first Wild West explorers whose aim was to become rich, they started to lumber it for wood which had a price. Fortunately, not much later came wiser people who stood in admiration of this unique flora, and moved to preserve them.

After a comfortable night’s rest, we set out early next morning towards King’s Canyon National Park, situated at an elevation of about 4200 feet. We drove with the sun rising to spread its soft light and warm rays over the vast expanses that had something different to show at every bend – and there were more than we could count on this winding mountain road, some sharper than others. Meaning that there was no way one could drive fast – which would have been a waste anyway, because that would not have allowed proper sight-seeing. We stopped at several viewpoints – and I learned that in the US a lay by is a ‘turnout’ – which gave us a chance to look down into the canyon, where tall conifers rose skywards at various levels on the slopes and in the distance. How long had they been there, mute and glorious, in the company of other flora and fauna that enriched this vast ecosystem?

The backdrop was formed by several peaks, some of which were covered with snow, hence the ‘saw-toothed and snowcapped’ appearance. They rose to thousands of feet in the distance, and in the undulating foreground a haze of mist covered hills that, here and there, were enveloped in a bluish-purple hue. What majesty, what grandeur! Later, at midday, when we were returning, we skirted sheer vertical drops of mountainside made up of layers and layers of rocks piled on top of each other. Again we stopped at viewpoints, and gained changing perspectives. There, down down down in the depths of the valley ran a river, an emerald green serpent of water rushing onwards to its own destiny… We never step twice in the same river, had said Heraclitus, remember? Tennyson’s rivulet came to mind: ‘For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever.’

Nature’s peace

The brochure had warned: do not swim. There were rivers that were more accessible, and they looked invitingly and innocuously appealing. But the perception was wrong, for the currents were much stronger than they appeared to be; the many boulders were so smooth that they could not be gripped, and the water so cold that hypothermia (body temperature dangerously below the normal 36.7 degrees Celsius) rapidly set in and led to death. But, the truth be told, the clear stream and its foaming bubbles where it went over or around the rocks gleamed in the sunlight, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the water would be warm!

John Muir, great explorer and naturalist who would be one of the pioneers leading the movement to set up protected National Parks, was in rapture at what he saw and felt. Way back in 1898, he observed that ‘Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like autumn leaves.’ I could do no better at the bookstore in Cedar Grove than to get a copy of his ‘Meditations’ edited by Chris Highland, each extract accompanied by a matching quotation from a master or other inspirational source.

The brochure advised, ‘feel the wind in your face and the sun on your skin. Let the deep quiet of the forest become part of your walk.’ No: it becomes part of you – because as you stand in awe and contemplation of all the beauty and vastness stretching out before and all around you, you feel part of it all, as one with it. Would that I were a bubble in the foam of the swift-flowing river, and a dewdrop on a leaf of the tallest Sequoia, a whiff of the mist in the valley or a golden ray of the sunshine… oh but I am! Tat Twam Asi: Thou Art That…

* Published in print edition on 10 June 2011

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