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Reflections on a Redwood Snag

by Ron Limbaugh

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1992)

In the late 1890s John Muir prepared a report for Charles S. Sargent, the Harvard botanist, describing big trees he had located. On one trip along the Kings River he had found a huge `stump' that stood some forty feet in diameter five feet from the base--the largest specimen he had ever discovered. I remembered reading about Muir's snag in the late spring of 1984, when I first had occasion to visit Converse Grove, three miles south of King's River, just outside King's Canyon National Park. Those who are familiar with the Converse tragedy--the wanton destruction of thousands of Big Trees by loggers at the turn of the twentieth century--might wonder why any nature lover would go there today. It is an ecological wasteland, where stumps and shards by the thousands stand or lay in mute silence, monuments to human arrogance and greed. Yet amid the destruction there is also peace and quiet, for it is off the tourist route and few visitors pass by. To those seeking relief from the teeming tide of humanity at nearby General Grant Grove and from the fumes of auto exhaust along the main road from Fresno to King's Canyon, it is a place for contemplation.

After walking for miles through this forest graveyard, trying to imagine what must have been the awesome splendor of its primeval appearance, I started back over the same gravel road on which I had arrived. About a half-mile before the junction with Highway 108, I glanced to my right and saw a blackened trunk nearly hidden by a canopy of new growth. It was a battered old snag, the remains of a giant redwood. I had missed it on my way in because it was hidden by a young sequoia, some 150 feet tall, that stood between it and the roadway. The sight of this charred and broken old tree, its massive bulk still standing at least 100 feet above the forest floor, heightened my reverie, and I wondered if by a coincidence I was viewing the same old stump that John Muir had identified a century before. In his report to Sargent he had described it as "the largest I measured." He wrote:

It was burned half through. I cleared away the charred surface with an axe & tried hard to count the wood layers through a lens.

The first five feet from the outside was clear & regular & in this distance there are 1672 layers but beyond this point toward the center the wood was so contorted & interrupted by wounds that I was unable to get a sure count, thought I made out upwards of 4000 layers. Perhaps by building a high scaffold a much closer approximation to the age of this grand monument might be obtained. [1] .

Anxious to make a closer inspection, I parked beside the road and walked down to the tree. Nature had prepared an enchanting approach. Enveloping it on all sides like sentries guarding a deity or angels before a throne, young white firs stood, with an occasional cedar and limber pine adding to the complexity of foliage and form. The muted toot of a nuthatch greeted me as I drew closer, and an unknown warbler's song filled the air. A single scarlet cluster of Indian paintbrush offset the dark green ferns which carpeted the forest floor at the base of the snag. A green patina of moss and algae covered the first twenty feet of the scarred surface, softening the ebony char that marked the path where fires had worked their way toward the heartwood. I could not be sure whether it was Muir's snag or not, but I seemed to be approaching a historic shrine that had stood majestically for 1,000 years or more, witnessing the passing of humanity. Some time in the distant past it had died, doubtless killed by fires from lightning long before Muir or the axemen had arrived in the Basin almost a century ago.

For all its bulk and evocative imagery, what captivated me most when I first saw the tree was its great "eye", a circular orifice about two feet in diameter near the broken top of this immense obelisk, a hundred feet or more from the ground where once a limb grew laterally from the trunk. Time and weather had deepened the hole so that on the ground one could see through it to a patch of sky in the distance. The cathedral aura, enhanced by the birdsong chorus in the background, made a striking impression. I found myself thinking of the all-seeing eye, symbol of divine omnipotence and omnipresence, that hangs over the altars of many early missions and cathedrals.

I neared the base in awe, like a pilgrim at Golgotha. Shivers ran up my arms and back as I stood before it, humble and supplicant. I walked entirely around it, touching the blackened heartwood, observing the stress lines and fractures and the rings that one could still see by the thousands. To judge the girth roughly, I counted 33 steps around the perimeter, the same number I counted for the Chicago Stump, another hugh relic butchered by loggers about two miles away. Many others have stood before this huge tree. I saw graffiti of times past carved into the trunk, some with dates as early as 1895. Then I walked inside the deep black cavity hollowed out by fire in the distant past, and stood there in silent contemplation. Although right alongside the gravel road leading to the Boole Tree, a live redwood giant about three miles away, few people notice the top of this jagged landmark as they pass, and fewer still stop to inspect it. Only one car passed during the hour I spent at the site. Inside the hollow bole I instinctively cocked my ear, but the only sound was the sweet bird music in the distance. Yet I did not feel alone. The great ebony void around me seemed palpably alive with memory and mystery, as if Muir and all the mighty wilderness giants had come to be with me. I shivered again, then slowly backed outside. As I returned to my car, I looked back and saw through the eye to the clouds passing in the background making the orifice seem like a portal opening to the heavens. Even if this is not Muir's snag, I thought to myself, it is an historic and holy landscape, a fitting abode of gods and pilgrims to the wild.


  1. John Muir, Big Trees [holograph ms., ca. 1900], in John Muir Papers, Microform edition, Reel 43, 09979.

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