Most people want to go to places that make them feel big, places where they can experience the thrill of using technological enhancements of their power (e.g. motorboats or ORVs) or the feeding of their self-esteem (meditative retreats). But whenever I am in California in the summer, I make a pilgrimage to a place that makes me feel small: Sequoia National Park.
On June 12, I hiked part of the High Sierra Trail. Just eleven miles of it. What I mainly wanted to see was the High Sierra mountains, the easternmost range of the complex of mountains known as the Sierra Nevada. The tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, is easily visible from this trail. I hiked at about 7,500 feet elevation, watching the 14,000 foot Mt. Whitney flanked by peaks almost as tall. It was not just the Sierras that made me feel small. It was the thought of the massive mountain-building that created them in the last few dozen million years. The earth, utterly still most of the time, can shudder into life and raise mountains, a few inches or feet at a time. Not only I but my life span seemed insignificant. When I reached Mehrten Creek, I took off my boots and soaked my feet in bubbling cool water in a little pool that overlooked Mineral King, the high mountains to the south. It was like the best resort one could imagine, but I enjoyed it all the more for having undertaken a difficult hike to get to it.
On June 13, resting up from the hike, I wandered around the giant sequoias of Crescent Meadow and the vicinity of the General Sherman tree. Giant sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) begin their lives as little seedlings after a fire, and they grow somewhat rapidly. After just a few hundred years, they have reached their full height, about 350 feet, seven times as tall as the tallest trees in the part of Oklahoma where I live. Then they spend the next 1,500 years filling out their trunks. The largest sequoias, such as General Sherman (a tree named after a Civil War general famous for cutting down lots of trees), have trunks that are almost as thick three hundred feet above the ground as they are at ground level. The Sherman tree has 52,000 cubic feet of timber inside its trunk. These trees can also make a reflective soul feel very small and very young. This fact was lost on most of the visitors, such as the loud-mouthed biker who complained loudly about having to walk a half mile to see the tree, and then hardly looked at it, instead being interested only in having his photograph taken kissing his bikeress at the base of the tree. To him, everything around him was just backdrop to his own life. I had come for a different purpose.
I wanted to feel awe, but was usually distracted by mild pain or random thoughts. I forced myself to be contemplative. Wisdom came to me from my subconscious mind once I had permitted it. Goodness and altruism are like sequoia trees. When an opportunity for goodness becomes available, we have to germinate the altruism and grow it as fast as possible before evil fills the space. But having done so, the goodness needs to persist and grow for as close to forever as we can make it. I realize this is not a scientific insight, but a scientist is only one of the things I am.
Jesus, who was a quiet observer of nature (unlike many of his modern followers), said (according to oral tradition), “Consider the lilies of the field, that grow today but tomorrow wither away in the heat. Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” The Middle East, like California, has lots of spring wildflowers, which dry up and shed their seeds in summer. Even a single one of these flowers is more beautiful than anything that human industry can produce—as true today as in Jesus’ day. Even one. All around Sequoia Park, especially on granite outcrops, there were hundreds of thousands of Linanthus montanus plants, a type of phlox that is very small but produces perhaps the most beautiful flower in the world. There were more of them, and were more beautiful, than any human or any pollinator could appreciate. This experience humbled me as much as did the mountains and the trees.
People wanted to know if I had a good time in Sequoia Park. How do you answer a question like that? I didn’t go there to have a good time. I went as a pilgrimage to experience the vastness and the beauty of nature.