Garden Blog

Art, Nature, and Awe


Dawn Wagner Todd, MsK Nursery Intern


Cross section of tree

Our Wood Wave Dedication Ceremony on November 16th was a wonderful event. The excitement in the air was tangible; the warmth of spirit was a welcome counterpoint to the chill of autumn. Bruce Johnson’s amazing piece, made from a 1000-year-old redwood root system, was well described by donor Bruce Amundson—I’m paraphrasing here—as causing that “Wow!” reaction. He was so right, and we cannot thank him and JoAnn Amundson enough for making it possible for us to experience that “Wow!”


If I may quote from the artist’s webpage (

“Ancient redwoods are some of the oldest trees on earth. They have muscular broad roots pushing out from massive buttressed stumps...These muscular organic forms are the remains of redwoods cut 100 years ago…Roots are the form, the muscle, the heart and the spirit of these sculptures. This is more than language. The physical world is more complex than language…For example, these muscular roots come from trees more than 1000 years old. They are elders, charismatic megaflora, millennium witnesses. You do not need to know this to feel the power, energy or vitality of the wood. There is simply a resonance that is felt before knowing.”

Johnson said “This is more than language,” but that’s the “Wow!” put into words. During this Thanksgiving season, we feel thankful for the donation of this work, thankful for Johnson’s artistic gifts, and thankful to—Whomever or whatever sends such people, such gifts, and such materials to us. Which brings me to this thought: There’s another measure of awe and wonder in the function of those roots. What were those roots doing before they became this gorgeous (and huge) piece of art?  We know that the roots were in the soil, anchoring the tree. We know that a root system allows water (carrying nutrients) to enter a plant, and that the water with its nutrients travels up into the plant. But root pressure isn’t the only thing that gets water up the 100 + meters to the top of a redwood. You know what really does it?  The sun.

First I want you to think about what the inside of a tree trunk looks like, so go to the kitchen cupboard and grab a handful of straws. Do it right now, I’m serious, it’ll help. If they are wrapped, unwrap them.  Bundle them all together in your fist, and look down at them from the top so all you really see are holes. Wrap it in bark, shove a dead stick up the middle, and that’s pretty much it! A tree trunk has an outside ring of bark, then a ring of phloem (carries nutrients from the leaves to the rest of the tree), then the cambium (growth layer), then the xylem—the pipeline carrying the water and nutrients up the tree to the leaves; finally, the center, the heartwood, which gives the tree support.

Where does the sun come in? The sun causes water to evaporate. As you know, water molecules tend to stick together--that is why water forms rounded droplets. As a water molecule evaporates from a leaf, (transpires), it pulls the next water molecule, which pulls the next, and it ends up drawing more water up. There is a chain of water molecules all the way from the leaves to the roots (roots are important) and on into the soil. When you think how tall a redwood is, the fact that it can get water from the soil to the top is pretty amazing. And what isn’t used evaporates. According to Parks and Recreation, a redwood transpires about 500 gallons a day. Wow.

There is a 379.1-foot redwood tree in Redwood National and State Parks, which is reckoned to be the world's tallest tree. (Wow again.) You can imagine how hard it was to measure it. An endangered seabird, the marbled murrelet, which broods in old-growth conifers, complicated the measurement process. Scientists had to wait until the end of nesting season. Then, Humboldt State University Professor Steve Sillett climbed the tree (which has been named Hyperion) and dropped a measuring tape to the ground. (Professor Sillett is apparently as renowned for his climbing as for his scholarship.) He used a crossbow to shoot a bolt with a trailing line over a limb of the tree about 250 feet up. The line was fixed to a rope, which was pulled over the limb and anchored.  He climbed up the rope.


And remember that Pileated Woodpecker I talked about earlier?  I don’t know what kind of woodpecker did it; but the 700-800 year old Hyperion, which is 379.1 feet tall, might once have been 380 feet tall. Woodpecker damage to the top took off nearly a foot of height.


Awe and wonder and thanks…and a little…comedy? thrown in for good measure.