In the exhibit gallery at the top of the Space Needle, there's a graphic of the relative heights of the tallest structures in the world. We're perennially fascinated with records and record-breaking, and the tallest-in-the-world designation is an important one. Perhaps the impulse to hold the title is best captured in the story of the Tower of Babel, which functions mainly as a cautionary tale to keep our hubris in check. Warnings against ascending to the heights of the creator seem to be largely ignored here on the ground, for there is an undeniable human urge to build, build, build as high as we possibly can without having the thing topple like a stack of Jenga blocks.
Up until recently, when the record began to break faster than our ability to keep up with it, most people could name the tallest building in the world. For much of human history, it was the Great Pyramid in Egypt (481 feet). Then, for a time it was the Eiffel Tower (1,000 feet). Next it was the Empire State Building (1,239 feet), the World Trade Center Towers (1,350 feet), and the Sears Tower (1,454 feet). They're building a hotel in Dubai right now that when completed will rise to a height of 2,625 feet. By comparison, Seattle's tallest building, the Columbia Tower, is only 937 feet tall.
Lesser known are the locations and heights of the world's tallest trees. Maybe this is because the trees are just there — they are not markers of human ingenuity. They exist independent of us; they exist despite us. Most likely the very tallest were cut down during the last century and turned into houses or chairs or kindling. We use trees more than we celebrate them, and only recently have we come to protect them. The great swathes of primeval forest are largely gone; only patches remain.
In last week's triple-digit windstorm, a great Sitka spruce tree in Oregon — once recognized as the largest of its kind in the nation — snapped at a height of 75 feet and fell to the forest floor. Unlike so many other big trees, it died a natural death.
The tallest ancient building trumps today's tallest tree, which stands at a "mere" 379 feet. It is Sequoia sempervirens, otherwise known as the redwood. Imagine a living thing rising to more than half the height of the Space Needle! Such tall trees host entire ecosystems in their uppermost branches — hanging fern gardens, lichen and moss, as well as plants and animals only recently discovered. Tree-climbing scientists have found rare salamanders, plankton, and soil supporting huckleberry bushes at hundreds of feet. Like the unexplored depths of the ocean, we've only just begun to study the rich life of the tall tree canopy.
The Sitka spruce that fell this week in Klootchy Creek Park near Seaside, Ore., in Clatsop County, was "only" 204 feet high, taller than a hockey rink is long. It was also the largest living thing in Oregon — larger by volume than any other flora or fauna in the state. A tourist attraction, the tree was the largest Sitka spruce in the nation but shared the designation with another Sitka in Olympic National Park in Washington, near Lake Quinault. A challenge to the Klootchy title in the 1980s led the officials at American Forests, who keep the National Register of Big Trees, to declare a tie. The circumference of the Klootchy Sitka spruce was 53 feet, its diameter 17. If, god forbid, they had carved out its base and put in a road, you could have driven an SUV right through its trunk.
The National Register of Big Trees is less concerned with height and more concerned with overall tree size. They use a point system similar in technique to that employed by the Boone & Crockett Club, which keeps record of big game trophy kills, with the notable exception that the National Register most certainly prefers that the trees not be felled in the pursuit of a measurement. A key component of their mission is environmental preservation and restoration.
The problem with tree height is that for the giants, it's a difficult thing to gauge. The most accurate measurement is taken by ascending to the top and dropping an extraordinarily long tape measure to the base. Klootchy's high-traffic tourist spot notwithstanding, most of the tallest trees are hidden in little-explored terrain without easy access. They've also been tricky to ascend until recent improvements in tree-climbing gear allowed entry to the canopy without causing damage to the tree itself. As recently as the 1970s, a team of French scientists went so far as to develop a dirigible raft, which they used to float amongst the treetops. The most common method for measuring tree height, however, is from the ground, and there are limitations. Many of the old, established records for tallest trees have since been found to be inaccurate by as much as 15 percent, and usually taller, not shorter than actuality.
More impressive than Klootchy's height was its age. One of the oldest living things in Oregon, the tree is estimated to have begun its life as a seedling within two hundred years after the Magna Carta was issued in 1215. This means the "Klootchy Creek Giant" was older than the Spanish missions in the Southwest. Its age exceeded that of St. Augustine, the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the nation. It was older than Jamestown and Plymouth. This Sitka spruce tree germinated around the same time the Pueblo people built dwellings into the cliffs at Mesa Verde.
Klootchy certainly wasn't the oldest tree in the world. That record goes to none other than Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine alive and well in the White Mountains of California. Methuselah is 4,838 years old. It germinated in the third millennium B.C., before ancient Rome was founded.
It is the practice of those in the know to keep secret the whereabouts of rare plants, for good reason. Methuselah's location is a closely guarded one; an older bristlecone pine named Prometheus was cut down in 1964.
Klootchy's death was natural and rather slow. It had suffered in last year's dramatic wind storm, which ripped away a chunk of rotted wood. It lost a sizable limb a few summers back; a lightning strike more than 40 years ago scarred the trunk. It had been rotting inside for some time. The most accurate method for determining the age of a tree is by counting its rings, but no tree borer large enough to reach into this tree's past exists. Now might be a good time to get a perfect ring count, but Paul Ries with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) says that because the tree broke apart at 75 feet, there isn't a piece that is intact enough to give one. "There was a significant decay column spreading in a spiral pattern and running from 40 to 80 feet above the ground," he says. "It broke toward the top of that column, so that tree's hollow in parts."
Cynthia Orlando, also with ODF, says that after the wind storm of '06 there was concern that the damaged tree might be a hazard to the legions of tourists who stopped to pose for pictures at its base. "The folks in Clatsop County and the Heritage Tree committee folks huddled, and they decided it was best to let nature take its course," she says. They erected a 165-foot barricade around the tree for safety's sake. Nature's 100 mph winds finally took Klootchy, and the felled giant will serve as a nurse log, nurturing new life.
I didn't visit Klootchy myself, but when I heard of the tree's demise, I felt the loss. Long fascinated by old growth trees, I've sympathized with those who go out on a limb to protect them, most notably Julia Butterfly Hill. She lived atop a 600-year-old redwood for more than 700 days to protest a lumber company's plans to cut it down. She was successful, although the tree was subsequently attacked with a chainsaw. My support of people like Hill, however, does not come without the recognition that trees provide us with valuable materials, such as paper. I can only hope for a future in which inventions such as Kindle — which promises to make reading in digital space a much more pleasurable experience — preclude the need to cut down trees.
This future will arrive when trees become more valuable to us alive than dead. Certainly by most measures they already are. Klootchy was capable of removing an estimated 15.35 pounds of nitrogen, sulfur, ozone, and particulate matter from the air annually and providing $2,712 worth of storm water control. In that light, burning any tree for firewood seems a sacrilege.
My father once had a very large tree in our yard cut down. There'd been no reason for it; the tree was healthy and had stood in that yard probably as long as the house had, maybe a hundred years or more. He said he feared the tree would fall on the house, but we suspect he didn't like the shade cover it provided. He'd always preferred the treeless yards of my early childhood in the Southwest. It wasn't until I was in junior high that I had a proper tree to climb, and I did, choosing to read amongst the leaves.
There are two photos. In one, my mother is eight months pregnant with me and walking through the base of a California redwood, carved out for a road. In the other, taken during the time I worked as an environmental activist, I'm wearing a green parka and hugging the trunk of an old oak. The reason the hub and I bought the house we live in now is because of the yard. It's a tiny city house on a too-busy street, but there are 15 trees on the property, including an old ornamental cherry whose bark peels off in curling scrolls like cellophane film.
Klootchy's death means Oregon will relinquish its championship Sitka spruce title to Washington, but I suspect those who visited the tree will miss it more than the title. "Everyone's pretty sad; it was such an icon," says ODF's Orlando. When the World Trade Center towers fell, part of our collective memory of the buildings had to do with their former glory as the world's tallest. Far fewer people will mourn the loss of the Klootchy Sitka spruce. The thing about these trees is that it takes a lot longer for them to grow than it does for us to build to great heights.