The Eyes of a Redwood
Every morning, when I’m done with the stretching and the walking and the fistful of supplements, I pull up an old office chair to a folding table under my favorite tree. It’s a redwood, with thick auburn bark and broad needles, sucking up the fog that weighs down the morning air. I don’t know how tall it is, so purely based on my feeling of awe when I look up, I tell people it’s a hundred feet.
My eyes can’t measure its height, but they can see the marks of its story. This tree is a survivor. Around its perimeter, others have been razed to make room for road and clearing. Logging trails cut through the nearby ravine, leaving stumps in their wake. Scorched bark mark an older generation marred by fire. Yet this one remains.
I begin to write, once again, within its shade, as the summer sun rises overhead. It’s the season of thirst, and despite the persistent fog, the needles are beginning to brown. In a few hours, the clearing around it will be baked in heat, and I will stay cool.
I want to know this tree better. I look down at my screen and Google its taxonomic chart. I trace an angular path from Pinales (pine) to Cupressaceae (cypress) to Sequoia (redwood) and finally to sempervirens (coast). This tells me something of its lineage. It tells me it’s technically a cypress, though it lacks the quintessential lizard-scale needles of the Monterey or the wizard-beard silhouette of the Mediterranean.
Classifying the living world in this way is often credited to 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. It is now widely accepted as an objective measure, but history reveals it as a frought method. Linnaeus’s system was a reflection of his own eyes, categorizing by physical characteristics. It was also colored by his own agenda, to uncover God’s work. And so he built in a hierarchy in the Christian tradition, with humans above animals above plants above minerals. Within the human, of course, there was an order too.
Scientists have since evolved his system, incorporating genes to continuously reclassify species. But what we know now troubles the very idea of categorization itself. Just as each human comprises countless other microbes in symbiosis, so trees are made of more than just plant. And species continuously blend — through microbial DNA transfer and regular old sex — forming Franken-plant assemblages that explode Linnaeus’s neatly drawn boxes.
Still we inherit some lingering assumptions: that the world can be broken into separate things, that those things form uniform categories, and that some of those categories are more valuable than others. Hence clearing trees for roads. Hence logging down the ravine. Hence protecting homes from fires, only to create more destructive ones down the line. I’m as guilty as the rest, driving down the road, walking the logging trails, tiptoeing around fire.
And yet this tree stands. Just behind it, a massive blackened stump juts up from the ground as a reminder of its ancestry. Encircling the stump is not just this tree but an entire ring of clones interwoven beneath the ground, troubling the idea that each trunk marks an individual thing.
I gaze up from my screen. My senses tell me there are clear boundaries where needle meets fog, where bark meets insect, where trunk meets soil. And yet with a small injection of play, my mind can, for a moment, redraw those lines to include the fog and the insect and the soil, the entire family of clones and parents and relations, to relinquish my attachment to the idea of tree as thing.
Fall has arrived, thinning the dried summer foliage, putting trunk on display through a canopy kimono. I watch a drone course a spiraling path up the tree, taking snapshots at regular intervals. My friend Sascha is visiting, and he makes a hobby of scanning run-down places like ours for preservation. Down the ravine, he seems particularly curious about a broken, moldy trailer left over from a previous owner.
He shows me a model on his computer, stitched into virtual space from thousands of images. I’m awed once again by this new perspective on the tree — from above, from the side, from any which way. I learn that my naive estimate of 100 feet was not quite right — 115 is more precise. I see more clearly how the tree, along with its siblings and cousins, form a canopy. I feel I can reach out and hold them in my hands.
Flying through my own terrain, I’m reminded of what Donna Haraway calls the god-trick, a false perspective that promises to see “everything from nowhere.” This has long been a dream of science — an objective model of the world that, like Linneus’s taxonomy, includes no observer within its bounds. To Haraway, this isn’t just an impossible pursuit, but erasing the seer also allows those with power to hide from view. Claims of objectivity become convenient means of suppressing those lower on Linneus’s hierarchy and those who know in other ways. Mostly sidelined, except in spurts of resurgence, are the corporeal, the indigenous, the spirited. Our disembodied tools of sight, like the one in front of me, surveil and control from a distance — as Haraway puts it, “eye fucking the world to make techno-monsters.”
But, of course, I’m not flying through my terrain — only my mind is. My body is still here, beneath the very same tree my mind is coursing around, in front of a computer screen.
Upon closer inspection, the image is…not quite right. The needles are smudged together in blankets of green. The conical silhouette resolves into a stack of wrinkled kale chips. The branches, hidden from view, lie completely still. This wrongness is not merely an accident of limited technical resolution. By projecting the tree out of the dynamic landscape of reality into virtual coordinates, we have stripped it of its livingness. Space is treated, by design, with uniformity along standardized axes. Gone are the messy relations, the warped topologies, the insurgent memories that mark real space.
This model reveals something that science masks about itself: that it is not just a way of knowing but also a way of being. In philosophical terms, that epistemology and ontology are entwined. Separating the observer from the observed reinforces a false sense of separateness between self and world, of living among dead objects, of superiority of a particular kind of knower. These are the hidden qualities of being often blindly enacted through the scientific gaze.
Haraway reminds me that knowledge is always generated from a particular vantage point, wading through a fog of context to catch glimpses of the whole. Linnaeus’s flaw was not projecting his beliefs (it’s impossible not to) but rather conflating his beliefs with objectivity. To find anything like objectivity, we must eschew the god-trick and instead come together to negotiate diverse perspectives.
I look up from this model and back at the tree itself, blending perspectives from above, from below, and from within. In my body, I hold the weightlessness of the tree’s virtual model with the rootedness of its material form. They stretch and swirl through my trunk and limbs. I become a new kind of assemblage — not just of beings but also ways of being.
A particularly dense fog pulls us out of fire season into rain season. Beads of water hang before my eyes, enveloping the tree in a white cloak. Some land on its fog-catcher fronds, supplementing its root supply. Above a certain height, a redwood becomes an air plant, sipping from the clouds. Any surplus turns to rain, dripping from the tips of its needles a hundred feet down to quench the soil’s thirsty residents.
On the spookiest and mistiest nights, I take any young children around to the burnt-out stump at the center of the redwood circle. Knife-inscribed in giant demonic script are the letters MIMI. I know Mimi as the first in a quintessentially Californian lineage of owners of this place that includes a child actress, a pot farm, a Hindu ashram, and a Burning Man camp. I also know Mimi as the bequeather of many odd artifacts we’ve dug up around the property — not just the trailer but also a dozen chicken statues, a pile of ornate melon-sized tiles, and a 400-pound cast-iron stove.
One of these artifacts, I tell the kids, was a set of Barbie dolls, still in their packaging, grown over in moss. For years after we arrived, those dolls sat nestled within a cavity just below Mimi’s name in the charred stump. But after one rainy winter, just like this one, they disappeared, never to be seen again.
At this point, the children naturally grow bright-eyed. Had Mimi, ancestor to the land, returned? Or had the tree finally consumed her sacrifice? The truth remains a mystery even to the adults.
It occurs to me that stories, like drone scans, are models of the world. But they are situated models, placing the knower in relationship with the known, infusing the world with vital energy. What I love about this particular story is that it forces us to reckon with the agency of trees and history, with the limits of what we can know. It asks the question: What does the tree know that sits beyond my mental reach? What has the tree experienced in its deeper, slower expanse of time? What can the tree do with its strange and particular assemblage of matter? These threads, once sewn, draw us toward surprising realities.
Not far down the mountain, a rock shows the marks of an old Ohlone village, easily overlooked depressions once used to grind acorns. Winter, with the acorn harvest stored away, would have been the time for sitting around the fire and telling stories about how Coyote made the world and showed the people how to work with trees. These stories appeal to myth over reason, yet they encode an alternate and perhaps truer epistemology (that knowledge is found in entanglement between self and world) and ontology (that all things are connected and alive).
Ohlone stories and their languages are mostly lost, erasures of the European gaze, unworthy in Linneus’s ranking. Only faded etchings remain. I track down a 1979 account, which places a translation of coast redwood neatly in a table: ho-o-pe. But stripped of its storied context, the word becomes just another object for the observer to project their own story on.
I recall Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s great lengths to reclaim her ancestral language, practiced today by only nine native speakers. In “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” she finds that the word for bay, like other living things, is a verb: wiikwegamaa, or “to be a bay.” Herself immersed in the European gaze of her schooling, she proclaims the thought absurd. Yet she later concludes: “A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” She awakens to a storied world teeming with “Birch people, Bear people, Rock people” — so much for Linnaeus’s hierarchy.
I wonder what it would mean to think of the tree not as a thing at all but instead as a verb, as the land treeing. A willful process of nutrients exchanging, of species entangling, of forests becoming. Of water pumping hundreds of feet up towards the sky and back down again. Of fire creeping through its understory to nourish the soil with ash that again becomes root. Once more, the tree reforms in my mind into something more alive.
In springtime, I make my way through the redwood circle, shears in hand, removing freshly sprouted clones. I am a small fire coursing through the understory, creating new ash for roots to grow below and new space for canopy to stretch above. The smell of cut stems and scrapes of rough bark sting nostrils and flesh.
If I reframe the tree is the land treeing, how am I to be the land humaning? To human, perhaps, is to return the favor. To thank the tree for offering its shelter. Tending to it helps it thrive and continue to offer its gifts.
Kimmerer calls this relationship reciprocity, a continuous exchange among animate beings forming wholes greater than any sum of parts. “If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water,” she writes, “then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.”
Thus we introduce one more philosophical precept to the mix: just as knowing and being are not separate, neither is doing. How we know shapes who we are, and who we are shapes what we do. If our ways of knowing deaden the world, then we trade in commodities. If our ways of knowing enliven the world, then we tend to relations. Humaning stitches these fragments back together — conversing with kin, telling stories of their vitality, and cultivating their integrity.
But probing the tree’s needs is no easy task for me. The stories of the Redwood people are mostly gone, along with the traditional ecological knowledge nested within them. This loss led to a century of fire suppression, depriving the redwoods of maintenance until the fuel built so high that fire medicine became fire poison. Today’s ecologists — the disciplinary descendants of Linnaeus — are awakening to the need for fire, and they’re turning to indigenous instruction where they can still find it.
I press my hand against the bark of the tree. I ask it what stories it wants me to tell. It doesn’t speak in any language I know. But it shows me its blackened scars and its remaining armor, gaps stitched with spider webs. It shows me its arching cavities and the dens animals have made inside. It shows me the low branches it has shed to protect its canopy, becoming mulch for soil and cover for a blue-bellied lizard that scurries at my approach.
If the tree indeed consumed Mimi’s Barbie dolls, the most distorted reflections of our own self-image, perhaps it’s sending us a message that we have reached the limits of our disembodied gaze. That we can only look at our models of our models so many times before they — and we — become eye-fucked techno-monsters. That we must return our embodied sight to the world itself.
The next time I tell the children the story of the blackened stump, I’ll speak of the fire that consumed our mirrors to remind us how to see. I’ll tell them that the dolls no longer remain in the cavity, but in their place grows new life, waiting for us to human.
It’s fall again, and the tree has made it through another fire season. I’m crouched beside it, arranging LED votive candles along a discarded limb. My friends Regan and Adrien are getting married here this weekend, and they’ve dedicated the redwood circle as an altar. Regan is stitching branches together with Tibetan flags. Adrien’s brother, Philippe, is placing photographs of our guests’ ancestors, emailed to us and wirelessly transmitted to a handheld printer.
What kind of family tree is this? Certainly one that troubles the neatly drawn paths of Linnaeus’s taxonomy, scribbling in the margins between plants and animals and nature and culture. It tells new and ancient stories of relationships beyond categories.
With truth an ever more divisive concept, we’re tasked with one more challenge of humaning: to reconcile multiple ways of knowing. To pursue scientific knowledge while acknowledging the perspectives of knowers. To create models of the world that enliven its story. To listen for the lessons of our places and respond in kind.
Night descends on the altar, and with our guests at dinner, I pay the tree one more solitary visit. The flickering candles place the renderings of our ancestors in a distorted light. Against the glossy, curved paper, redwood fronds project onto a wrinkled face. They remind me, once again, of kale chips (maybe I didn’t eat enough at dinner). But this time there’s no god-trick, no pretending of all the answers. Only the messy relations, the warped topologies, the insurgent memories that mark real space.