SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – What if the very thing we need to deal with the climate crisis is threatened by the climate crisis?
That was the question that ran through my mind on a recent weekend while walking with my teenager in a grove of magnificent sequoias.
We drove slowly from Los Angeles, stopped for enchiladas at a small restaurant nestled among orchards, sat on a rock and watched a squirrel tear apart its meal in the shade of these giant old trees. We learned that the sequoias of the western Sierra Nevada are some of the oldest, most adaptable trees in North America. They can withstand extreme drought, heat and cold. They reproduce through fire.
But as the teenager points out, even the toughest creatures have their breaking points.
The fires are now engulfing nearby Yosemite National Park, including Mariposa Grove, home to hundreds of sequoias, some very old. Climate change has fueled the flames by increasing the frequency of exceptionally hot, dry weather.
The fires of the past two years alone have left what The Associated Press described as a “staggering” death toll among these giants. It is estimated that about 20 percent of the largest sequoias, those larger than 4 feet in diameter, have been lost.
The National Park Service reports that fires have burned more sequoia groves in the past few years than in the last century.
Simon Fierst, a ranger at the Giant Forest Museum in Sequoia National Park, told us he’s confident the species will survive. But when the 1,000-year-old trees were burned, he threw up his hands and said, “It’s like losing Notre Dame.”
Our journey from Los Angeles took us through the good, the bad and the ugly of our times. that “395,000 acres were planted in California due to drought.”) We passed bright clusters of orchards irrigated by water from daringly constructed canals. We passed a small fire near a detour known as the Grapevine. Then the oil wells. “The causes and consequences of climate change,” observed the teenager.
I mentioned our cooperation. After all, we were driving a rental car with an internal combustion engine. The teenager sang with Janelle Monae, which was incongruous in a different way. (If you know the lyrics to “I Like It,” you know what I mean.)
When we arrived at the park gates, the temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit, about 37 Celsius. The low places of the park were dry. Some oaks were caramel colored.
We saw smoke rising from the ash hills. The fire crew was conducting a controlled burn near the General Sherman Tree, the oldest sequoia in the park and a major tourist attraction. A controlled burn is designed to clear the substrate and reduce the risk of fire.
We asked Fierst what can be done to protect trees in an era of climate change. According to him, in the long term, this requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But he added that park officials are currently discussing some unusual measures. Should they sprinkle water on the forest to prevent the risk of fire? Should they spray some pesticide on bug-infested trees? “These are moral dilemmas,” he said.
Two kids approached Fierst for their Junior Ranger badges. They followed him by repeating the Junior Ranger pledge: “I will continue to explore, learn and care for nature wherever I go,” he said.
I felt a lump in my throat.
These trees have endured a lot. They were shaped by so much shock and loss. It was good to be in their presence with my child. But it was also good to be reminded of my connection with living beings, not my own. At this point, it brought home the difficulty of being human. It allowed me to accept that there were limits to my resilience.
That calmed me down a bit.
A growing body of research shows that spending even two hours a week in the natural world has measurable benefits for our physical health and cognitive function. I find this increasingly relevant in the times we live in, when we are asked to absorb such hard, unbearable facts about the world. It helps me understand what I cover every day as a reporter. It helps me to be a careful parent. It helps me face my own upheavals and losses.
On our second day in the park, the teenager and I hiked Tokopah Falls. It was an easy hike which was a relief on a very hot day. We gave way to the faster walkers, and passed the slower ones as unobstructed as possible. We kicked off our sneakers and stopped to dip our toes in the chilled water gushing from the rocks above. We passed small clusters of coral flowers, then purple flowers further up, fallen logs breaking apart to make way for new life, and then as we reached the edge of the falls, stones cooled to the touch. We sat down. We raised our faces and felt the spray.
Drought covers northern Italy: Prolonged drought has put the fertile region’s rice crop and other crops at risk.
Urban Oasis: Ivory Coast officials are trying to revive Banjo National Park in Abidjan, one of the world’s last major rainforests surviving in a major metropolis.
Before You Go: The Deadly Amazon Journey
Freelance journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, a former government official working to protect the Amazon, traveled deep into the forest this summer to meet with indigenous groups patrolling their land. Then they disappeared. The Times’ Brazil correspondent retraced his recent visits to the men to understand what happened and why.
Thank you for reading. We will be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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