I like to say this: once I made love in the Giant Forest. I sang the sequoia trees. I sang the black bear in Round Meadow. I sang the granite boulders in the Kaweah River. I sang the steep trail up Moro Rock. I sang the forest thunderstorm.
This happened in the 20th century, thirty-four years ago when meadows were wet and rivers full and bears still loved berries more than Pringles. Giant Forest Village is no longer there. The cabins are gone, the lodge, the dining room. I know this because last month on a return visit to Sequoia, I thought I had lost my way. I made my daughter drive slowly up and down the General's Highway while I peered into the groves of giant cinnamon-colored sequoia. "Mom?" my daughter said again. "Are you sure?" And at last I spotted the enormous roots of the fallen sequoia that had marked the village parking lot.
I was relieved to find that I am not crazy, that I have entered the 21st century with my memories intact, though not necessarily arranged in a linear fashion.
At the Foothills Visitor Center, I asked a friendly ranger, "What happened?" He told me that only a few years before, the decrepit sewer system for Giant Forest Village creaked, backed up, and stopped. At first the Park Service tried to renovate, then to create a new system. But this meant sacrificing sequoia in the grove, undermining roots. Then, ever cost-conscious, the Park Service decided to sell the cabins and amenities to people like me, whose fond memories of the village stay them during long nights in the suburbs. Alas, the cabins were laced with asbestos and lead. All were dismantled, piece by love-worn piece--and destroyed.
Now, the only accommodation in Sequoia National Park is the Wuksachi Lodge, six miles beyond Giant Forest in an area where no sequoia grow. A lodgepole pine is not a sequoia. A motel room is not a cabin. Thermostatically controlled forced air heating is not the same as a fat, black wood-burning stove. The enormous catapult into the new millennium has not necessarily modified things for the better.
In fact, I find myself now, a month into this third millennium, humming a digitalized song and wondering how much stake I need to place in a calenderized event. A calendar, after all, is simply a system for reckoning the passage of time according to natural signals: the solar day, the lunar month, the year of seasons. Thus we name the periods of this great planetary cycle, and a 6th-century monk decided that we shall measure these periods from the birth of Christ.
But measurement is so relative that when I try to wrap my mind around astronomical periods, I find myself turning to the sequoia trees. The tree called the General Sherman is the largest living thing in the whole world. Imagine. It is as tall as a twenty-seven story building. If the base of the General were set in the middle of a California freeway, it would block three lanes. And the General achieved this size in about twenty-five centuries. In other words, if we measure time from the birth of this sequoia--this giant that has withstood fire and the intrusion of human heroes and villains alike--we would not now be beginning the third millennium. We would be in the middle of it.
This week, a dear friend wrote to say that she has now been teaching for twenty years, and though she can mark these two decades from 1980, she has to figure the math to determine how old she was when she began. She wrote, "When I made my mind-map, I didn't link my age with the calendar years." And so it goes: the calendar of popes and astronomers takes precedent over our personal time and the time of great trees in the forest.
I have been thinking about all this--about calendars and trees and the measurement of time, about friends and careers and love. And I have decided that I shall no longer trouble myself with measuring time; instead, I shall remember its precious moments: when I was nineteen years old, I made love to my new husband in a tiny cabin in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park.
Originally published in Tapestry, February 2000