Meeting with Nelson Mandela for the first time left me feeling unusually tongue-tied and at a loss for words, so in awe of the great man was I, despite his characteristic warmth and friendliness.
“Welcome, welcome,” he had beamed at me, extending his hand in greeting. “Thank you for coming. How are you?” Answering even the simplest question from this towering icon was a challenge that day, and only a little easier when I met him again a few weeks later.
With other humans I’ve only occasionally felt ill-equipped to converse intelligently or meaningfully, or known the same shyness I encountered as a very young boy when I approached Sir Edmund Hillary for his autograph after he’d given an inspiring talk on his historic first ascent of Everest.
It was very different with General Sherman though, as I felt deeply that my loving presence was enough and I knew that I would not be judged by this colossus of the natural world.
For weeks I’d imagined the moment and when it finally arrived it was as magical and miraculous as I’d anticipated, my first sighting sending a thrill through my entire being. I was breathless with excitement and approached slowly and respectfully until I was a tiny figure dwarfed by the immensity of the largest tree on Earth, scientists crediting the giant sequoia with a height of 275 feet (84m), circumference of 103 feet (31m) and mass of 1,256 metric tons.
Naturalist and preservationist John Muir had commented more than a century earlier: “The Big Tree is Nature’s forest masterpiece, and, as far as I know, the greatest of living things.”
In 1873 he had described a magnificent growth of giants where “one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them.
“I wandered on, meeting nobler trees where all are noble… this part of the sequoia belt seemed to me the finest, and I then named it The Giant Forest.”
Today it is the centerpiece of the magnificent Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, although upstaged in popularity by nearby Yosemite National Park where one can also commune with enormous sequoias, the biggest being the Grizzly Giant which is estimated to be 2,700 years old.
My time with the Hartle-Schutte family from Tucson, Arizona, was another great gift as we explored Sequoia together, our chance encounter beginning when I snapped a photograph of Dave, Reen and their daughter Erica. We hiked to the impressive summit of a massive granite dome called Moro Rock, wandered around Crescent Meadow and through groves of ancient trees, even experiencing the childlike joy of driving through Tunnel Log.
Looking at my extensive Bucket List of things to do before I die, I’ve made so many important ticks in recent weeks, paying a pilgrimage to the redwood trees that are the tallest on the planet, the bristlecone pines that are the oldest and paying homage to General Sherman and the giant sequoias.
Spending time studying tiny hummingbirds wasn’t on the list, although it should have been. Nor was getting up close to a black bear and her young cub while walking, the two seeming entirely relaxed in my company as they foraged in the forest for tasty morsels. And watching a water snake catch a frog was fascinating, even if I did feel for the reptile’s luckless prey.
Perhaps most gratifying of all has been experiencing humanity at its best and most selfless, giving me hope that we can raise our collective consciousness and deviate from a suicidal path of destruction.
US President Barack Obama summed it up rather aptly when he said: “I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or a SUV. If you’re heading for a cliff, you have to change direction.”