Exploring the largest man-made forest

Life has been incredibly generous and in my recent wanderings I’ve been lucky enough to meet the world’s tallest, biggest, oldest and most charismatic trees, always feeling incredible gratitude, humility and awe in the presence of such icons of the natural world.

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Planting a baby Baobab with Tammy and Bonnie

For much of my life I could imagine no tree more magnificent than Africa’s mighty baobab, although now I cherish the feeling of reverence that overwhelmed me in the company of California’s towering coastal redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth that soar higher even than the famed Statue of Liberty.

Since I started walking with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth in July 2011, there have been so many moments of inspiration, although perhaps none more intense than those I experienced in the Cathedral of Nature that is Muir Woods, near the city of San Francisco. These redwoods took my breath away, although later I was to reach the same giddy heights of emotion when I walked the 30 mile (50km) Avenue of the Giants in the north of California, and again when first encountering the colossal Sequoias that are bigger by volume than any other plant on the planet.

GeoffPilgrimage143Later, trudging alone through snow and ice, my first audience with ancient Bristlecone Pines was also profound, these gnarled and twisted trees having been carbon-dated to more than 5,000 years ago. They were already old when Buddha found enlightenment sitting beneath another tree and when Jesus Christ sat down to The Last Supper.

Having long appreciated the healing power of nature, I look for it’s gift everywhere, including those places where modern humanity is experiencing an unhealthy disconnection from the natural world. So many of us are surrounded by electronics, concrete walls, glass and artificial light that we suffer a kind of ‘nature deficit’ disease, along with the stress and sense that something is missing that comes from failing to see and appreciate the interconnectedness of all life.

So imagine my delight when trees again came to my rescue, this time in Johannesburg, South Africa, the City of Gold that’s also affectionately known as Jozi, Jo’burg and eGoli. Little more than a century ago it was a brash gold mining camp and today that same feverish energy persists as many of the more than four million inhabitants chase dreams of money and materialism.

GeoffPilgrimage190In my younger days I loved its vibrancy although it is now too big and busy for my liking – a priority these days is to begin my day with a pre-sunrise walk in nature, ideally in mountains or along a deserted beach. So imagine my horror this week when I was surrounded by bumper-to-bumper traffic on my morning meditation walk, breathing exhaust fumes and sensing the rising impatience and frustration all around me.

Even at 6.30am the busy road outside the home of my daughter Tammy and her hubby Grant nears gridlock with the first wave of commuter traffic and I found myself feeling suffocated as I searched for somewhere more tranquil to walk.

It wasn’t a happy scene and I witnessed anger boiling up around me as a succession of minibus taxis flouted all consideration for other road-users, overtaking long lines of static vehicles by recklessly driving into the face of oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road.

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A Brtisltecone pine over 5,000 years old

Although many seemed impressively philosophical, I spotted one dog-walker snapping away furiously with his camera and accumulating a dossier of transgressions, while shouting a curse at each passing taxi.

He was enraged although just metres away in a fenced-off park I spotted other dog-walkers looking relaxed and at peace as they enjoyed the antics of their canine companions. What you focus on you get more of!

I abandoned the road in favour of the park and sat beneath a tree, marvelling at Johannesburg as a place of such vivid and astonishing contrasts.

The city isn’t too far away from Soweto, the infamous black township where black unrest exploded in 1976, ultimately signalling the end for apartheid and white minority rule. Today, structures like the superb Apartheid Museum, and the democracy of South Africa itself, are symbols of that triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

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The General Sherman is regarded as the largest tree by volume on Earth

In 2013 the city is a wonderfully cosmopolitan mix of people and cultures, although to many eyes it is dangerous with the countless armed response vehicles and high walls topped by electric fencing or razor wire serving to confirm that unhappy reputation.

And yet there is so much to commend the place. People are as warm, friendly and hospitable as I remember them, the climate is superb and the more affluent northern suburbs are a reminder of the resilience of nature. The diversity of trees and birdlife is remarkable.

Sitting on my bench beneath a shady tree I ponder the fact that there appear to be more species of birds in many gardens than when I first lived here as a young journalist decades ago. And there are definitely more trees, an estimated 10 million of them transforming the formerly dusty mining camp into what is claimed to be the world’s largest man-made forest. Bravo!

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The Avenue of the Giants in Northern California

The trees are the unsung heroes of the city landscape, beautifying the concrete jungle and muting a cacophony of man-made noise while gratefully absorbing harmful carbon-dioxide, creating shade and a more benign climate, enriching topsoil and providing an ecosystem in which other lifeforms can flourish. The precious gift to humans of life-sustaining oxygen goes largely unnoticed.

We already have much to be grateful for and I enjoy visualising the potential if we all partner with nature and really take time to connect with the natural world around us. Let’s make the world a wilder place, starting with our own back gardens.

Geoff Dalglish

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