Nature’s Version of New York City

Last weekend I journeyed outside of Angeles Forest to Sequoia with Scott Turner.  Scott is the author of the blog 1000 Miles and has already written excellently about our hike on the Marble Falls Trail from our campsite at Potwisha, our snowshoeing trek through Giant Forest, and on Giant Sequoia trees.

As I was snowshoeing through Giant Forest I became aware that my reactions to the trees and forest were similar in some ways to my reactions to the buildings and urbanism of New York City.  Like the skyscrapers of New York, I was in awe of the size of the trees and found them just as difficult to photograph for the same reasons.  I couldn’t get far enough away from a tree to angle the camera in a way that didn’t yield large distortions because other trees got in the way.  Even when the forest opened up a bit allowing a reasonable photo of an individual tree, other trees around it were close enough to falsely appear to dramatically angle inward.  The distortions remain even after cropping out about half of an image that was already in portrait mode to begin with as shown in the cropped photo below.

Scott Turner next to a Giant Sequoia along the Crescent Trail.

Scott Turner next to a Giant Sequoia along the Crescent Trail (click on image to see it shrunk down to fit your screen).

It was during my early attempts to photograph individual trees that I realized that the spatial composition of Giant Forest is proportionally similar to New York City.  So, I started looking for other similarities.  Skyscrapers typically have a ground floor that is articulated differently than the floors above.  The ground floor usually emphasizes the entryway and often has display windows, views into a lobby, or other features to give the building a more human scaled street presence.  Similarly, the transition from the trunk to the root system in the Giant Sequoias is so large as to be proportionately the same scale as the entryway of a skyscraper.  In the snow where the tapering out of the trunk at the base creates a surface for the snow to rest upon, the tree has an even more clearly articulated human scaled trail level presence.

Kyle Kuns at the base of a Giant Sequoia taking in the scale of the tree's connection to the ground.  Photo by Scott Turner.

Kyle Kuns at the base of a Giant Sequoia taking in the scale of the tree’s connection to the ground. Photo by Scott Turner.

I’m told that New Yorkers can easily spot tourists by noticing them stopping frequently to look up, often in a jaw dropped daze as they marvel at the skyline, at times dangerously oblivious to what is taking place at the street level around them.  Residents, on the other hand, are accustomed to the massive non-human scale of the skyscrapers.  On my three visits to New York City, I also looked upward frequently as I was often awestruck by the skyscrapers height and interested to see the tops of the towers and how they met the sky.  In the Giant Forest, I found myself stopping just as frequently along the trail, jaw dropped, and looking up to marvel at the impressive height of the trees for the same reasons.

Looking up from inside as small cluster of Giant Sequoias

Looking up from inside as small cluster of Giant Sequoias.

For brief periods of time the awe inspiring verticality of the environment becomes somewhat peripheral to the immediate ground level focus required to move through the environment.  I say peripheral because there is always an awareness of the skyline even when one is looking straight ahead.  In both places there is a rich and varied texture to the ground level experience.  The skyscrapers in New York City come in various shapes, heights, materials, architectural styles, and functions.  There is a long history of their construction where things like technology and materials evolved allowing for more extraordinary projects to be realized.  The trees in Giant Forest also come in different heights, trunk thicknesses, shapes of their branches, and species.  Some trees have lived thousands of years, some are just taking root.  Both places are full of fascinating juxtapositions.

Trail level texture of Giant Forest.

Trail level texture of Giant Forest (click to enlarge).

In both places there are wonderful surprises.  A good example from New York City is the base of the Citicorp Building.  My favorite one from this trip to Giant Forest was seeing a young Giant Sequoia (taller than me) growing out of a fallen one.

Young Giant Sequoia growing out of a fallen one.

Young Giant Sequoia growing out of a fallen one.

Both places are densely packed with tall structures covering large areas.  They are places of verticality.  Moving through them yields few opportunities for a long view that isn’t simply a view down a street or trail.  There are stretches (usually not very long)  where the buildings or trees that surround while spectacular in another context are average for these places.

Densely packed verticality along the Alta Trail.

Densely packed verticality along the Alta Trail.

Those stretches are important and make any horizontal opening up of the ground level special.  In New York City there are small parks (by NY standards) like Bryant Park and plazas like that of the Seagram Building.  In the Giant Forest there are clearings that provide the horizontal space to bask in more sunlight (when it’s not cloudy or snowing) and  be far enough away from the trees to better take in their splendor (and take less distorted photos).

Small clearing along the Crescent Trail.

Small clearing along the Crescent Trail.

With all their verticality, both places also possess magnificently grand horizontal space where the skyline can be seen with little distortion.  These are places of radically different texture than what surrounds them and of a large enough scale to provide a captivating contrast.  Functionally, other things are going on in these places.  Central Park is the obvious example from New York City.  Meadows (which are technically a different ecosystem than the forest they are surrounded by) are what Giant Forest has for grand horizontal space.

Crescent Meadow (click to enlarge).

Crescent Meadow (click to enlarge).

In New York City, there are large projects involving multiple buildings that create a local place unto their own.  The cluster of buildings is recognizable from afar and there is a real sense of being within their domain as a unique place within the city.  Rockefeller Center is a good example.  In Giant forest there are several impressive groups of trees that grew up together forming a clearly defined local inside and outside.

View looking at the outside of the Parker Group.

View looking at the outside of the Parker Group.

View looking up from inside the Founders Group.

View looking up from inside of the Founders Group.

New York City has numerous individual skyscrapers (like the Empire State Building) that are world famous for their size and design and are destinations unto their own.  Similarly, Giant Forest has several trees that are world famous for their phenomenal size and beauty.  The Giant Sequoia known as The President is an excellent example.  National Geographic recently published an article and a video about The President.  It is worth watching the short video because it shows an elaborately created photo without any distortion that gives the best sense of scale of these amazing trees that I’ve seen.  According to National Geographic, this tree is 27 feet in diameter, 247 feet tall, holds nearly 2 billion leaves, is 3,200 years old, and still growing.  So, having learned about The President before going to Giant Forest, I made it a point to visit it and was definitely impressed by its magnificence.

Kyle Kuns in front of The President.  Vertical Panorama photo by Scott Turner

Kyle Kuns in front of The President. Vertical Panorama photo by Scott Turner

It got pretty cold (my car thermometer read 6 degrees when we left the visitor’s center) on this snowshoeing trek.  We even found ourselves trekking through a light snow fall.  Stopping for long made my hands get painfully cold.  The place is so photogenic, I stopped often anyway and took many photos of the Giant Forest, I even got a couple with bears.  I’m looking forward to returning.

24 thoughts on “Nature’s Version of New York City

  1. Oh my! I don’t think I would have been able to move forward in the company of those incredible trees. Your photos are spectacular, what a trip. I love Sequoia National Park, unlike New York City it is so quiet, I can only imagine the extra layer of quiet with all the snow. My favorite photograph is the “trail level texture of the giant forest”, just beautiful. The light in a forest like this gets me every time!

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    • Helping the quiet was lack of people (we didn’t see anyone after we left the trailhead) and a little snowfall. I agree with you about the light–especially in the snow with the shadows.

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  2. Great post Kyle. I really enjoyed the comparisons of tree/forest to city architecture — and your ability to get the entirety of the tree into one photo! What a great place to visit in the winter, when there are so few tourists to clutter up the photo. And now, one more thought about Sequoias that has always impressed me with respect to 300 foot trees: imagine the difficulty of moving water 300 feet into the air without an engine.

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    • Thanks Sue. Scott and I were very fortunate. Aside from a group of people taking a tour on another trail with a ranger, we didn’t see anyone else the entire trek. It was amazing. I didn’t think about the water issue you mentioned–interesting!

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