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  • In the Shadow of Red Cedar
  • Wade Davis (bio)

In the shadow of red cedar, along a stream colored by salmon, in a place where plants draw food from the air and small creatures living on dew never touch the forest floor, it is difficult to imagine a time when the coastal temperate rain forests of North America did not exist. Today, these immense and mysterious forests, which in scale and wonder dwarf anything to be found in the tropics, extend in a vast arc from northern California 2,000 miles north and west to the Copper River and the Gulf of Alaska. Home to myriad species of plants and animals, a constellation of life unique on Earth, they spread between sea and mountain peak, reaching across and defying national boundaries as they envelop all who live within their influence in an unrivaled frontier of the spirit.

It is a world anchored in the south by giant sequoias, the most massive of living beings, and coast redwoods that soar 300 feet above the fog banks of Mendocino. In the north, two trees flourish: western hemlock, with its delicate foliage and finely furrowed bark; and Sitka spruce, most majestic of all, a stunningly beautiful species with blue-green needles that are salt tolerant and capable of extracting minerals and nutrients from sea spray. In between, along the silent reaches of the midcoast of British Columbia, behind a protective veil of Sitka spruce, rise enormous stands of Douglas fir. Intermingled with hemlock and fir, growing wherever the land is moist and the rains abundant, is perhaps the most important denizen of the Pacific slope, the western red cedar, the tree that made possible the florescence of the great and ancient cultures of the coast.

To walk through these forests in the depths of winter, when the rain turns to mist and settles softly on the moss, is to step back in time. Two hundred million years ago vast coniferous forests formed a mantle across the entire planet. Dinosaurs evolved long supple necks to browse high among their branches. Then evolution took a great leap, and flowers were born. What made them remarkable was a mechanism of pollination and fertilization that changed the course of life on Earth. In the more primitive conifers, the plant must produce the basic food for the seed with no certainty that it will be fertilized. In the flowering plants, by contrast, fertilization itself sparks the creation of the seed’s food reserves. In other words, unlike the conifers, [End Page 123] the flowering plants make no investment without the assurance that a viable seed will be produced. As a result of this and other evolutionary advances, the flowering plants came to dominate the Earth in an astonishingly short time. Most conifers went extinct, and those that survived retreated to the margins of the world, where a small number of species maintained a foothold by adapting to particularly harsh conditions. Today, at a conservative estimate, there are over 250,000 species of flowering plants. The conifers have been reduced to a mere 700 species, and in the tropics, the hotbed of evolution, they have been almost completely displaced.

On all the Earth, there is only one region of any size and significance where, because of particular climatic conditions, the conifers retain their former glory. Along the northwest coast of North America the summers are hot and dry, the winters cold and wet. Plants need water and light to create food. Here in the summer there is ample light for photosynthesis but not enough water for most deciduous trees, except in low-lying areas where broad-leafed species such as red alder, cottonwood, and vine maple flourish. In the winter, when both water and light are sufficient, the low temperatures cause the flowering plants to lose their leaves and become dormant. The evergreen conifers, by contrast, are able to grow throughout the long winters, and since they use water more efficiently than broad-leafed plants, they also thrive during the dry summer months. The result is an ecosystem so fertile and so productive that the biomass in the richest sites is easily four times as great as that of...