For a tree too big to wrap your arms around, the California coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is surprisingly elusive. Their bases might be elephantine, but the upper reaches, they’re lofty, inscrutable. It’s this zone that I’m preparing to enter, a fog-shrouded crown on the northern California coast. A guide cinches me into a harness, and before I know it, I’m 140 feet up, then 150, 160. I stare at the tree’s dark, gnarled bark to quell the vertigo rising in my temples.
By the time I’m about 20 stories off the ground, the dot-sized people staring up at me are gone, replaced by intertwined branches and needles that close around me like a net. Clumps of sage-colored moss dangle and an inexplicable calm descends. Somewhere, my mind is scrambling like a squirrel, aware that I’m dangling 200 feet off the ground, but the tree’s unrelenting solidity—it’s been here since before the Magna Carta, after all—is having an effect. There’s a stillness up here that passes understanding.
I should have seen this coming. It’s just the way David Milarch described it. Milarch’s singular goal in life is to bring these primeval forests back from the brink, and he knows just how to win people to his cause. The best baptism is the experience. I see it in the faces of others after they return from a crown visit: blooming cheeks, starry eyes, deep sighs. They’ve gotten big tree religion.
There had not been such a winter for years. Every night — bone-cracking cold. Every morning the world flung itself over and the view had changed, appearing a shade lighter, but the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness. The same day returned once again — the same waste of snow and rock very lonely and austere.
It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the snow crust, sometimes for real. On the coldest days the snowdrifts were deep and the pine needles in the glades were ossified with ice. On the days when the sun shone, it was only an instant. A bright speck. Then it was gone.
One could not imagine that matters could get worse, but they did. In a matter of weeks, in a blizzard, how it snowed so hard. Raged for forty-eight hours. Animals that occupied the land felt the wind of the blizzard increase, and overhead the sky grew dark with snow. The cold increased until it was thirty below zero.
I can’t really speak French, but I cook in French. For years, I studied conjugations and the passé simple, practiced pronouncing yaourt and grenouille, but try as I might I just couldn’t seem to master it beyond the essentials like “deux pains au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.”
In the kitchen, however, I am fluent. The fistfuls of garlic and thyme, the pebbly feel of gray sel marin de Guérande between my fingers, and the lushness of an emulsifying sauce are now so ingrained, I can cook in French without thinking. The ethereal creaminess of a soufflé, the anchovy funk of a pissalardière and the caramelized depth of boeuf Bourguignon are as deeply part of me as the bagels and lox we ate in Brooklyn every Sunday.
One night about six months ago, as I was tidying up for the babysitter at the same time as battling to put the kids to bed, all while trying to answer a multitude of suddenly-urgent questions they’d had all day to ask, and put lipstick on, I caught sight of my frantic-looking face in the mirror. What, I wondered, was I doing all this for? Was it worth it simply to spend the evening with a couple we didn’t really like, drink insipid wine and make shallow small-talk about other people we don’t really know or want to spend time with?
I’ve always been a more-the-merrier type person and someone who prided herself on being a good friend. I have friends from all areas of my life – school, university, work – but as I got older and the demands of raising three young children and work have grown, I’ve realised that something had to give. And that something has ended up being my friendships. Not all of them, but I’ve certainly had something of a reassessment.