Stephen Sillett climbed his first redwood tree in 1987 at, or about, nineteen years of age. His brother, his friend, and he, had driven down to a California state park from Reed College, Oregon, where Sillett was studying biology. They were there to satisfy curiosity: what was at the top of the giant trees? Stillett wanted to climb the biggest one to its pinnacle, but found the lowest branches were 100 feet above the forest floor. Undeterred, he climbed a smaller neighboring redwood until he found he was close enough to jump from the smaller tree to the giant. Yep. He jumped from the first tree to the larger tree, at least 100 feet above the ground, without the benefit of a rope, harness, or other safety equipment. (When one is young, one is both invincible and immortal.)
Reaching the top, Sillett relaxed and looked around. The view was incredible from atop the mighty Redwood, but what caught his attention was the life at the top of the tree. The thick mesh of branches caught needles, bark, dust and debris, all of which decayed into good soil, providing a place for organisms to put down roots, figuratively and literally. Various fern, lichen, fungi, bush, and tree species were growing in the massive redwood tree, creating an ecosystem hundreds of feet above the ground. Insects, earthworms, birds, salamanders, squirrels, and voles all made homes in the forest high-rise complex. Incredibly, the redwood was also cloning itself, with new reiterations sprouting out of the main trunk.
Sillett had discovered a whole new world in the high canopy of redwoods at the very start of his scientific career. He went on to complete a master’s degree and a doctorate. Today, he’s a professor at Humboldt State University and still studying and climbing the world’s biggest trees, although now only with ropes and safety equipment.
“What’s hidden among the tallest trees on Earth? – Wendell Oshiro” (4:47)
“View from the Treetops | National Geographic” (2:57)
“Steve Sillett, PhD. Sequoia/Redwood Canopy Research, Humboldt State” (4:54)
“Redwood Ranger Minute: Redwood Forest Canopy” (3:40)