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On May 31st, four hours before the widest tornado in recorded history tore through central Oklahoma, Tracie Alexis Seimon tied a tag to a tree that stood outside of Sid’s Diner in El Reno, Oklahoma. She tied the small, rectangular tag to a branch. On the tag she wrote:

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‘What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and one another.’ ~ Ghandi

Chances are very high that no one ever had the chance to read it.

Tracie is a molecular scientist for her day job. She was in the Midwest on vacation with her husband, Anton Seimon, a veteran tornado researcher and storm chaser who has conducted research for organizations like National Geographic. Chasing storms is an extra-curricular activity for the Seimons and they use vacation time to immerse themselves in massive weather systems. They have done this for years. On their most recent trip in May, they also volunteered to be Tree Dreams taggers.

Their relatively routine storm chasing trip took a tragic turn, however. Three of the Seimon’s friends and colleagues lost their lives in the tornado that claimed five other lives as well.

But when Tracie hung her tag on the tree at Sid’s Diner in El Reno, she had no idea just how violent the storm would become. At that point, she simply wondered whether the tag would still be hanging the next day. She didn’t have to drive very far outside of town before she knew that the chances were slim.

The tornado that swept through Oklahoma that day grew in size from ½ mile wide to 2.6 miles wide in a matter minutes. It was so huge that from up close you couldn’t see the sides of it—the swirling mass, with 300-mile-an-hour winds, was simply all that you saw. It became a maximum strength tornado, rated an EF-5, the highest rating possible.

Tracie is still trying to piece together what transpired over the next few hours, but it included being caught in hurtling curtains of rain, trying to keep track of the multiple vortices that spontaneously emerged, and dodging flying debris. At one point, the tornado suddenly changed direction and increased in size and intensity to a degree that no one had anticipated. Luckily, the Seimons managed to break free from the storm’s circulation and flooding rains and drove to safety at her brother’s house—a drive that normally takes forty-five minutes, but took five hours due to the storm.

The Seimons spent the next thirty-six hours reconstructing the day’s events—their route, the storm and their relation to its movements—to better understand what had happened. They rested. They camped. They repeatedly Googled the names of colleagues who had not checked in to their usual networks.

It was Anton who finally saw the report at five in the morning two days after the storm: their friends and colleagues, storm researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul and their research partner Carl Young, had lost their lives to the twister. Camping out in a remote area in Colorado, the Seimons were in shock, trying to make sense of the whole experience. The storm was unprecedented and in the many years that Anton has been a researcher and chaser, no one had lost their life.

Tracie tagged a cactus before leaving the Comanche National Grasslands. On it she wrote:

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“Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved. ”Charles Darwin

They drove to Denver to attend their friends’ memorial service. The parking lot looked like a storm chaser convention, packed with trucks and vans with weather research whirly-gigs and scientific doo-dads. The service was packed. In honor of Tim Samaras, whose inspiration for storm chasing had originally come from The Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow” was played.

On the drive home to the East Coast, the Seimons decided to pass through El Reno. Their first stop was Sid’s Diner. Tracie’s tag had been snatched by the storm, though the twine was still intact. They re-traced their route, now marked by rows of leveled houses, trees stripped of their leaves and branches and debris strewn in every direction.

Tracie decided to hang one more Tree Dreams tag near the place where their friends had lost their lives. They pulled over at a wide, open field. Three trees remained standing. Only one, a Juniper, looked like it would actually survive. Wild flowers had bloomed at the base of the tree since the storm passed through just a few days prior. On the tag Tracie wrote:

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“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” Judy Garland

In memory of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young

When Tracie and Anton tied the tag, the two broke down in tears.

In the face of such extreme weather and the overwhelming fact of how small we are, words can feel insignificant—like the rectangular, cardboard tag that was sucked up into the storm. And yet, ideas and small acts can still buoy us, like a raft. They can never stand up to the terrible size of a tragedy such as this, but they are like the few trees that are still standing in El Reno. They say, ‘I am still here. I matter.’

In an e-mail about her experience, Tracie described it to me this way, “This project that you inspired us to participate in morphed unexpectedly into something of much deeper meaning during the course of our trip. It became so much more than spreading ideas about people’s interconnectedness with nature and relaying a conservation message: we found we were creating a personal connection between the tornado (nature’s awesome power), a surviving tree (nature’s resilience), our friends (living out their dream), and us.

When we first learned that our friends were killed, I really regretted that we were on the same storm that killed them. However, after going back to the spot and tagging that lonely tree, this completely changed, and I actually felt relieved that we were there because it helped me understand what happened and better cope with the loss of our friends. Like you stated so beautifully, it was a small act that buoyed us.”

Tree Geeks

Brian French and Will Koomjian are certified tree geeks. Beyond the arborist certification from the International Society of Arboriculture that allows them to care for the trees in your yard, they each have a passion for trees that runs so deeply, one suspects they might be carriers of a rare tree gene. Trees are that essential to their being. They speak Tree Latin: Pseudotsuga menziesii often stands in for Douglas Fir in everyday conversation, Thuja plicata for Western Red Cedar. They argue about the origin of species. When asked about the decline of the Baker Cypress, Cupressus bakeri, the discussion went like this:

Writer: [Whole groves have been lost since] the tree was discovered in the 1940s?

French: Yeah.

Koomjian: No, no, no. Since this species was discovered.

French: Yeah. That was in the 1940s.

Koomjian: (talking over French) No it wasn’t. No it wasn’t.

French: Yes it was. Oliver Matthews discovered the species.

Koomjian: No. (now rolling his eyes) Oliver Matthews did not discover the species. He discovered that tree in that grove. The species was discovered in the 19th century.

French: I thought it was Matthews who got it.

Koomjian: No. That was the sub-species.

French: Oh, yeah, Right, right. Sorry about that.

Koomjian: We’re not talking about the sub-species. We’re talking about the whole species. And there are nine groves of the entire species.

Koomjian even sports a tree tattoo on his left, upper arm. Thuja plicata, Western Red Cedar. It is the image of a dead trunk. Apparently, as cedars age, the center treetop dies and shoots new tops off the old trunk creating a candelabra effect. Koomjian climbed a ‘total freak tree’ in the Olympic Peninsula in Washington that grew on the top of a hill instead of in swampy, bottomland areas where Thuja plicata prefer. This tree is one of the largest Thuja plicata in the world and is close to 500-years younger than any of the other giant, old trees of that species. Koomjian climbed a hemlock that grew out of the base of the main tree and then swung himself over into the tallest stem in the canopy of the cedar and there he saw it: the dead trunk that to him was as beautiful as a Van Gough painting.

Twenty-somethings French and Koomjian often find themselves in big—no, giant —trees regularly and it is not just because of their arborist day job. In 2007, it occurred to them that their tree climbing skills would allow them to venture into worlds that no one ever sees—the canopies of the biggest trees of each species, known as champion trees. They decided to explore the vertical unknown to discover the measurements, habitats and mysteries of these ancient organisms so others could experience their wonder. And besides, it would be a very cool thing to do.

Ascending the Giants was born. Since French and Koomjian’s first big tree climb in a Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, the Portland, Oregon-based, volunteer-run organization has measured over 100 trees, recording 38 national champions and 15 future champions in Oregon, California, Montana, Washington and Vancouver Island, B.C. Incidentally, they also happened to discover the active nests of both the marbled murrelet (considered endangered) and the elusive red tree vole (considered threatened) and a pair of clouded salamanders at a record-breaking height of 250’ in a 257’ tall Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.

Tree Geeks, Pt. 2: Climbing Big Trees, Pt. 3, Pt. 4

Pt. 1, Pt. 3, Pt. 4

Champion trees are the largest of their species worldwide. That doesn’t always mean that they are the biggest trees around. In fact, it is rare for a tree to reach above 150 feet. Ascending the Giants has climbed many champions that aren’t especially big. Then again, they have climbed many trees that are gigantic.

Big trees are natural candidates for champion status and French and Koomjian will often climb them to determine if they are, in fact, champions. Climbing big trees is nothing like swinging yourself up on the lowest branch of your backyard oak and enjoying the perspective of the garden from ten feet up. It is nothing like that. At all.

First, add 150 to 250 feet (read fifteen to twenty-five stories) to the height of that oak, depending on the tree to be climbed. Second, add the inchworm-style climb up the hundred-plus-foot giant on the rope that is rigged to a branch. Third, add all the gear that is needed to properly climb the tree without leaving a trace. ATG is adamant about using non-invasive methods of ascending trees in their attempt to leave each tree exactly as they found it.

Gear includes: a six-to-eight-foot long sling shot known as a Big Shot that shoots a tiny weighted pouch connected to fishing line to set the first rope over the highest possible branch; if that doesn’t work, there is the crossbow attached to a fishing reel that shoots a steel bolt high into the tree for the same reason; there are lots of reels, lots of fishing line, lots of throw balls and bolts because sometimes it takes a few tries to set the first line securely; hundreds of feet of throw line are needed to hoist up and over the first branch; next is the access line—a ten-millimeter wide static rope used for the initial climb into the tree; after the access line has been anchored, there are shorter climbing ropes that allow climbers to maneuver through the canopy; there is a cambium saver that sits between a rope and a branch so that the rope never rubs on the branch as it is climbed; a harness, carabineers and pulleys; and the measurement tools that include measuring tape, a GPS locator and a ten-foot-long, telescoping reach tool used to measure the tip top of the tree. All of this gear collectively weighs hundreds of pounds and climbers can feel like pack mules hauling it on their backs while bush whacking in search of giants.

Another factor that makes climbing big trees somewhat different than your average backyard adventure is the weather. For example, everyone knows that it rains in ATG’s home state of Oregon, but weather can go from sprinkles to a wind-whipping storm and back again in the course of half an hour. On one expedition to count the number of big trees in one specific area, the spitting rain had not let up all day. French and volunteer climber Jason Brown are climbing a majestic Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii that stands 268-feet tall and measures almost nine feet in diameter in a remote old-growth forest. They ascend their ropes toward the upper canopy of the great-granddaddy tree estimated to be over 500-years-old. It takes one hour to climb 200 feet.

The rain relents a little, but French notices a knot of black clouds and a wind traveling toward him like an ocean wave on a sea of blue-green needles across the forest. “Check it out!” French yells to Brown and points to the oncoming storm blast, but already his voice is getting lost in the thunder of thrashing branches.

French secures himself to a solid limb and feels the deep groan of the giant bending to the wind. The treetop to which their ropes are tethered will sway as much as ten feet in either direction and they will sway with it. It’s like rocking on the Titanic before it tips. Unable to secure himself in time, Brown dangles from his climbing rope as it glides in long arcs and he holds on like a tiny spider whose web-making has been interrupted by the elements. It would be reasonable to want to return to the ground, but both men have secretly given in to what feels like the inevitable choice. Eyes round with Evil-Kenevil-derring-do, French yells to Brown, “Are you committed?” Brown lets out a whoop and yells back, “Let’s do it!” and the two men inch their way through the storm to the tenuous top to get their height measurement.

Dead or dying branches known as ‘widow-makers’ can unexpectedly snap and shoot like humongous javelins to the ground grabbing a tangle of other branches as they hurtle downward. Or, like in the Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata, the tops of old giants can die. Some tops are then blown off in a storm, like the one French and Brown were climbing in. One cannot always tell from the ground if a top is ready to blow.

There was one giant that ATG planned to climb, but when they arrived at the tree they found that it was in a precarious state. A Sitka Spruce, Picea sitchensis, on Rector Ridge in the Oregon Coast Range lost its top which impaled itself in the ground over 100-feet away. The tree once stood 187-feet tall, but when ATG visited after the incident, they found that the tree now measured 111-feet tall (which they determined by climbing a neighbor tree). The erect, inverted treetop measured 55-feet leaving 21-feet of tree unaccounted for. French estimates some of that was smashed to bits on impact and the rest of the treetop was jammed deep into the earth making its own monument to itself.

No one wants to be attached to a treetop when it blows off.

French and Brown both privately considered possibilities such as these during their climb, but the chance to intimately know that grand-daddy tree was far more alluring than the outside chance of limb failure, even with winds upwards of 30 mile-per-hour. Such is the call of trees for some.

Needless to say, should you suspect that you have a big champion tree in your backyard, do not try this at home. Call the big tree guys.

Pt. 1, Tree Geeks, Pt. 3: The National Registry of Big Trees, Pt. 4

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