Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lessons of the California Redwoods in Muir Woods

The tall, svelte redwood trees were once common throughout California’s valleys.  Because of unchecked logging, most stands disappeared. Less than five percent of the original two million acres of virgin forest remains today.  But thanks to their difficult location, the redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument area were spared.  The trees are now also protected by Theodore Roosevelt’s proclamation making the area a national monument in 1908.

Having seen outings to the Muir Woods from San Francisco for years, my husband and I were finally paying our first visit.  The drive was through the densely populated bay area with no glimpse of what lay ahead.  Developments stopped as we passed through Mt. Tamalpais State Park.  But  it wasn’t until the turn-off from Highway 1 that the traffic and noise began to disappear.  Soon cell phone service stopped.   A steep, curvaceous road descended and placed us in the wonderland of coastal redwood trees - a world near the Pacific ocean but far away from the urban scene above.

The Muir Woods National Monument is on 295 acres donated by Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, who insisted that the monument be named after the conservationist, John Muir. Muir was a wanderer who studied at his own “university of the wilderness” and concluded that all living things had inherent value and deserved to live. He would be proud of the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy efforts today.

 Inside the monument area,  a two mile paved trail is the most popular although there are many more trails through the woods and over the hills.  Because it is an old growth forest, the trees are......... well, they’re old.  Most are 500 to 800 years old with the eldest having seen 1100 winters.  The park uses one fallen tree’s trunk to tag various human activities on  the tree rings.  It had lived over 1,000 years from 909 A.D. to 1930.  Columbus’ landing in 1492 happened two-thirds through that tree’s life.

A very clever park guide helped us appreciate the significance of the world’s tallest living organism.  Here is what we can learn from the redwoods.

1.  “Stand Tall and Proud” - The tallest redwood in the Muir Woods is over 250 feet tall but at other locations they can top out at 375 feet.  Compare this to the tallest trees in Texas such as the 133 foot Bitternut Hickory or the 140 foot Nuttall Oak.  Or better yet, compare with the smallest tree in the world  - the dwarf willow at three inches!

2.  “Live in a Cool Place” - The redwoods live in a narrow area along the coast of California.  They don’t like heat, do like fog and would never survive in Texas.

3.  “Drink Lots of Water” - They require 200 to 500 gallons of water a day -  three to seven times more than the average daily water use for Americans of 69 gallons.  The trees would be pretty thirsty in the dry summer were it not for the fog that carries moisture to the trees’ needles. Redwood creek also helps hydrate the trees.

4.  “Support Members of Your Community” - The trees do this through their root system which is only six to eight feet deep.  That sounds sufficient but it is the equivalent of a 5 foot 4 inch woman having a toe in the ground.  Since the roots are shallow, they have to spread 50 to 100 feet to provide enough ballast for the trees to remain upright and survive the winds.  Obviously, the roots will overlap and support the trees above.

5.  “Grow a Thick Skin” - Their bark is up to 12 inches thick which protects the tree from the elements.  The same tannic acid found in coffee, tea, and red wine makes the tree resistant to fire and insects.  With no susceptibility to disease, the number one “natural” killer is the wind.

6.  “Surround Yourself With Family” - A redwood cone is only the size of an olive.  Since only one in ten thousand cones grow into trees, the redwoods needed some help with fertility.  Nature provided it through burls, a dormant sprout that can be above or below ground.  The underground burls can sprout into new trees, forming a family circle.

Gratefully, the virgin redwood forests are protected.  But ninety-five percent of the redwood forests today have been cut at least once.  Only 21 percent of that acreage is owned by California and the federal government with the rest in private or corporate hands.   The challenge has been how to encourage the second-growth forest to minimize erosion, maintain wildlife and yet maximize timber production.  In the October, 2009 edition of National Geographic, Jim Able, a former industrial forester for Louisiana Pacific, describes his plan of culling the weakest and most poorly formed trees, leaving the strongest to thrive.  Some day, those saved trees will pay back the owners with huge harvests.

It was hard to look straight up at the Redwoods.  Our necks weren’t used to stretching that far.  But in the Cathedral Grove at Muir Woods, where trees circle around, it was enough to just sit and know they were with us and had been saved for our viewing.  As much as I hate to admit it, California wins the tall tree round.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Experiencing the Hammam or Turkish Baths, at the Paris Mosque

Modeled after the Greek and Roman baths, the Hammam is a form of steam bath and means the spreader of warmth. The Ottomans sowed this Turkish variation throughout Europe. They often are associated with mosques as the baths comply with Islamic laws of purification and hygiene. It was no surprise then to learn of a Hammam at the oldest mosque in Paris, France - the Mosque de Paris. Betty Swasko, Tina Smith, and I were ready for the adventure.

Finding the baths was the first challenge. At the address given, a North African restaurant overflowed into a lovely garden. A waiter pointed us toward the mosque around the block. There, a garden and cool fountain welcomed us but no baths. An elderly man redirected us back to the restaurant. Finally, inside the restaurant, behind the pastry counter, were two green and red painted doors with a sign above one stating “Hammam” and a reversible placard that said “reserve aux femmes” or women only on that day. Cautiously, we entered.

After passing though a tiled antechamber, we arrived at the register with a cashier who acted as if she had never heard a word of English in her life. Gratefully, a departing customer helped with the options and suggested a 20 minute massage for 25 Euros and a 15 Euro trip through the baths. We placed our names on the massage list and slipped on some green, plastic sandals, a far cry from the traditional wooded clogs or patens, carved and decorated with silver and mother of pearl.

There were no signs in English, or French for that matter, except a recurring one that warned us to rinse before entering the baths. Blindly, we found our way to the locker room and changed into bathing suits. After first opening the door to a utility closet, we finally discovered the shower room where an employee used hand motions to be sure all rinsed before entering the baths.

Turkish Baths are very moist and gradually heat your body by increasing the temperature in each of the three rooms. The final room can be as hot as 140 degrees. A Tas, or bucket of cool water, is provided to cool your body and a return trip to the showers is recommended before advancing to a hotter room.

Women of all sizes, shapes, nationalities, and degrees of modesty casually moved about the rooms. We bypassed the first area as the benches were full. A steam sauna sat in the middle of the second room with two elevated platforms on either side. No benches were provided but other participants were lying on the floor of the platforms with their legs resting on the wall. It felt odd but that’s what we did. We learned the reason for lying on the floor in the next room.

The third room was significantly hotter. If we stood, steam swirled around our heads. To breathe, we had to lie prone on the marble floor. Across the aisle, a few women sat in a circular pool that was too hot for us. We were quickly ready for another shower. By the third visit to the shower room, the employee had softened a bit and actually smiled at us.

It was time for our massages and we returned to the vaulted , carved entry area where four massage tables stood, guarded by old masseuses wearing the traditional hijab covering their heads. They motioned us to the tables and we climbed up. What followed was not really a massage - more of an oil rub over all parts of the body. After the heat of the baths, the almond scented oil was the perfect antidote. However, my masseuse had a distracting hangnail and Tina’s lady only worked on her shoulders and back as she talked throughout the massage and even answered her cell phone.

No one had mentioned towels but after the massage, we were dry enough to change clothes. Upon leaving, we encountered a single American woman entering the baths looking as confused as we had earlier. It was nice to return the favor and help her with the options and the process.

In a Turkish travel site, the hammam was described as “wafting steam through which daily worries and concerns cannot penetrate.” Now that we know the routine, this description would be accurate, especially on a vacation.

Paris Mosque website

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