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The Quest for the Green Giant
Photo: portrait of James Balog
The Jack and the Beanstalk moment is upon me. It is the instant when some elemental part of my wiring, the survival-obsessed brain stem, I suppose, decides to stop fretting about how high above the ground I am. Once cut loose from its anxious shackles, the mind is free to float upward, into the giant's kingdom of the high forest canopy.

I am spinning on a rope through empty air ten stories (30 meters) above the snow-covered Earth. All around, as far as I can see, are rolling waves of khaki treetops interspersed with the rust-orange trunks of giant sequoias. An unbroken slab of pale gray clouds sits thickly overhead, promising rain.

Sequoiadendron giganteum genes have given birth to the largest trees in the world, as measured by the volume of their wood. A few dozen yards away from me towers one of the biggest of the big. During the past two millennia, this giant vegetable has managed to grow 242 feet (73.8 meters) tall and 25 1/2 feet (7.8 meters) in diameter; 44,100 cubic feet (19,980 cubic meters) of arboreal life pullulates into the southern California sky. It's the fifth largest tree in the world. We humans have named it Stagg.

Numerical abstractions don't really do justice to Stagg's immensity. Nor does standing on the ground looking up a foreshortened column of wood. Part of my motivation for being on this rope is to find a vantage point that will convey the incredible size of this tree—a view that is truly unique, one totally new to the human eye.

I have spent five years making portraits of the largest, oldest, strongest trees in the U.S. Creating the portfolio has taken me from Key West to the Pacific Northwest, from Hawaii to New England. But if the process of reaching the trees has been peripatetic, the process of photographing them has been the opposite.

At its best, photography is a meditative act requiring monklike concentration; it can reveal depths of insight one's everyday mind can't reach. Through the artistic process, I have sensed that trees have more nuances of personality and character than I ever could have imagined. The chance to put at least a dim facsimile of this perception onto a piece of photographic paper has been the main impetus driving me all these years and miles.

Being a hundred feet (30 meters) above the ground on a rock climb, when body and mind are in contact with obdurate stone, doesn't seem terribly high, but in my current situation the height seems unpleasantly precarious. Three small sliding clamps, known as jumars, attach me to a black 11-millimeter rope. This rope goes yet another 120 feet (36 meters) straight into the sky, where it is tied to a line strung laterally from the top of Stagg to one of the neighboring trees. (The lines are installed with a crossbow and arranged to minimize impact on the tree.) The whole system is at the mercy of the atmospheric swells rolling into the Sierra in advance of a Pacific winter storm, and I heave up and down along with them. Under the circumstances, it's a relief when my mind abandons its attachment to terra firma, gives in to fate, and lets me climb into the sky in peace.

Learn more about Balog's high-wire exploits in the February 2004 issue of Adventure.

Online Extra
Portrait of a Giant
View the results of James Balog's adventures in Stagg, and learn more about what it took to capture one of America's largest—and most frequently overlooked—treasures in our online exclusive >>

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Related Web Sites

James Balog
Visit the writer/photographer's home page for more on his Tree Project—a five-year quest to capture the most stunning of America's many magnificent trees.

Lava Junkie
View Jim Balog's most recent Adventure photo gallery—scenes from a smoking-hot trip to Hawaii's Kilauea, the world's most active volcano.

ANWAR in Pictures
Audio dispatches and images from Jim Balog's journey through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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February 2004

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