Lessons from a Sequoia

They say that the smile of Jay Geaghan is so bright you can only capture his image as a shadow.
Jay Geaghan, climbing high.

Sequoiadendron giganteum, known in English as the GIANT sequoia, and oft times referred to as a “tree.”  They are an ancient wonder in modern times that defy descriptions in words, but I’ll try.  2,000,000 pounds.  That’s 1,000 tons, or 5 blue whales.  3,000 years old.  A tree rooted in the ground today was standing there 2,500 years before the Roman Empire.  50,000 cubic feet.  One tree could hold the equivalent of 30 school buses.  Bark three feet thick.  Larger than most trees growing east of the Mississippi today.  250 feet.  A building so tall would be 25 stories.

But these are mere words.  The only way to appreciate a giant sequoia is to visit one.  Lay your hands on the bark.  Close your eyes, open your touch to the feel of a being unique in the world, listen to the voices whispered across the needles and forget words.  Then you will know.

Jay Geaghan.  Classified as Homo sapiens, and oft times referred to as a “man.”  Jay has been climbing big trees since the time that many climbers alive today wore soiled diapers.  Alone.  He likes to pioneer 300 vertical feet of wild tree on his own.  Respect.  Before a climb thanks are given to the tree that shares its secrets.  Quiet.  Jay has an honest laugh and can tell a good yarn, but at 6 feet tall his silent presence simply towers over others.  Simply stated, Jay has the heart of a sequoia.  His physique isn’t far behind either.  The skin on his back flows over supple contours like the bark of a tree, and is equally hard.  Hands.  I know his hands can’t crush boards, but after many thousands of hours gripping chain saws it looks like they could. And his eyes.  That is where the strength and the spirit shine out.  In Jay’s eyes are the light of a thousand summer days, and the wisdom of a thousand winter eves.

But these are mere words.  The only way to appreciate Jay is to climb with him.  Jay has this weird instinct that knows what feelings lie in the hearts of men.  Climb with Jay and he will know why you are there, and what you need before you leave.  It’s true.  Don’t try and hide anything from the guy.  He knows your limits, your strengths, urges, and fears maybe even before you do.  And then this magical thing happens.  Without telling or asking, Jay leads the way, taking the climber in you to a higher place than you knew.  Climb 200 feet with Jay one day, and you will know things you didn’t realize you were learning about climbing, yourself, and most importantly, about life.

Canopy of old-growth forest - preferred habitat of Jay Geaghan.
Canopy of old-growth forest – preferred habitat of Jay Geaghan.  Photo by Jay.

One day on a drive through the Olympic Peninsula I asked Jay why he climbs trees.  Pause, while conifers whiz by and Jay collects his statement.  “It’s good for me.  It’s good for my body, mind, and spirit.”  Bam.  Jay goes on.  “When I was still young I thought about what made me a living being.  I realized I was just like an animal and I have needs.  An animal has to feed, and it has to move and be physical.  But I realized that I also have a soul, and I have to take care of that too.  Climbing feeds my body and my soul.”

When Jay “was still young” he lived on Okinawa in the Japanese archipelago.  His father was military.  Jay yearned for the ocean, yet feared what he might find in the water, or what in the water might find him, to be more accurate.  By watching the native Okinawans he learned he could free dive out in the reefs and gradually he explored farther and farther from shore.  Jay is like that.  Give him a mile and he will want to cross a continent, because there is always something new to learn just over there.  He once rode a motorcycle across South America.  These are the types of life experiences that are bound to grow wisdom from a soul.

All of this is cool, but it misses the essence of being Jay, and that is his humility.  Tree climbing is “macho”, and it has an effect on some people where the climber (in his mind) becomes bigger than the tree itself, as if climbing a giant makes us one.  The perspective can get, well, lost.  Jay knows where his place is.  At 150 feet off the ground Jay can get overwhelmed with humility and hug a tree for being his friend and giving life back to a man.  In a recent conversation Jay told me that he is “just an ordinary guy.”  Let me be honest: Jay has the respect of everyone I know.  A sequoia, after all, is just an ordinary tree.

Heard enough?  Not yet – I have one more to add.  Jay is in his seventh decade.  By the laws of the U.S.A. he meets the definition of “senior citizen.”  At an age when men his age are content to tour the U.S. in motorhomes equipped with air conditioners and satellite dishes, Jay still seeks out 250-foot tall trees to climb, often alone and other times with friends, where he shares soul, inspiration, and wisdom.  Listen to the wind, my friends, and listen with care so you can learn. After all, the voice of a sequoia speaks softly.

Author’s note: The real Jay Geaghan asked not to use his actual name.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Sequoia”

  1. This reminds me of Richard Preston’s book, “The Wild Trees.” I highly recommend the book for anyone who loves trees and wants to know more about climbing giant trees. Giant trees are amazing!!

    1. Thank you, Laura. “Wild Trees” was definitely an inspiration behind our climbing, so in some way can be thanked for the blog as well.

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