True fact: the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts.
Speaking of getting around, when I have guests from out of town, especially if they happen never to have been to San Francisco, there are certain places I gently suggest might be of interest to them, and some places upon which I simply insist. We can – though I will not force you to – ride a cable car, drink Irish coffee at the Buena Vista or go deal with whatever too-cool-for-school thingy is on gawk detail at SFMoMA (Once I saw food-nerd Alton Brown in a staredown with Marina Abramovic! Dude, that was weird. Did you know that dress was designed so she could pee in it?).
Anyway, on the list of things you’d have to really really work hard to talk me out of, even though it’s a tourist staple and frequently crowded, is Muir Woods, the redwood forest at the foot of Mount Tamalpais just across the Golden Gate from the city.
Sometimes, I’ve incorporated this into a goofy “Vertigo Tour,” in which we try to visit as many of the locations from Hitchcock’s masterpiece as still exist. You recall the scene, right? They’re there, in the dark in the forest, and standing there like Time itself there's a cross section of a tree, and they’re looking at the concentric growth rings as if that is where they will find all the answers.
When you enter the park, one of the first things you see is a cross-section of a monster tree, bigger around than you are tall, over a thousand years old, felled in a storm in, I think, the 30s. To provide a little perspective on timne from the redwood's point of view, some of the rings are marked with little arrows that say things like “Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.” “French Revolution.” “Magna Carta.” “Battle of Hastings.” “Aztecs begin construction of Tenochtitlan, Mexico.”
The Coast Redwood or Sequoia sempervirens
is the tallest as well as the longest-lived tree on the planet (there are trees alive today that were putting on rings when Julius Ceasar died). It occurs only in a small range from the extreme south of Oregon to around Big Sur, California, and never more than 50 miles inland. Muir Woods, named for the influential conservationist John Muir (a devotee, may I add, of Swedenborg! I’m telling you, everydamnthing is connected) is the kind of place that would probably have made Swedenborg himself jump up and down and yell whatever the 17th century Swedish equivalent of “I told you! I told you!” would be. It is nothing so much as a living cathedral, with the ability some exceptionally well-crafted churches have, of making you feel alone in your own sacred space even with a million people around you, and of drawing your eyes – and presumably your spirit – upward.
Because they are so enormous, redwoods create a very dark forest floor. They do bear cones, like other needle-leaved evergreens – but although they can reproduce sexually, they don’t tend to, because a sapling germinated from a redwood seed is unlikely to get enough sunlight to get established. The sequoia has adapted around this by reproducing asexually – they “layer” or sprout new trees from their root burl. If the main trunk becomes damaged, new offspring trees will tend to form around it in a ring. So in old groves you often see the trees arrayed in circles and horseshoe or omega shapes.
The sequoia is almost unkillable. Fire can do it, but it is so well-protected by a thick layer of pithy bark that fire seldom reaches enough of the sapwood to feel the tree. Due to its extremely high tannin content there are basically no pests or diseases than can destroy an established redwood. What can kill a redwood (other than timbering) is drought, which is why you will only find them in such a small range. They require humidity, provided by the summer marine layer – the thick blanket of fog pulled off the Pacific by the dry hear of the interior valleys that gets stuck against the coastal mountains and utterly confuses tourists expecting sunny beaches and warm nights.
What does this have to do with Gestalt psychology? Nothing. Except that The main principle of Gestalt psychology is the concept of Prägnanz – which, get this, means: “pithiness.” What’s meant by it is that the human brain tends to marshall sensory perceptions into orderly, regular, symmetrical forms. Variants on Prägnanz include the Law of Closure (the mind “filling in the blanks” to make what it sees make more sense). the Law of Proximity (closeness in space or time causing the mind to perceive separate entities as a single unit); the Law of Common Fate (the tendency to see things as a collective or unit if they are moving in the same direction); the Law of Continuity (The tendency to notice a pattern and expand it; think of telephone poles or lamps on the side of a highway, and the way you imagine or “see” an endless sequence of them). And the Law of Invariance, which is the mind’s tendency to recognize a form or object independent of rotation or scale.
Didactic enough for you? But seriously, in all the megabicker about the place form has in poetry, does it do something for you, one way or the other, to think about how our minds might in fact be determined to impose form on things? We seem to need it. Which I suppose could be an argument for following the form-forming tendencies of the human brain, or fighting them. I could make either argument – but I do enough arguing. All I can say is that pattern – and mindful breakage of pattern – is something that pleases me. It is apparently something that also pleases the redwood, for whom the few decades of passionate jousting between the “formalists” and “free verse-ists” is a laughable blip. Try bellowing “Make it new!” to a sequoia. Feel better?
Thought not. Then again, the trees in Muir Woods were old when Shakespeare took up his quill. It’s all relative. Meaning it’s all related. Meaning: the whole is more, invariably, than the sum of the parts. So here’s to the parts that that bigger whole is made of.