by Shauna Potocky
The dirt road leads to a fork, and from here you must decide, which path to take. The forest here, now in fall, is a mix of Black oaks, Pacific dogwoods, pines and firs. The light is filled with colorful foliage, illuminated gold, flaming red, greens in every hue. The air is crisp and the ground just damp after the first rains of the season. The road, in either direction, winds through the forest and leads you to a grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoia giganteum).
The Nelder Grove is located in the Sierra National Forest of California, south of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias that reside within Yosemite National Park. This grove, named for John A. Nelder, a retired miner who once called the grove his home, stands stoic and beautiful in the mixed conifer forest—revealing for all to see, it’s past.
Not all giant sequoia groves benefited from early government protection, as the Mariposa Grove did during the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and thus, some Sequoia groves were logged—massive trees felled for timber. The irony of which proved to be that the wood was not ideal for building since, when the tree fell it often broke apart—shattered or splintered. Thus, many of these logged trees were made into shingles, stakes and other smaller scale items.
The Nelder Grove had such a fate. In the late 1800’s, the grove was logged by timber operations. Today, among the approximately 100 standing mature and majestic sequoias are gigantic silent stumps that tell of the groves’ past. Just as the standing glorious trees, these stumps too, make one stop in awe—they take your breath away.
There is truly an extraordinary gift in this grove. Here, among the tales of history, are some extraordinarily old and massive sequoias and among them, young sequoias reaching upwards. Together, they stand in a grove that is lightly visited and teeming with biodiversity—a forest thriving with the song of birds, the echoing pound of woodpeckers, the flow of running rivers and creeks.
This provides countless teaching opportunities—sharing with students and visitors the ecology, fire history, and species that call this area home, including one of the Sierra’s most elusive sensitive species, the Pacific fisher. Along side biology and ecology is the deep and rich history of this place; once used, the lessons learned, the values gained and protections established so these trees and their story can be told for generations to come. And it doesn’t end there—there is a remarkable human story too, from the historic figures to the people who care for the grove now.
The grove came under management by the United States Forest Service in 1928. A campground was established and the grove benefited by the presence of campground hosts. John and Marge Hawksworth served in this role and together they assisted and educated visitors; going on to care for the grove for more than 20 years. While doing so they also passed a great love of the grove down to their children, grandchildren, and great grand children.
One of those grandchildren was Brenda Negley; Brenda fell so deeply in love with the Nelder Grove, that today, Benda and her family serve as the grove’s campground hosts—continuing a legacy of sharing the grove with visitors, educating people about the history and being stewards to this remarkable place.
In total, Brenda’s family has cared for the grove, in various capacities for over twenty-six years. Together, they tirelessly help to maintain the exhibits that are displayed throughout the summer and assist visitors with campground access and information regarding trails. Without a doubt, if you see a smiling, approaching face in the grove, it is almost assuredly, Brenda.
For this service, her family has received some notable honors, which now includes the 2012 United States Forest Service national award for Volunteer Campground Host of the Year.
Along with this recognition, there have also been recent achievements for the grove including the establishment of a non-profit organization, Friends of Nelder Grove, Inc., which seeks to share and preserve the grove and its history, while making it accessible for the public to enjoy.
Then there are the unexpected surprises, the ones that confirm how truly important the stewardship and access to public lands, like the Nelder Grove, are to people all over the world.
During the recent government shutdown, visitors were unable to travel into Yosemite National Park to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yet, these same visitors, who came from all over the world to see giant sequoias, driven by the desire to see even just one tree, if just for a moment, made the trek down the dirt road to that same fork framed by oaks, dogwoods and pines. Their journey and moments of inspiration in the Nelder Grove, affirm that the preservation of these quiet giants in all their glory—instead of being used as a resource by a select few—are worth more when preserved for the benefit of everyone.
Cool Fact: John Muir and John Nelder met in the fall of 1875, when Muir was exploring the region in search of giant sequoias. Named the Fresno Grove at the time of their meeting, the grove and Mr. Nelder are captured in Muir’s writings: Our National Parks, Chapter IX: The Sequoia and General Grant National Parks.
Cool Fact: Brenda’s husband proposed to her under the sequoia tree named for her grandparents, the Hawksworth tree.
Award photo: Courtesy of Brenda Negley and Friends of Nelder Grove, Inc.
Sequoia photo credits: Shauna Potocky