by Whit Gibbons

June 18, 2006

Want to see the tallest tree, largest land mammal, and fastest bird in America, all under one roof? Take a trip to the Atlanta Zoo? No, just any U.S. post office.

The newly released collection of commemorative stamps called the “Wonders of America: Land of Superlatives” is a stunning array of 40 reproductions of plants (5), animals (8), natural wonders (23), and man-made structures (4). Each stamp has a colorful drawing with a superlative identifier, such as "Windiest Place," in contrasting colors. A descriptive bar is at the bottom--"Mount Washington," in this case. On the back of the stamp is a brief explanation of the American wonder. The extraordinary winds recorded on Mount Washington in New Hampshire were greater than 200 miles per hour, the highest ever recorded on land that were not "associated with a tornado or hurricane."

The tallest trees are the coastal redwoods of California. The text explains that the redwoods of Oregon and California are the tallest trees in the world. The standard ones are 200 to 300 feet tall; the tallest are more than 350 feet. I assume it is a joke that President Reagan once said during a debate about logging of old-growth forests, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” I hope it is. Because being in such a forest makes you feel like an elf in a magic world of giants. And anyone who would want to remove such majesty just to build more chairs, footbridges, or tables has a skewed view of the environment--and no appreciation for the splendor and dignity of such a natural wonder.

To capture an image of the size of these trees, pretend the tallest is growing alongside the end zone bleachers of the stadium during the Super Bowl. And then imagine that it falls the length of the field during the game. Not only would it take out both goal posts and the first few rows of horrified fans in the opposite end zone, but both teams on the field and most of the players on the benches would be crushed into the turf. An improbable situation perhaps, but some rather strange things have happened at the Super Bowl.

Back to the stamps. The largest land mammal in the country, now that woolly mammoths and mastodons are extinct, is the American bison, which I think of as buffalo. According to the back of the stamp, a full-grown bull buffalo can weigh more than a ton and stand more than six feet high at the shoulder. And, remember, a huge head with horns towers above the shoulders. Top speed for a buffalo? Nearly 30 miles an hour. And what bird flies so fast that it holds the world speed record? The peregrine falcon. These world-class raptors fly high and then dive to capture ducks, pigeons, and other birds, reaching speeds greater than 200 miles an hour on the descent!

Among the other faunal and floral superstars are the tallest cactus, the saguaro of Arizona, which can grow “taller than a five-story building.” The largest freshwater fish is the white sturgeon of the Columbia River Basin in the Northwest. White sturgeons reach lengths of more than 12 feet and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. The oldest trees are the bristle cone pines of the West, some of which are more than 4,500 years old.

The plants and animals noted on the stamps as being the greatest of their kind in some way have another commonality: most have been threatened environmentally. The threats to the redwoods have been publicized for years. The buffalo herds have been reduced to a fragment of their former selves, and peregrine falcons almost went the way of the passenger pigeon. The people most likely to deliberately buy the Wonders of America stamps will be those with an interest in the environment and our native plants and animals, and most people who buy the stamps will likely read the back before sticking the stamp on an envelope. Any kind of recognition for the great wildlife and habitats of the country helps create an appreciation for these superlatives that many Americans take for granted. Nice job by the U.S. Postal Service.

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