CAN YOU SEE THE TALLEST TREE AND FASTEST BIRD?
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.
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."
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
you have an environmental question or comment, email