“In California, in Calaveras Big Tree State Park, the historic giant sequoia known for the tunnel in its base came down during the heavy rain…” (NPR Hourly Newscast, 9 January 2017)
My sleepy ears perked up at the information during my brief drive home on this frigid Monday morning after dropping off my son at daycare. It is not every day that we get news about trees in the NPR hourly broadcast, but this one is special. A storm that may be the worst in a decade is pummeling areas of northern California and Nevada. People lost homes and there is tragic loss of life. But the loss of a tree is an exceptional news bit. A quick Google search shows that most major national news outlets are covering this story and my own response this morning caused me to wonder, “Why is this prompting such an emotional reaction?”
Most reporting of the event references the historic characteristics of the tree. While we do not know the exact age, most of the giant sequoias in the North Grove are at least 1,200 years old. This fact alone causes most people to pause and place a hand on these specimens in hopes of connecting to an earlier era. Often, it is only through a sense of place do we feel we can physically interact with history – spiritual pilgrimages and holy sites are the epitome of this desire. Additionally, news outlets point out the Pioneer Cabin Tree’s giant car-sized tunnel at its base, carved in the 1880’s. This is clearly the sequoia’s claim to fame. So the historic significance of this particular tree is twofold: first, its natural history through a connection to an ancient past, and second, its social history with the first tourists to the visitation of that exact spot.
This tree is significant not only for its historic and cultural relevance, but also for the time in which it fell. We are at a pivotal moment in American politics – this is one thing that both “sides” can agree on. Emotions ran high this year and they are still cooking after turning down to a vigorous simmer following the boil. We collectively lost important cultural figures, too many to note here, but their passing almost signifies the beginning of a new era, one that is thoroughly intertwined with politics. We have at our hands a new culture war.
And then we lost a tree.
At the time of westward expansion toward the Pacific, and in the throes of the American Civil War, the first European Americans considered the immense trees of Yosemite to be “the botanical correlate of America’s heroic nationalism at a time when the Republic was suffering its most divisive crisis since the Revolution.” Additionally, and in-line with beliefs that America was a mission supported by a blessing from God, the trees were old enough to connect Americans to the birth of Christ. Thus, not only for their grandeur, the sequoias are mystical because they symbolize the spiritual and carry the hopes of a nation in its branches.
Our imagination is peaked by trees and the fascination is not limited to American culture. Religious stories revolve around trees. We live in trees through homebuilding. We travel in trees with boats. Trees permeate almost every aspect of our lives through paper, jewelry, home décor, objects of luxury, artwork, and essential tools. There are few other resources that we use in such varied forms.
We lost a tree this weekend and it provoked a big response. As one Facebook commenter wrote, this one “made a sound when it fell.” Others commented about how “sad” it is that we lost this tree or shared their family vacation photograph for others to see. After a year of losing celebrity after celebrity, one celebrity tree is gone. But the reasons for its fame arrive out of ambivalence. Pioneer Cabin Tree would not be renowned if it were not for the massive hole at its base – a hole that eventually killed the tree, leaving only one branch alive at the top. People took pictures with Pioneer Cabin because it had a tunnel through it, and now news outlets and social media alike are crying out. The Huffington Post published a particularly scathing article title:
Pioneer Cabin Tree, Iconic Giant Sequoia With ‘Tunnel,’ Falls In Storm:
The tree was “barely alive” due to the hole punched through it in the 1880s.
The language is meant to provoke and point to the injury that a violation like this can do to trees. Using the language of abuse, it also subtly chastises all the visitors who found fascination with Pioneer Cabin, as if they were witnesses to the crime.
If an unofficial assessment can serve as evidence, there are many who “loved” this particular tree. Reactions of anger and sadness over the loss reveal the contradiction that is characteristic of our current climate crisis. Things that we cannot control make us sad, but Americans are dangerously ambivalent to things that we can control. There is also a misunderstanding of the word “preserve” as it relates to the natural environment. I believe many to understand it as “keep forever this way” instead of letting nature take its course. A few Facebook commenters asked what was to be done with the remains of the tree. Is there potential to sell off the pieces for commemoration? Others remarked (correctly) that the tree will nourish the forest floor.
It is a poignant loss, but is it really sad? Remarks like this indicate feelings that the tree was for us. While the tree connected us to our national past, even our cultural or spiritual past, sadness comes from the knowledge that the tree no longer exists. From this perspective, Pioneer Cabin’s existence seemed to be for the benefit of human culture. This freakish tree with a gaping hole is no longer around for us to take family vacation photos with it. It is not for us, but that our government regulates space for it to thrive sometimes blurs the lines of ownership. Do we permit the trees to exist only for the sake of our benefit?
There are many things that we ask nature to do for us. We want it to be itself, but to serve us. We want it to remain authentic, but never change. We want it to survive and be self-sufficient, to pull itself up by its boot straps and not take entitlements. We want nature to be wild, but we want to snuggle up close. We want nature to understand political borders and established treaties. We want nature to know that we love it and need it, but we have our own lives to tend to and cannot be bothered to help out during a crisis. We ask nature to provide for our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and to continue to be a source of entertainment for our personal vacations. But we want to be left alone when we go home. We understand that nature is a part of us and bla bla bla, but, nature, please do not come too close or ask too much.
If we are really sad, let’s consider that the groves of giant sequoias are threatened more and more by climate change, as scientists worry that slow growing specimens might not keep up with the drastically shifting environment. Clearly, as illustrated in the event over the weekend, the increasing severity of storms due to changing climate is also a threat to giant trees, smaller trees, and all the flora and fauna that live in these ecosystems.
Pioneer Cabin Tree’s cultural significance is important to us. It is not my intention to say otherwise. But it is immensely critical that we recognize the reasons we are attracted to these trees, and use it as a starting point to propel us to greater things.
 Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995): 187.