Monday, January 30, 2017

A tree fell … did you hear?

Is it true that if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, it makes no sound … even if it’s a really big tree? Above, fallen giant sequoia, Alan Beymer photo (source).

In early January, a huge tree fell in a forest. No one was around to hear it, but multitudes heard about it. On January 9, the New York Times announced: “Giant Sequoia ‘Tunnel Tree’ in California Is Toppled by Storm” and devoted ten inches to its life and demise. National Geographic paid tribute, noting that the tunnel may have been a contributing factor. The Los Angeles Times called the tree iconic, and mourned the loss of “one of Calaveras County's oldest residents.” A week later, the sad news showed up in The New Yorker, in a soul-searching article by Nathan Heller, in the Culture section.
“I want, instead of honoring the tree directly, to conjure up the world in which it was a monument for me” (source).
The opening in the Pioneer Tree, carved in 1881, could accommodate a four-horse stagecoach. Thousands of visitors rode or drove through the tree until it was closed to vehicles. Then thousands more hiked the trail to and through the “tunnel tree.”
“Pioneer’s Cabin, Calaveras Grove, Calif., U. S. A.” 1899 (source).
Pioneer Cabin Tree in 1952; click on image to view park ranger (source).
Pioneer Cabin Tree, January 2017 (source). A severe storm saturated the soil around it, probably weakening the already-decaying trunk and roots.

Why did a fallen tree get so much coverage? Because just about everyone still alive who ever drove through a giant tree clicked on a news link hoping it wasn’t that tree … and thereby triggered more articles. I’m sure of it, as that’s what I did. It’s been 40 years since I left California, land of giant sequoias, but whenever I see photos, memories quickly surface.

There are vivid memories of walking on winding trails through aromatic forests, identifying incense cedars, sugar pines, white firs, big-cone Douglas firs and other majestic conifers framed by narrow shafts of light. Then, suddenly, a monster appears!—a tree huge beyond imagining, dwarfing all others. We stand with heads bent back, searching for the top. We inspect the thick furrowed bark, and scan the ground for cones and seedlings. One of us has brought a camera, so we join at the base and that kind soul pushes the button, immortalizing the moment.
Young field botanists in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Then there are dimmer memories—of talks and walks led by my heroes, park rangers. No photos survive. Or maybe none were taken; my parents were frugal with film. But I clearly remember what the rangers told us about sequoias, about their thick fire-resistant bark and absurdly tiny cones with minuscule seeds—such improbable beginnings for ancient giants. “The seed that grew into this tree sprouted during the Revolutionary War!” “This tree was already 500 years old when the Roman Empire fell!” Etc.
Sequoia bark can be up to three feet thick at the base of the tree (source).
Sequoiadendron giganteum cones and seed (source).

And there’s one memory from long long ago, from a time of few memories:
We drove through a redwood tree* in our car!   It barely fit!   Dad stopped inside the tree!   Billy and I sat on the hood and Mom and Dad took our picture!   It was fun!**
Is this memory real? That was so long ago! Or did the photograph save the moment for me? If so, I’m grateful.

we looked down into the viewfinder to
press the button that would keep us there

(from The Last Perfect Season by Joyce Sutphen)

*We called the trees giant redwoods. They’re actually giant sequoias, Sequoiadendron giganteum. Redwoods are Sequoia sempervirens; they grow in the coast ranges of northern California and southernmost Oregon.

**When I compared news photos to mine, I saw that the recently fallen sequoia was not the one we drove through long ago. That was the Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park. It too fell, in 1969, probably for the same reasons.


  1. Awww, perfect approach to this event. The emotions, the facts, the science, the poetry, the history of it--all important in telling the story. This is such a great example of interpretation. Mind if I reference it for a future master naturalist presentation? (I remember driving through the tree, too. Which person are you in the field botanists photo?)

    1. Thanks, Beth, for the kind Comment. Yes, feel free to use however. I'm the gal on the left, in the SHORT shorts! I'm glad styles have changed ;-)

  2. Nice one! And a fitting personal tribute :)

    1. That's kind, sb, thanks! It was funny--right after I read your tree news post, I started to run into articles everywhere it seemed!

  3. I did here and thank you for this lovely view of an amazing tree. I wish I could have seen it for myself. Love the pic of the "young botanists"!

    1. thanks, Tina! I had laughed when I found that photo. I remember we really enjoyed the unexpected snow on the ground (note shorts, t-shirts, running shoes). Now I get to enjoy snow for months at a time ;-)

  4. What great memories to be cherished! I read about this fallen Sequoiadendron in the news and felt very bad.
    Friends from California sent us a picture one year and we were eager to visit it one year ;(

    1. Yes, I'm so glad I have those memories. I need to go see them again!