Excerpted from A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization ©2022 by John Perlin. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.
Trees have been the principal fuel and building material of every society over the millennia, from the time hunters and gatherers first settled until the middle of the nineteenth century. Without vast supplies of wood from forests, the great civilizations of the world would have never emerged.
Wood’s abundance or scarcity greatly shaped the culture, demographics, economies, internal and external politics, and technology of successive societies over the millennia.
Originally published in 1986 and updated in 2005, John Perlin’s A Forest Journey’s comprehensive coverage of the major role forests have played in human life—told with grace, fluency, imagination, and humor—gained it recognition as a Harvard Classic in Science and World History and as one of Harvard’s “One Hundred Great Books.” What follows is an excerpt from chapter 13, “America.”
The Big Trees of California
Most of the Western world did not know of the giant sequoias until the early 1850s. Not unlike Gilgamesh and his men, the first Westerners to view these towering gargantuan trees stopped in their tracks, overwhelmed in awe, left speechless by their size and beauty. Said James Mason Hutchings, one of the first to lead tours to view these mammoth trees, “Who can picture in language, or on canvas, all the sublime depths of wonder that flow to the soul in thrilling and intense surprise, when the eye looks upon these great marvels.”
As an example, one of them “measured one-hundred feet in circumference … tower[ing] up three hundred feet;” and “yet a portion of its top, where apparently was ten feet in diameter, had been swept off by storms.” While in the grove, “an eagle came and perched upon” an upper branch, “emblematic,” Hutchings writes, “of the grandeur of this forest as well as that of our country.”
In fact, according to Hutchings, “it is much to be questioned if the discovery of any wonder, in any part of the world, has ever elicited as much general interest, or created so strong a tax upon the credulity of mankind, as the discovery of the mammoth trees of California.”
Even Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution, who spent years in the tropics of Indonesia and South America, when visiting the giant sequoia groves, remarked, “Of all the wonders I saw in America, nothing so impressed me as these glorious trees.”
“It is much to be questioned if the discovery of any wonder, in any part of the world, has ever elicited as much general interest, or created so strong a tax upon the credulity of mankind, as the discovery of the mammoth trees of California.”
Despite the remoteness of the find—deep in California’s Gold Country—the discovery soon reached the press, which told the public of this new wonder of the world. Despite being described by Pinchot as majestic and grand trees, soon the madding crowd arrived at this magical realm and seemed to take a sordid delight in committing probably the greatest botanical vandalism ever recorded in humanity’s war against the woods.
One of the finest “big trees,” as the giant sequoias were called by botanists and laypeople alike, was skinned alive, according to John Muir, “and the bark sent to London to show how fine and big that … tree was,” causing Muir to sarcastically compare such devastation “as sensible as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness.” Hutchings then added, “The next act in this botanical tragedy was the cutting down of the tree, in order to accommodate those who wished to carry home specimens of its wood, as souvenirs of their visit.”
Then the carnie barkers took over changing nature’s grandest spectacle into a sideshow to lure tourists from far and wide. After felling the first giant sequoia, they turned its stump into a dance floor. Cut at six feet above ground and stripped of all its bark, the diameter still measured twenty-five feet. As one partygoer remarked, “On July 4, 1854, [I] formed one of a cotillion party of thirty-two persons, dancing upon the stump; in addition to the musicians and lookers-on numbered seventeen, marking a total of forty-one occupants on its surface at one time!”
Next, the lumbermen arrived. Again, Muir as our guide described the ensuing mayhem: “Scaffolds are built around the great brown shafts above the swell of the base, and destroyers armed with long saws, axes, and wedges chip and gnaw and batter them down with damnable industry. The logs found to be too large are blasted to manageable dimensions with [gun] powder.” In the process, Pinchot lamented, “the fragments of logs blown apart in this way are not only wasteful shapes [but] a great deal itself is scattered in useless splinters.”
During every season between 1895 and 1905, Stanford University professor of forestry William Dudley made it a point to camp among the giants in the mountains overlooking California’s San Joaquin Valley. Like Muir, he too observed, “Not anywhere in the world is there such wasteful lumbering,” even though, in his judgment, “this is a species that above all trees, should be saved.” Muir was even more emphatic—“It seems incredible that Government should have abandoned so much of the forest cover … to destruction. As sell the rain clouds, and the fountain-snow and the rivers, to be carried away, if that were possible.”
Both Muir and Hutchings observed that the naturally fallen giants “even in death still live.” In the bottom of one naturally fallen giant, Hutchings observed, “thousands of young big trees have started out in life … that can worthily take the places of the present representatives of the present generation.” Muir also noticed that “every fallen leaf and rootlet, as well as long clasping root, and prostrate trunk, may be regarded as a dam hoarding the bounty of storm clouds and dispensing it as blessings all through the summer, instead of allowing it to go headlong in short-lived floods.”
Why did the giant sequoia forest remain intact over the millennia while the cedar forests of Mesopotamia did not? The answer is quite simple: the marauding iron people—those we call “civilized”—did not get to the interior of California until the middle of the nineteenth century and were temporarily distracted by their lust for gold before finding more lasting wealth in destroying forests. It did not humble lumbermen, according to Dudley, who personally witnessed the giant sequoia’s destruction, that they were “in the presence of one of the most remarkable” wonders of the world and that “no structure erected by human hands … can be compared to a living organism [so] vast in life and complete in the records of its existence.” “What empire or republic,” Dudley asked, had lived for so many years?
The life of the oldest of these great trees proved Dudley correct: It first emerged as a seedling in 1200 BCE, when the Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was still being currently heard and read.
The tree that Dudley measured:
• At the beginning of the Common Era, its circumference measured twelve feet.
• At 516 years of age, it survived its first forest fire.
• Over a thousand years later, another fire ravaged it, but it remained alive.
• Having lived over two thousand years, another fire threatened its existence to no avail.
• The tree would have continued to flourish another five hundred years, but what fires, wind, and other natural catastrophes could not destroy, lumbermen accomplished in the 1890s.
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We may try to excuse such mayhem as ignorance of the day, yet who now listens to the prophet of the forest John Muir as his rage still rings true today, screaming, “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. … Through all the eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees … but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools.”
Nor could science stop the lumberman’s ax, even though scientists as early as the middle of the nineteenth century lamented, “It is feared that, unless some measures are taken, these most wonderful specimens of vegetable growth will be soon sacrificed by the cupidity of private individuals.”
A Forest Journey is available now from Patagonia.
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