California Forest Dispatch

Redwood, oak, laurel, manzanita, juniper — the majestic trees that have long embodied the evolutionary wealth of the west coast are today struggling for their very survival.

Black-and-white photograph of slender redwood tree in densely grown forest.
The position of this coast redwood testifies to the forest density that threatens the species in Monterey County and elsewhere. Photographed in 2013. [Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by J. Matt/ZUMA Press]

On January 13, 1899, Charles Sprague Sargent, director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, wrote to John Muir:

Redwood and Sugar Pine photographs — how are these to be had for enlargement into transparencies for the Museum in New York where these two friends of yours ought to appear to best advantage? It would be practically impossible to get a photograph of either an isolated Sugar Pine or Redwood that would do justice to those trees. 1

Sargent was summing up the problem of distilling a mere image from the world’s most imposing plants — and by extension speaking to the impossibility of photographing the natural sublime, transmuting the experience of evolutionary majesty to meager film and paper. I assure you that I have not myself succeeded in translating my in-the-moment sensations while standing lens-to-bark with the specimens represented here, any more than I have been successful in photographically representing “California” — for which these trees have come to be shorthand — in all the glory of its considerable environmental beauty. 2 I assure you also that I am well aware of Sargent and Muir’s contributions to the deadly myth of Manifest Destiny, founded as it was in garden-variety White supremacy and misplaced heroic conceptions of nature.

Of course it is impossible to photographically represent ‘California’ — for which these trees have come to be shorthand.

Two entities, for me and for many, fuse to signify Californian landscape grandeur: the Pacific, and the trees. But I am not bothered in this essay with the ocean, only with the trees that have worked in tandem with the vast sea to define the state’s identity as rugged and seemingly boundless. Who among us hasn’t seen one or another 19th-century photograph of two loggers standing on their springboards well above the forest floor preparing to make their back cut, their enormously long “misery whip” (a two-handled felling saw) already worked with mighty effort through the heartwood and waiting to finish the fatal facing cut that would drop the colossus?

An enormous redwood is being felled; two men lie on their elbows in the wedge that has been removed from the trunk of the standing tree; two more men stand on springboards to the sides of the trunk, and a fifth man stands on the ground in front of the tree. A giant cross-cut saw is balanced on more springboards behind the standing man's head.
Loggers working in a redwood grove, Humboldt County, California, ca. 1890. [Via Humboldt State University, in the public domain]

These images, too, belong to California’s quintessence, emblems of the state as resource-rich and to-be-exploited. These “resources” were integral to poorly understood ecosystems and inextricable from the Indigenous lands the trees stood on. Yet, cut for lumber, blasted away by hydraulic gold mining, cleared for development, the trees came down. To feed American expansion, they were appropriated from their Indigenous stewards, seized violently and without understanding of the environments to which both the trees and the tribes were fundamental. This taking was antithetical to stories shared across generations by the peoples whose guardianship was usurped — stories describing trees as created by, or born of, ancestral spirits, or even as ordinary humans transformed. Such tales invested trees with powerful familial significance.

Newly arriving Californians told their own stories of trees. They built San Francisco and its northern-Californian neighbors out of mighty redwood forests; named towns for them; took the redwood, sequoia, oak, pine, and sycamore, among other species, as symbols; and from these symbols, forged a new identity of place that for a while must have seemed immutable. Almost as powerful and poetical as the trees themselves, this symbology’s sway grew until it was part of the state’s outsized mythos. Settler and arriviste Californians, from the laborer to the rapacious capitalist, expected that, like the trees, the myth would be everlasting and ever-germinating. Trees entered Californians’ psyches and stuck fast.

What now?

Orange wildfire flames engulf tall trees, both evergreen and in leaf.
The Valley Fire burning in Lake County, California, September 14, 2015. [Jeff Head via Flickr, in the public domain]

An aerial view of forested land with gigantic plumes of whitish-gray smoke billowing from the center of the shot in a wedge toward the upper right corner.
Wildfires outside Los Angeles, photographed from the International Space Station on December 6, 2017. [NASA, via Flickr under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By 2021, tree cover in California’s mountainous region had declined almost seven percent from its density as measured in 1985. 3 A 2015 paper in Nature estimated that California included habitat for 4.5 billion temperate-region conifers. 4 This adds up to hundreds of million trees lost in three-and-a-half decades. Infernos (I must be explicitly honest) visited on forests by massive wildfires are destroying them faster than they can reseed and immolating ancient groves once thought to be impervious, now dying choked with unmanaged flaming underbrush — a fearsome fuel fed on ignorance and misperception.

Massive wildfires are destroying forests faster than they can reseed and immolating ancient groves once thought to be impervious.

Drought and heat are stressing and killing trees. Bark and oak beetles’ ranges are expanding. Such environmental hazards are plentiful enough without factoring in humankind’s more banal threats, visited on forestland by chainsaw. We are repeatedly told in so many words by foresters and scientists that the state’s arboreal emblems will not survive in the majesty we have taken for granted. The plain language of the paper describing the decimation since 1985 is worth repeating: “Post-disturbance recovery has not been able to compensate for recent severe losses of tree cover, and, as a consequence, forest resources are declining across the state.” 5

Slideshow

To lose a totem is destabilizing, individually and culturally, and I have spoken with Californians deeply distressed by the state of the state’s forests. I am not a Californian, but I have seen beetle-wrought devastation in subalpine areas of the Sierras, high enough in elevation that the beetles had not previously been able to survive the winter, and the experience has shaken me. This is an irrefutable view of global warming in process, as powerful as watching glaciers calving at the Arctic Circle. We inhabit a time where the symbols we have built on the charnel grounds of the myths told by the state’s first folklorists are themselves being dispatched — and again at our western hands.

Civilizations are compromised when potent emblems are lost; we have only to look to the diaspora of California’s First Peoples to see that. (There is no need to seek as far as ancient Greece.) It clarifies the mind to find ourselves facing the world of anguish that European-pilgrim culture has methodically visited on others. It inclines me to want to take refuge in the trees, to drink in their wildness, in search of some opportunity for atonement that eludes and now might not exist.

Visit the trees — not as an act of morbid climate tourism, but to touch the sublime that I have failed to photograph and no journal can publish.

In experiencing these pictures, I hope that you don’t see generalized representations of west-coast identity, but appreciate the individuality of each tree as an organism that is part of the still more significant whole. For that is their role; that is the mantle we are stripping from them. I also hope that these pictures inspire you to get out and see California’s trees for yourself, whichever you can find — sequoia and other conifers, oak, yucca (Joshua trees are yuccas): all and more are threatened. Do this, if you can, not as an act of morbid climate tourism, but as a way of touching the sublime that I have failed to photograph and no journal can publish. This experience is vital to the understanding of what it is we are endangering and losing: living organisms whose life cycles we are part of and depend on desperately.

Look at these pictures, go out into the world, become connected. Do justice to those trees. 6

Black-and-white photograph of oak trees on sunny, grassy hillside.
Coast live oaks are a defining feature of California’s coastal grasslands, spreading from San Diego well past San Francisco in a band extending roughly sixty miles inland. Sudden oak death, a “water mold” or algal disease, has been devastating to Northern California populations. The disease is believed to have arrived in nursery plants from Asia, and was seen first in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Cases have since been confirmed as far north as Curry County in Oregon, and south to Monterey. Photographed in 2013.

 

Notes
  1. See the letter at University of the Pacific Scholarly Commons. Sprague does not specify which museum he has in mind, but presumably it was the Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869.
  2. You’ll notice that I do not say exactly where each tree is located. Some of these pictures were taken on private land, some in state or national parks, some on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management; some on land where I was hiking or backpacking, about the ownership of which I have no idea. My own sense is that the exact location of these individuals is immaterial, because they are signifiers for all trees. Go discover your own spectacular trees. They are not yet in short supply.
  3. Jonathan A. Wang, et al., “Loss of Tree Cover in California Driven by Increasing Fire Disturbance and Climate Stress” AGU Advances vol. 3 no. 4 (August 2022), https://doi.org/10.1029/2021AV000654.
  4.  T.W. Crowther, et al., “Mapping Tree Density at a Global Scale,” Nature 525 (September 2015), 201-205. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14967.
  5. The “Plain Language Summary” from Wang et al. explains: “In this study, we compiled satellite data and archival records with machine learning to map vegetation type (tree, shrub, and grass) and disturbance agent (fire, harvest, and drought) in California from 1985 to 2021. Over these 37 years, California lost 4,566 km2 of its tree cover area, equal to 6.7 percent of its initial tree cover in 1985.” Wang, et al., https://doi.org/10.1029/2021AV000654.
  6. Find a local chapter of the California Native Plant Society here. Even for non-Californians, the CNPS is a great educational and lobbying resource.
Cite
J. Matt, “California Forest Dispatch,” Places Journal, December 2022. Accessed 08 Feb 2023. <>

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.