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?
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.
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
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