In downtown LA, in the parking lot of the Automobile Club of Southern California, stands a quaint monument a century old. It is a cross-section of a giant sequoia, propped up on its side, with arrows pointing to tree rings marking epoch-defining events. Meanwhile, in the Sierra Nevada, thousands of crown-burned redwoods stand dead as de facto monuments to climate change. With both types of immortalized Big Trees, Californians can see connections between civilizational time and the temporal state known as the Anthropocene.
The AAA timeline at West Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street was one of many derived from a single fallen tree in Sequoia National Park. Beginning in 1923, the park’s superintendent shipped plates to educational institutions free of charge, so long as recipients paid for shipping. With each 1.5-ton piece, the National Park Service sent interpretive instructions, including a list of historical events — but no guidance on locating the correct corresponding rings.
Through the hand-picked key moments, the curators uncovered prejudices. The most variable day was the penultimate, for which they addressed what appeared before the felling of this particular sequoia as the latest world historical event – “World War Begun” or “Automobile Club Founded”.
The earlier tags repeated themselves. I know because I obsessively tracked down 25 cross-sections — mostly giant sequoias, plus a few coast redwoods — installed across the country in the first half of the 20th century. The following events occurred most frequently:
• American Revolution/Declaration of Independence (22)
• Discovery of America by Columbus (21)
• Pilgrim/Mayflower (14)
• Norman Conquest/Battle of Hastings (13)
• Magna Carta (12)
• First/Second/Last Crusade (12)
• Charlemagne crowned (11)
• Civil War begins/ends (10)
• Leif Erikson/Vikings in America (10)
• Mohammed born (10)
• Fall of Rome (9)
These timelines—artifacts of white supremacy—compacted a civilizational narrative: a divinely ordained course of empire moving westward from the Old World to the New, from Christian Rome to reformed England to the twice-born US Republic, with its realm of liberty , which serves as the terminus of progress, the last stage in historical time.
In this wooden enforcement of collective memory, famous men carry the banner of ascension. The importance of the Vikings reflected the eugenic appreciation of the “Nordic race” as well as efforts by Scandinavian immigrants to claim American heritage. Muhammad’s emphasis can also be explained. WASPy curators would have preferred a marker around AD 0 – “Jesus Christ born” – and indeed some went further and added the birth of Christ. Honest people knew that Sequoia slabs available to museums were not old enough to live with Christ, and they accepted the Prophet (marked AD 570) as the Abrahamic placeholder.
These timelines ignored California’s pre-colonial past. The supposed landing of Sir Francis Drake at Point Reyes deserved occasional mention, as did the establishment of Spanish missions, but the pre-conquest Golden State was literally timeless. The privileging of fixed points in linear time almost guaranteed the obliteration of aboriginal history that could not be reduced to dated or datable events. The only indigenous peoples sometimes attributed to tree rings were the Mayas and Aztecs, calendrical peoples aligned with ideas of Western civilization.
The generation of land managers who pinned these markers to redwood slabs also introduced the policy of firefighting in the Sierra Nevada with appropriate certainty and racism. They attributed a shortage of young redwoods — a fire-adapted species with flame-released cones — to the “feral” pyromania of California Indians. They mocked “Piute Forestry”. Suppression became such a buzzword that in 1922 Congress banned the use of Sequoia National Park’s firefighting agents for “precautionary fires,” later known as prescribed or controlled burning.
In 1967, state land administrators began reversing repressive policies and designating Sequoia National Park as a flagship experiment. The appearance of Sequoia seedlings, then seedlings, testified to the effectiveness of the prescribed burn. Famous groves were treated first. Unfortunately, the slowness of the process—years of planning followed by waits for weather windows and political windows—prevented the entire park, or even all of its old groves, from being burned before the 2000 mega-drought began.
The progressive dehydration is epochal. Using tree rings as proxies for snow cover and summer soil moisture, scientists have determined that this 20-plus-year period is the driest in southwestern North America since AD 800. They attribute nearly half the intensity to anthropogenic forces. In other words, human heat-trapping emissions turned a normal drought into a 1,000-year drought. Historically and truthfully, “anthropogenic” is a euphemism for the Global North, specifically the British Empire and the United States.
The same post-1960s generation that adjusted fire safety policies began revising California redwood schedules displayed on reservations and museums. In response to multiculturalism, the chronology of historical events became more politically correct, if no less androcentric. Today, in a post-truth era of extreme partisanship – a scorch for US democracy – one might imagine an executive order to ban “critical race theory” from national parks, or quite the opposite, a Sacramento directive to California state parks to seek replacements write the Mayflower Landings and the Gold Rush: 1619, arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia; 1846, beginning of the California Genocide.
In 2021, amid a record fire season, the California Legislature passed two bills promoting controlled burns statewide, following the historical pattern of Native Americans, including the involvement of “cultural fire mediators.” This supposed pivotal moment came too late for many sequoia groves in the Southern Sierra.
There are good fires, bad fires, and terrifying fires. As snowpack melts earlier and faster, and with it the associated decrease in soil and summer moisture, lightning can become superheated infernos that scorch rather than rejuvenate fuel-rich ecosystems. In the span of a lifetime, Californians can witness forests grow from millennial giants to chaparral.
Marked on a timeline, 2020-2021 can be grimly summed up as one in five elders of the highly refractory Sequoia species, the superlative plant on the planet, bursts into flames. In response to this unprecedented mortality, the US Forest Service announced emergency measures to reduce fuel pollution in groves on its territory. In July, the manageable impact of the Washburn fire on Yosemite’s iconic Mariposa Grove — which the Parks Service had treated with prescribed burning for decades — reinforced the wisdom of the move.
But local efforts cannot stop planetary processes. Unless the Biden administration’s anti-inflation bill is the first of many future climate laws, there will be no misfires, sprinklers or foil packaging will change the long-term prospects for large mature trees. In the Sierra they will disappear, save for a limited number of intensively managed groves – de facto botanical gardens or tree museums.
As California’s desiccation continues, could cohorts of dead redwoods become permanent memorials to historical hubris? The associated struggles for climate protection and civil society in the USA will show. In an optimistic scenario, a political majority will reform old habits of temporal change and respond to the decline of the emblematic elderberry flora without invoking the rise and fall of civilizations or any sort of end times.
In the past, so much damage was done by those who knew the inevitable outcome of history. No one has ever known how the timeline will end, and this lingering uncertainty should be cause for hope in action.
Jared Farmer is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Elderberry Flora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees.” @geohumanist
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-10-09/sequoia-wildfire-prescribed-burn-climate-change Op-Ed: The monumental mortality of sequoias