“The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, for when light comes the heart of the people is always right. Forty-seven years ago one of these Calaveras King Sequoias was laboriously cut down, that the stump might be had for a dancing-floor. Another, one of the finest in the grove, more than three hundred feet high, was skinned alive to a height of one hundred and sixteen feet from the ground and the bark sent to London to show how fine and big that Calaveras tree was—as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness. This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive.... Now some millmen want to cut all the Calaveras trees into lumber and money. But we have found a better use for them. No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food. But both for Washington and the tree that bears his name higher uses have been found.”
It was the 4th century BC. Aristotle was defining ethics, the Romans were building their first aqueducts, the Chinese were beginning to transport silk to Europe, and a tiny seed, released from its cone, commenced germination in the loamy soil of Mendocino County, California. A few centuries later, when Christ was born, the seed had grown into a giant redwood, hundreds of feet tall. During the course of the next two millennia, black-tailed deer sometimes rubbed their antlers on the trunk. Black bears, anxious for a bite to eat before the berries and acorns emerged in spring, occasionally mauled the bark to release a sip of sap from within. A pair of Northern Spotted Owls nested in a cavity, and hatched successful clutches of baby owls for numerous seasons. Every few decades, forest fires licked at the tree and cleared the surrounding understory. The hardy redwood endured, its thick, tannin-rich bark resistant to disease, insects, rot, fire, and lightning – nature’s fiercest artillery – that would have leveled lesser trees.
Large Native American tribes coexisted peacefully with the redwood. The Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun made their homes along the coasts, rivers, and grasslands, and would have passed by the tree when they entered the redwood forests in search of plants such as ferns. Large branches that broke off from the tree, or whole fallen neighboring redwoods, provided an invaluable treasure from which durable building materials and furniture could be made. Canoes were fabricated by spreading pitch on the log, setting it on fire, extinguishing the flames, and then scraping the charred wood to the desired shape.
Columbus set sail on his celebrated journey to the “New World” when the tree reached its 19th century of life. Three hundred years later, in 1804, Lewis and Clark undertook their expedition out west. Within half a century, hundreds of thousands of easterners decided to follow in their footsteps and began flocking to California in search of gold. When the forty-niners’ dreams of finding scads of the precious metal failed to come true, they turned to the "red gold" in the forests, a material in great demand to build housing for the hordes of miners. Loggers and lumber companies proliferated. It was indeed a New World around the redwood, with native trees and people under siege. The Mendocino War of 1859 was just one of many genocidal slaughters of local inhabitants by the white settlers, and compounded with epidemics of European diseases, the robust Pomo population shrank from about 8,000 in 1770 to an estimated 1,450 in 1880. The redwoods fared even worse: hundreds of sawmills that mushroomed across California slashed two million acres of virgin forest to less than 5% of its former size.
This particular redwood was no exception; it met the axe in the 1890s, probably harvested for constructing buildings in San Francisco. Subsequently, adding insult to injury, the lumber most likely went up in smoke in the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, all was not lost. The stump remained, patiently waiting to tell its story, for 120 years.
The enterprise of arranging for a fourteen-foot diameter, fifteen-ton stump to be hoisted out of the ground, hauled from a remote forest to a usable roadway, conveyed across the country, and lifted onto a wall where it can be appreciated is daunting. I willingly committed myself to the endeavor. When the stump arrived and was unloaded in the driveway, it looked dirty and weatherbeaten, but I felt certain that something worthwhile lay within. I wanted to slice it into crosscuts to make the annual rings visible. We needed to order a custom-made chainsaw with a seven-foot-long bar to reach through the fourteen feet of wood by entering from both sides. We made the first slice, exposing the heart of what remained of the redwood.
After 120 years of silence, the tree once again had the chance to speak. I sat with it for hours - contemplating the patterns and markings, the order and disorder, the evidence of droughts, blizzards, wildfires, diseases - awed by the stories it told. I realized it needed an interpreter, some kind of guru, to let its most quiet subtleties find expression. It needed Coly Vulpiani.
I had never worked with Coly, but had heard for decades about his unique talents as a master craftsman in fine wood-finishing. I called him, described the project, and he agreed to embrace the adventure. Before he began, we finished slicing the stump, creating four magnificent crosscuts, each earmarked for a specific destination. We also needed to do a massive amount of sanding to prepare the surfaces for him.
Fortunately, we had four children, and believed that child labor was as beneficial to them as it was to us. The two middle ones became particularly adept sanders during the summer of 2002. Then it was Coly’s turn. I’m not exactly sure how he did what he did, but I often saw him brewing what appeared to be natural magic potions for polishing the wood. I think I once even spied an eye of newt going in there. He used flames to open the wood’s pores. He sanded, polished, burnished, and conjured until he released every sublimity and revealed every message the redwood could utter.
We have enjoyed having the redwood crosscut on our barn wall, but I look forward to seeing it on a daily basis in Livingston, where it will be the centerpiece of our main living space. For me, the significant experience the redwood offers is more than the pleasure of witnessing nature’s beauty; it is an awareness of our place in time. When you visit a planetarium, the exhibits raise your consciousness of how small you are in relation to the universe. Likewise, the redwood shows how relatively brief our moment on this planet is. It reminds us that we are not just individuals, but part of a historical continuum. And it appeals to our better selves, our ethics.