A Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
A Natural History of North American Trees
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A Natural History of North American Trees

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by Donald Culross Peattie, Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Donald Culross Peattie's two books about American trees were first published in the 1950s. In this beautiful new one-volume edition, modern readers are introduced to one of the best nature writers of the last century. More than one hundred of the original illustrations by Paul Landacre highlight the eloquent and entertaining accounts of American trees. As we read


Donald Culross Peattie's two books about American trees were first published in the 1950s. In this beautiful new one-volume edition, modern readers are introduced to one of the best nature writers of the last century. More than one hundred of the original illustrations by Paul Landacre highlight the eloquent and entertaining accounts of American trees. As we read Peattie's descriptions, we catch glimpses of our country's history and past daily life that no textbook could ever illuminate so vividly.

Here you'll learn about everything from how a species was discovered to the part it played in our country’s history. Pioneers often stabled an animal in the hollow heart of an old sycamore, and the whole family might live there until they could build a log cabin. The tuliptree, the tallest native hardwood, is easier to work than most softwood trees; Daniel Boone carved a sixty-foot canoe from one tree to carry his family from Kentucky into Spanish territory. In the days before the Revolution, the British and the colonists waged an undeclared war over New England's white pines, which made the best tall masts for fighting ships.

It's fascinating to learn about the commercial uses of various woods—for paper, fine furniture, fence posts, matchsticks, house framing, airplane wings, and dozens of other preplastic uses. But we cannot read this book without the occasional lump in our throats. The American elm was still alive when Peattie wrote, but as we read his account today we can see what caused its demise. Audubon's portrait of a pair of loving passenger pigeons in an American beech is considered by many to be his greatest painting. It certainly touched the poet in Donald Culross Peattie as he depicted the extinction of the passenger pigeon when the beech forest was destroyed.

A Natural History of North American Trees gives us a picture of life in America from its earliest days to the middle of the last century. The information is always interesting, though often heartbreaking. While Peattie looks for the better side of man's nature, he reports sorrowfully on the greed and waste that have doomed so much of America's virgin forest.

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See him now, walking along some western trail. It can be anywhere — in the
lonely canyons of the San Jacinto Range, in the foothill chaparral behind his
beloved Santa Barbara, or sauntering along the San Simeon Highway where
the Santa Lucia Mountains, mantled in lupine and vermilion paintbrush,
plunge precipitously into the Pacific. Or perhaps he strides along a path deep
in the great redwoods, or pauses at the foot of the snow-covered Olympic
Range in Washington to pick a flower among a small patch of moss laid bare
by the midautumn sun.
But chances are that, whether he is wandering among the fan
palms of the Mojave Desert or standing in the shade of a live oak in the
Lompoc Hills, he will present a singular figure: a dark green Stetson on his
head, a coat and tie — he never went anywhere outside without them —
binoculars around his neck, and slung over his shoulder his dark green
vasculum, that sturdy oval cylinder of metal in which he collects plant
specimens. When he is not gazing at the far horizon, his eyes sweep the
ground for California poppies and bluebells, or creosote bush and sage if his
walks are in the desert.
If he is near home, he will bring back his floral treasure and will
take out each captive and lay it between large, thick gray sheets of blotting
paper to be placed with others in a stack pressed between two plates of
slatted wood, the whole then stood on either by me or one of my brothers,
while he buckles it tightly together. Days later, the blotters will be opened,
releasing fragrances throughout the house, and the specimens labeledand
carefully taped into a series of huge albums, which would come to constitute
a veritable encyclopedia of western plants. (In the years to come the Peattie
collection of western flowers and plants will become known throughout the
botanical world, but their ultimate destiny will be a mystery.)
So, his sons came to know that kindly, searching figure as we
grew up in various rambling homes in Santa Barbara, California. We learned
to respect his hours in his study, the smoke curling up from his pipe as he
sat in front of his typewriter producing the pages that so deservedly won him
fame as one of America's most cherished nature writers. He was ever the
courteous, beloved, but slightly distant figure, even to his sons, and if he held
to the habit of wearing a coat and tie, whether at dinner at home or on a
picnic near a waterfall, it was only the physical manifestation of his courtly
demeanor. As a neighbor once remarked to me, "Your father has the
manners of a Spanish ambassador."
His love of plants came early, and he sensed it first in the
Appalachian Mountains where, as a frail young lad, he spent the winters to
avoid the endless coughing fits brought on by the cold of Chicago. His
fascination soon fixed on all that grew in those lush mountains. Family
legend has it that, walking along a dusty road in the Blue Ridge of North
Carolina, he met another boy carrying a gorgeous flowering dogwood branch
with which the boy kept hitting his shoes to keep the dust off. Young Donald
was so struck by the floral glory so callously treated, that on the spot he
exchanged a brand new pen-knife with inlaid mother-of-pearl for the dogwood
He tried his hand at other things, including two years studying
French poetry at the University of Chicago, but his keen interest in living
things always brought him back to the green world. So it was that he
transferred to Harvard to study with Merritt Fernald, one of the greatest of
America's botanists. After some years working a desk in the Bureau of Plant
Introduction in the Department of Agriculture, now equipped with both
scientific training and the eye of poet, he turned himself and his talents loose
upon the printed page. All aspects of plant life became matters of intense
interest, study, and constant writing. He collected specimens in the Indiana
dunes along the windy shores of Lake Michigan and turned out a small
classic from his findings. He found wonder in pondering the algae of
Archaeozoic times, in reflecting on the place of the lowly billions of tiny
diatoms that form the bottom of the marine food chain, and gloried in the
story of the great ferns of geologic times that laid down the coal seams that
were to fuel a nation. More than occasionally he wrote of the romance of
plant life. He wove his magic in his account of the mystery of that delicate
and long-lost flower, Shortia, found only in the inner recesses of the
Appalachian mountains. His fascination with plant life extended to the kelp
leviathans that form great marine forests off the California coast, an interest
that, for a short time, was to drive his family to distraction since he filled
every bathtub in our house with the seaweed he was studying.

And always, his scientific rigor was matched with a voice that was golden in
the illumination of his subjects, a combination which lit the pages of a score
of works that earned him honors and respect among his professional
colleagues, as well as the public. A very few of the former, in crabbed
jealousy, could not bear this combination of style and substance. One
curmudgeonly specialist, whom he asked to fact-check his work on wheat,
returned the paper, which he pronounced as factually flawless, adding
sourly, "I see you could not resist the temptation to be interesting."
But it was this continent's sylva that fixed his purpose and filled
the pages of his last and master work that you now hold in your hands. He
confirms to us that he became a "plantsman" at age twenty, appropriately
beginning in the Appalachian mountains where he had come to wander alone
among the hemlocks, the balsams, and black spruces, with the sound of
waterfalls in the distance. Along the way to literary renown he covered a
myriad of botanical subjects: protoplasm, photosynthesis, the fertilization of
flowers by insect life, tree rings, the use of timber for naval construction in the
Great Age of Sail, medicinal herbs, and all the miraculous qualities of plant
life upon which we and all living things on this earth depend. But always he
thought of compiling a great sylva of north America. "The American sylva," he
tells us in American Heartwood (1949) "has lain upon the rim of my mind like
a blue landfall, raised twenty years ago, when I first schemed how I might
come up to it."
And what a landfall he made at last. For there was and is, to my
knowledge, no work quite like it, and it follows my father's own dictum to all
aspiring writers: write the book that you're longing to read, but can't find
anywhere. The two large volumes it comprised, one on the trees of eastern
north America and one on the western trees (north of Mexico), were
published at midcentury. In them, each tree was not only identified with its
proper Latin designation and its common American name or names, but the
reader was also provided with its geographic range and with an exacting
botanical description. The jewels on each page were the woodcuts of the leaf
or needles of the tree drawn by the great illustrator Paul Landacre as
precisely as the textual description, as well as my father's illuminating
discussion of the tree — its particular qualities, its uses by man if there were
any, and its place in American life and history.

There was to have been a third volume on the sylvan exotics — apple and
peach, eucalyptus, and weeping willow — and all the rest brought into this
country from abroad. But it was not to be; like a great trunk invaded by
borers, he was weakened by long illness and borne down at last to the forest
floor. At all events, his passing has made the publisher's task easier in
bringing out this one-volume edition of my father's sylva, for three volumes
could hardly have been compressed into one.
Before I leave you to stroll among these leafy pages I should
make some last observations about my father, Donald Culross Peattie,
renowned naturalist and acclaimed writer. He worked as hard as any man I
know; he was a devoted husband to his life's soul mate, and a caring and
thoughtful parent to all his children. But the quality that stands out above all
others was his serenity in the face of trouble and the chaos of an unruly
planet. The trivia, the selfishness, and the vulgar noise that fills much of our
world never shook him, fixed as he was on listening to "the roar of a mountain
river, and a higher, frailer sound above the churning water, the singing of a
forest in the night wind."

—Mark R. Peattie
Redwood City, California
August 15, 2006

Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindley) Buchholz*
Other names: California Bigtree Sierra Redwood. Mammoth-tree.
Range: Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California, between 4500 and
8000 feet altitude, Placer County south to Tulare County, chiefly in some
twenty-six isolated groves.

The kingdom of the plants has a king, the Giant Sequoia or California Bigtree.
It is, as a race, the oldest and mightiest of living things. Not even in past
geologic times, apparently, were there greater trees than Sequoiadendron
giganteum. Only the Bigtree's closest of kin, the Redwood of the California
coast, approaches it in longevity and girth. In grace and height, indeed, the
Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is a queen among trees, a fit mate
for the craggier grandeur of the Bigtree of the Sierra Nevada.
Constituting all that is left of the once widespread genus Sequoia,
these two species have found asylum in California, but they salute each other
from widely separated mountain systems. The Redwoods inhabit the north
Coast Ranges where they are maintained in a coolhouse atmosphere by long
baths in sea fogs, unviolated by storms. In contrast, the home of the Giant
Sequoia, lying between 6000 and 8000 feet altitude on the western slopes of
the Sierra, is Olympian, as befits this Jovian tree. There the winters have an
annual snowfall of 10 to 12 feet, but drifts may pile up among the titans
almost 30 feet deep — a mere white anklet to such trees. The summers are
exceedingly dry; if rain does fall it is apt to come with violent thunderstorms
and lightning bolts that have been seen to rive a gigantic Sequoia from the
crown to the roots. Those who know the species best maintain that it never
dies of disease or senility. If it survives the predators of its infancy and the
hazard of fire in youth, then only a bolt from heaven can end its centuries of
life. Perhaps, if this majestic tree had a will, it would prefer to go this way, by
an act of God.
The province of the Giant Sequoias is measured out on the
planetary surface between the 36th and the 39th degrees north latitude, a
distance of 250 miles. But you will not happen upon any single Bigtree in this
range, for it grows only in groves, to be sought out by pilgrimage. Each
Sequoia grove has its associations and history, and thus they have all
received names —the Giant Forest, the Mariposa, Calaveras, and General
Grant groves, to mention only the most famous and accessible. Others bear
such suggestive titles as Lost Grove, Dead Grove, Surprise Grove, and Big
Stump Grove. Some are so remote from roads and sightseers that they are
seldom visited save by forest rangers on their rounds. In all, there are, by the
most particularized classification, some seventy-one of them, or there were
until several of the finest were ruthlessly destroyed with dynamite, ax, saw,
and fire. It is certain that all have been discovered, and all too likely that
Nature will never spontaneously create any more.
Stranger still, there seem to have been no more even long before
the coming of the white man. At least, so thought John Muir who for years
combed the mountains looking for traces of extinct groves and a more
continuous distribution. Logs of Giant Sequoia, which are now straddled by
other living Bigtrees of great age, show no signs of decay in the heartwood
after perhaps ten thousand years since they began to grow. So it should have
been possible, surely, to find traces of Sequoia growth outside the present
groves had there been any. But Muir's fruitless search drove him to conclude
that in postglacial times, at least, the Bigtrees had already found all the
places where they could flourish.
Thus, to see the Bigtrees you must travel far and climb high. It is
the better part of a day's run to them by car from San Francisco or Los
Angeles, with an inescapable crossing of the flat San Joaquin Valley — in
summer a furnace for heat. Then you wind for a long way through the
foothills, among shadeless Gray Pines and Interior Live Oaks whose glittering
foliage hurts the eyes. There it was that the forty-niners toiled, in their lust
tearing up the beds of rivers and sluicing down the very hills.
But, serene above such ant-work of a day, stood the Giant
Sequoias, undreamed of by the fevered Argonauts, holding themselves aloof
with the confidence of a thousand years.
Up through groves of Black Oak and Blue, of grand Western
Yellow Pines and Incense Cedars, you mount, up and up into the realm of
White Firs, symmetrical with tier on tier of whorled boughs, the trunks as
satiny as flesh. Somber Douglas Firs darken the late afternoon as with
oncoming night. At last the Sugar Pines with rugged purple trunks, the
mightiest Pines in all the world, close ranks about you.
It will be dusky, no doubt, when you reach the giant groves. And
the forest will be still, yet watchfully alive. A deer may come to your outheld
hand and put an inquisitive black muzzle in it. It will be a long moment before
you realize that the vasty shadow behind the little doe is not shade but a tree
trunk so gigantic that you cannot comprehend at first that this is a living
thing. Were that great bole put down in a city street, it would block it from
curb to curb. That mighty bough, the lowest one, is still so high above the
ground that it would stretch out over the top of a twelve-story office building. If
it were cut off and stood in the ground, it would in itself appear as a tree
perhaps 70 feet high, and 7 feet in diameter at the base. As for the crown, it
is as lost to accurate measurement and comprehension as your head would
be, seen by a beetle at your shoe.
Yet the trees conceal their true immensity by the very perfection
of proportion. For each part — breadth at base, spread of boughs, thickness
of trunk, shape of crown — is in calm Doric harmony with the rest. There is
no obvious exaggeration of any part, no law-defying attenuation. Even the
enormously distended bases by which the giants grip the mountainside and
brace the gigantic superstructure have a look of functional tightness, so that
we hardly realize that they may be 100 feet in circumference.
On second view, by morning light, the impression of the Giant
Sequoias is still not so much of outsize as of color and candor. The ruddy
trunks, especially in the more southern groves, are richly bright. The metallic
green of the foliage is the gayest of all Sierra conifers'. In winter a Sequoia
grove has the simple colors of a flag — a forest-soft red, white, and green. In
summer the white ground is changed for the faultless blue of Sierran skies.
The bright world is never shut away, as in the misty dimness of the Coast
Redwood groves with their overarching canopy. The sunlight here reaches
right to the floor. The bracing air, a shining but invisible god, moves proud and
life-giving in its temple. Instead of the hush of the Redwoods, you hear among
the Bigtrees the lordly racket of the pileated woodpeckers at irreverent
carpentry on Sequoia wood. The Douglas squirrels frisk up the monstrous
boles as familiarly as children on their fathers. Running out on the boughs,
they cut the cones and then scamper 200 feet to earth, to despoil them of
their seeds.
Sooner or later everyone asks which is the largest of all the
Bigtrees. Yet no pat answer should be given. For the tallest are not the
greatest in girth, the thickest are not the highest. Further, trees that were
felled long ago give indications that they were larger and loftier than any now
standing. The General Grant tree is 271 feet high. The Boole tree, at 16 feet
above the ground, is 25 feet in diameter —the record among standing trees —
while theHart tree is the tallest of all, at 281 feet 6 inches. These
measurements were made in 1928–29 by a trained engineer with the best of
instruments, but time does not call them final.
In the Calaveras North Grove lies prone the tree called Father of
the Forest, inside whose hollow trunk a man rode horseback without having
to bend his head. In the Big Stump Basin are two truncated witnesses of
boles that were once 30 feet in diameter when their bark was still on them. Of
the same diameter was a colossus of the Calaveras North Grove, traditionally
believed the first Bigtree ever seen by a white man. In accordance with the
ebullience of our pioneering spirit, it was speedily cut down and made into a
dance floor where thirty couples could waltz.
The discovery of this tree was made one spring day in 1852 when
a miner from Murphy's Camp pursued a grizzly bear far up into tall timber.
When Mr. A. T. Dowd (for history has preserved the name of this Nimrod)
encountered the Bigtrees, his astonishment was so great that he allowed the
bear to get away. True, the Bigtrees seem to have been sighted several times
before by exploring parties, but as the journals and diaries that mention them
were not published till long afterward, hunter Dowd's discovery stands, like
Columbus's of America, as the first effective one. At any rate, his fellow
miners came, incredulous, and beheld 50 acres of what we now call the
Calaveras North Grove, covered with trees, some of them 325 feet high and
19 feet in diameter. The men departed, to spread the fame of the "Mammoth-
trees" as they were at first called. And within a month or so of their discovery
by Dowd, somebody now forgotten gathered specimens of branches, leaves,
and cones which somebody else passed on, in June of 1852, to the excellent
Dr. Albert Kellogg, pioneer botanist of California. But Dr. Kellogg was a man
of leisurely habits and did not hasten to publish in a botanical way on the
great discovery. In fact it does not appear that he had roused himself to visit
the Mammoth-trees when, two years later, he showed his specimens to
William Lobb who had recently arrived to collect plants for a British nursery
establishment. With swift initiative Lobb set out for the Calaveras Grove,
hastily gathered herbarium specimens, hurried back to San Francisco, and,
without saying a word to any American scientists, took the first boat to
There he turned his specimens over to John Lindley, an English
botanist who rushed a formal botanical publication into print by December of
1853, naming the mighty conifer Wellingtonia gigantea, in honor of Arthur
Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and victor of Waterloo, who was then still alive
to be flattered by having the mightiest production of Nature named in his
Loud was the patriotic anguish of the American botanists. But
fortunately the generic name of Sequoia for the Coast Redwoods had been
published in Germany six years before Wellingtonia, giving it priority, and
when it was realized that the Bigtrees too are Sequoias, Americans were
satisfied. For the name was bestowed in honor of Chief Sequoyah, the great
Cherokee who devoted his life to inventing an Indian alphabet and teaching
others to read it.
It was a disappointed gold seeker, G. H. Woodruff of New York
State, who climbed up into the Bigtree groves in the early fifties and threw
himself down, homesick, upon his back. As he lay gazing into the green
crowns, the cones snipped off by the chickadees came plumping down all
about him. He began to examine them and shake out their seeds. Soon he
had a great many and put them for transport in an empty snuff box. Back at
camp he wrapped up the little box and prepaid a charge of $25 to send it east
by Pony Express. So the first seeds reached the nursery firm of Ellwanger
and Barry in Rochester, New York, and from them sprang up in 1855 four
thousand tiny trees. They did not sell very fast in the eastern states, but in
England where they were retailed, as Wellingtonias of course, they sold so
rapidly that orders could not be filled. Botanical gardens in England, France,
and Germany wanted specimens. Cities planted avenues of Sequoias. Soon
every man of wealth or title must have a specimen for his grounds. "The great
event of the year 1864," wrote Tennyson's son in a memoir of his poet
father, "was the visit of Garibaldi to the Tennysons, an incident of which was
the planting of a Wellingtonia by the great Italian and ceremonies connected
with it." Eventually Ellwanger and Barry paid over to the fortune hunter
Woodruff the sum of $1036.60 as his share in the profits — on a snuffboxful
of seeds!
Californians were even then unabashed in the claims they made
for their state, including the age of Bigtrees. They asserted that these trees
were old when the Pyramids were abuilding. Even so eminent an authority
(on fishes!) as Dr. David Starr Jordan assured the press they had endured ten
thousand years. John Muir counted the annual rings on the biggest stump he
ever saw and found over 4000, but not more. Even that can no longer be
verified and is suspect of error. Accurate ring counts in recent times have
never put the age of any logged tree at more than 3200 years.
Yet surely thirty centuries of life are awe-inspiring. There is
something comforting about handling a section of Sequoia wood that seems
scarcely less living now than when it grew before the time of Christ. For the
proof of its age is there under your naked eyes, the annual rings which you
can tick off like dates on a calendar —the years and the decades, the
centuries and the tens of centuries. Somewhere about 2 inches inside the
bark of a tree recently cut will be the rings laid down in 1849, year of the gold
fever, and of the still more feverish 1850. Yet nothing of moment is graven for
that time on the wooden tablets of Sequoia history. And it is humbling to
notice that those particular rings may be 15 feet from the center of the tree,
the starting point of its growth. The calm deposition of the rings (rosy pink
spring wood ending in the sudden dark band of summer wood) has gone on
millimeter by millimeter for millennium after millennium — advancing ripples
in the tide of time.
Why, out of a world of trees, do these live longest? Why is a
Cottonwood decrepit at seventy-five years of age, why does the Oak live three
hundred summers? And since it can do so, why does it not endure a
thousand? How does the Giant Sequoia go on growing, without signs of
senility, until literally blasted from the earth by a bolt from heaven, a
consuming fire, a seismic landslide, or a charge of dynamite?
One answer may lie in the very sap, for that of the Bigtrees
contains tannic acid, a chemical used in many fire extinguishers. Though fire
will destroy the thin-barked young Sequoias, when bark has formed on the
old specimens it may be a foot and more thick and practically like asbestos.
The only way that fire can penetrate it is when inflammable
material becomes piled against the base and, fanned to a blowtorch by the
mountain wind, sears its way through to the wood. Even then fire seems
never to consume a great old specimen, no matter how it devours its heart.
And the high tannin content of the sap has the same healing action that
tannic acid has on our flesh when we apply it to a burn. The repair of fire
damage by a Bigtree is almost miraculous. It begins at once, and even if the
wound is so wide that it would take a thousand years to cover it, the
courageous vegetable goes about the business as if time were nothing to it.
So we might say that Bigtree lives long because fire and parasites
seldom succeed in storming its well-defended citadel. We might say all this
and more, yet there remains some quantum of the inexplicable, and in the
end we are forced to admit that Sequoias come of a long-lived race —
whatever that means — and so outlast the very races of man.
All this semieternal life, all these tons and tons of vegetation,
come from a flaky seed so small that it takes three thousand of them to
make up 1 ounce. The kernel is but 14 inches long, and inside it lies curled
the embryonic monarch. There are commonly from 96 to 304 seeds to a
cone, and the cones themselves are almost ridiculously small for so
mammoth a tree. They do not mature till the end of the second season, and
not until the end of the third, at the earliest, do they open their scales in dry
weather and loose the seeds, which drift but a little way from the parent tree.
Their method of transport is not only weak, but their viability is low; perhaps
only half of the seeds have the vitality to sprout. And long before they do so,
they are attacked, in the cone and out of it, by untold multitudes of squirrels
and jays. Many do not fall upon suitable ground — mineral soil laid bare —
but are lost in the duff of the forest floor. Of a million seeds on a tree in
autumn, perhaps only one is destined to sprout when the snow-water and the
sun of the late mountain spring touch it with quickening fingers.
First the sprouting seed sends down a slim spear of a root. Swiftly
this makes its way down about 2 inches and puts out its suckling root hairs.
Only then does the first shoot appear, bearing four or five baby leaves still
wearing the jaunty cap of the seed hull. Within a week or ten days the blades
burst apart and the infant bonnet is flung away. Only now the tiny seedlings
face further perils. They are attacked from below by cutworms, above by
armies of black wood ants. Ground squirrels and chipmunks, finches and
sparrows cock a bright eye at them and pull them up for a toothsome salad.
Deer browse them by the thousands. If a seedling survives its first year, it
may face the centuries with some confidence.
Underground, the taproot is descending faster than the shoot goes
up, but at six to eight years it stops, and thereafter only lateral growth takes
place. Eventually the side roots will become gigantic and spread out in all
their ramifications over two or three acres. A tree 300 feet high has roots
whose circle has a radius of 200 feet, and occasionally the roots are longer
than the height of the tree.
Up into the light and air grows the princeling. The youthful leaves
are soft, glaucous blue green; the bark is still smooth and gray with no hint of
red about it. The stocky shape of childhood gives way to a conical outline,
and the young tree stands clothed to the base in boughs that droop
gracefully at the tip, of wood strong yet supple. These lower boughs help to
brace the trees against the weight of the great snows of the Sierran winter,
which will drift higher than young trees and bury and bend them. When the
snows melt, the striplings shake off the last loads from lithe arms and lift
shining heads, and they are "gey bonny," as Muir might have said in his
Scots idiom, as they stand ranked close about some dewy, iris-spangled,
deer-browsed meadow formed where one of their ancestors has fallen and
blocked a stream to make a sedgy bog.
In the second century of life, the trees begin to assume a "pole
form" — that is, with strong central trunk clear of branches for a long way,
and a high peaked crown. Gone now are the drooping limber boughs of youth.
In their place great arms begin to appear, leaving the trunk at right angles and
then, bending up as if at elbows, lift leafy hands in a gesture of hosanna.
The soft blue green foliage is replaced by metallic green. The
smooth gray cortex gives way to the richly red bark of maturity. At last it is
furrowed thicker than the brow of Zeus, and in the gales its voice begins,
these years (and hundreds of years), to take on the deepest tone in the
world's sylva.
When the Giant Sequoias flower, the trees are loaded with
millions of male and female conelets from as early as November to late in
February. The greeny gold pollen showers all over the giant's body and drifts
in swirls upon the pure sheet of snows. A single tree will bear hundreds of
thousands of cones when in the full vigor of its life.
Great age brings to the trees a diminished fertility — fewer cones,
that is, but not less viability of seed. It sees the heroic self-pruning of the
older boughs, which at last break off of their own weight. Electric bolts may
repeatedly strike the monstrous lightning rod, topping it unmercifully. The
once broad and symmetrical crown becomes broken and craggy. The
tremendous strains of the superstructure have resulted in gigantic buttressing
at the base. The whole tree is now as far past the manly beauty of its prime
as that is past the pretty charm of its childhood. It is, after thirty centuries,
practically a geological phenomenon.
In the wood, corresponding changes take place with the slow
passage of time. The fibers of young trees are supple, and all the wood, for
the first hundred years, is light yellow sapwood with dark orange bands of
summer wood to mark the years. Only in the second century does the dark
rose heartwood, deeply impregnated with tannin, begin to form, first a slim
pencil that increases, in a thousand years or so, till it becomes most of the
vast cylinder of the trunk. The wood at the base of an ancient tree is all
contorted and tough with the compressions and strains of carrying some 600
tons of body above it. That at middle heights is straight grained, rose red,
and, when fresh, so wet that it sinks in water. At the top of the tree the wood
is pink and lightly buoyant.
All the properties of Sequoia wood save one are inferior to those of
nearly every other timber tree in our sylva. Its chief virtue is that it lasts
perdurably. In consequence, it was early sought out by lumbermen for
shingles, shakes, flumes, fence stakes, and poles. The giant groves
promised ready fortunes, by the look of them. Stumpage that scaled at from
20,000 to 120,000 board feet per tree promised fair!
So logging railroads were hurried up the mountains, mills were set
up, and the Lilliputian lumberjacks fell to work among these woody Gullivers.
First a 6-foot platform was erected to clear the flaring buttresses,
and on it stood two men to chop a cut; chips 18 inches long flew out, till a
gigantic notch was cut. When this was 10 feet deep, the fallers took a 20-
foot saw around to the other side of the tree, and for several days they
dragged it back and forth, all the while greasing it to make it slip, and
stopping to drive great wedges behind it lest the tons of wood above begin to
settle and vengefully trap the saw. At the last a few heavy gluts were sledged
home, and the vast structure leaned, toppled, kicked back with a terrible
lunge, then struck the earth with a cracking of limbs and a seismic shock
that could be felt and heard a mile away.
In this wise was accomplished the destruction of the Converse
Basin grove, probably finer than any now standing. Today in the Converse
Basin there are few seedling Sequoias to give hope that this species will
grow there abundantly again. Instead there are thousands of logs that were
never utilized because they proved too big or costly to handle, millions of
board feet gone to waste because the wood smashed to bits in its fall. The
whole ghastly enterprise ended in financial failure, but not a failure of
destruction. That was complete.
To the ruin of lumbering there was soon added a worse one, the
fires deliberately set by sheepherders to improve the annual browse; these
consumed thousands of young trees, Sequoias of the future. And this havoc
was wreaked not upon private lands but upon the public domain. The long
battle to save the Bigtrees was begun, so far as the Giant Forest is
concerned, by Colonel George W. Stewart, a newspaper editor of Visalia,
California, who roused public sentiment where there had been apathy. He
was joined by one public-spirited citizen after another, by newspapers and
magazines in California and finally in the eastern states. When fraudulent
surveys and applications for possession of the Sequoia groves were made
under the old timber and stone law, Colonel Stewart detected them and
brought about suspensions of the applications. When a secretary of the
interior lifted the suspensions, forty men of Visalia marched into the nearby
groves to file private claims and so save the trees for the nation. Victory
came in 1890 when Sequoia and General Grant National Parks were created.
Even then, without a national park service to patrol these reserves, stockmen
and timber thieves continued to violate the public domain, until John Muir's
demand for a troop of cavalry to patrol the parks was finally acted upon by
President Theodore Roosevelt. Today General Grant Park has been merged
with the much larger Kings Canyon Park (the dream of Muir's life), and thus,
with the inclusion of other fine Sequoia groves in Yosemite Park, the future of
the king of trees seems assured. It seems so, but the forces that wish to
unlock the national parks for private exploitation never sleep, and the
vigilance of the forces of conservation must not do so either.

*Editor's note: Formerly Sequoia gigantea (Lindley) Decaisne.

Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Foreword copyright © 2007
by Mark R. Peattie. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

Donald Culross Peattie (1898–1964) was one of the most influential American nature writers of the 20th century. Peattie was born in Chicago and grew up in Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, which sparked his interest in the immense wonders of nature. He studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. After working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he decided to pursue a career as a writer. In 1925 he became a nature columnist for the Washington Star Newspaper and subsequently went on to pen more than twenty fiction and nonfiction books in the next five decades. Widely acclaimed and popular in his age, his legacy has been attributed as inspiring a modern age of nature writing.

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