Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Death of the Tunnel Tree

Early last Monday morning, a friend of mine sent news that a tree we knew, a sequoia, had collapsed in a winter mountain storm. I was in New York, where two inches of hard snow sat on cars and tree branches that themselves looked like death. He was in Northern California, near the place where we grew up. No one is certain of the fallen tree’s age, but it is thought to have lived at least a thousand years. Any tribute I could give it would be fatuous; the tree was older than the language in which I can write.

The tree meant something more time-bound to humans, though, and, like a playboy worn down by the party circuit, bore the traces of a personable past. Giant sequoias are believed to be the largest living thing on Earth by volume. They are tall with short branches, and wear mantles of thick, russet bark that feels like Styrofoam and has the soft curves of poured wax. This one had a huge hole in its base—about ten feet tall, and even wider—that was carved in the eighteen-eighties. The idea was to let you walk not just around the tree but through it, making it a kind of skyscraper, a place in the forest where people could dwell. Over the years, the hollowed-out sequoia came to be called the Pioneer Cabin Tree, like a built thing, or the tunnel tree, like an essential piece of infrastructure. What was really meant was that it was our tree, our human tree, the one we singled out and marked with the illusions of our time. Its hollow had been razored with initials, and its wood had the polish of frequent touch. When the dusty, ferny mountain forest became Calaveras Big Trees State Park, in 1931, the tunnel tree emerged as a centerpiece, the California mountains’ Tour Eiffel.

In death, it was more. The A section of the Times, a paper not traditionally much concerned with California flora, gave the tree more than ten inches of space. The Los Angeles Times called it “iconic.” I watched the coverage with the media-age awkwardness of someone trying to feel the touch of death from a great distance. No one knew quite what to say, it seemed, and, although we all felt some vague measure of loss, it was unclear what to think about a life that had lasted longer than all memory. In the way of human grief, I want, instead of honoring the tree directly, to conjure up the world in which it was a monument for me. (...)

Most summers, as long as I remember, my family has rented, for a week, a cabin in the middle Sierras just off Highway 4. It’s quiet there, and inexpensive, and there aren’t a lot of Jet Skis on the water. When we started going up to Calaveras—that’s the family expression, “up to Calaveras”—it was because that’s where my mother’s parents took her. Later, my mother began urging other families to take cabins nearby. We arranged big dinners on creaking wood decks and ate grilled chicken in the light of citronella candles. When the summer meteor showers came, we’d lie on empty roads and watch the stars. The rented cabins would invariably be A-frames in the style of the high Carter Administration (ski-lodge shag carpet, macramé owls on the walls), and you would will yourself to sleep despite fears that a giant spider was about to leap down from the eaves. These unfamiliar terrors made the weeks seem long and sweet. One August, we were nearly washed off some boulders and downriver in an unexpected thunderstorm; the next July, I floated with the special harmony of adolescent lassitude across a lake, on an air mattress, with friends. I was fifteen, and it was the night when, by the prophecies of Nostradamus, the world was sure to end. That it didn’t end then, or the evening after, taught me something about wise men. That I’d felt at peace with the apocalypse—I was confident my fifteen-year-old life had a pleasant roundness, even a fulfillment—teaches me today how poorly we can see beyond the near horizon of experience. Visiting a place again and again, year after year, annunciates the slow progress of human growth. A kid that you recall shows up, abruptly, with the problems and the powers of a woman or a man.

That’s what the tunnel tree in Big Trees State Park meant to me: the function of eternity to graduate the progress of a life. The first time I saw the tree, I was about five, and my family took a photo in its hollow. We took another photo the next time we visited, and again after that. Over the years, I’ve been back probably twenty times, and a catalogue of imagery—first film, then digital—marks my family’s slow, peculiar progress. We look heartbreakingly small. The tree is really very big. That record ended this week, and I cannot shake the feeling that a certain vector of our history ended then as well.(...)

The temptation is to herald the tunnel tree’s death as an emblem. (The Times, in a second piece, presented its collapse as a symbol of this dire American season.) It is also easy, maybe just, for humans to take blame. Although trees often fall in storms, sequoias are equipped for the long haul—their stance is wide; their bark is fire-resistant—and a spell of winter weather is unlikely to have felled the tunnel tree without the huge, destabilizing chasm near its roots. We made the tree our own and, in the process, took away its immortality. It experienced time as few sequoias can, through human eyes: with friendship, wounds, some fame, and death.

by Nathan Heller, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Calif. State Parks/AFP/Getty