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Big Trees: Pictures & Politics

  From Sacred Symbol to Industrial Stumpage Big Trees as Recreation
  Big Trees as Natural Monuments   Big Trees as Curiosities
  Big Trees as Cathedrals of Nature   Big Trees as Commercial Products  
  Big Trees as Trophies   On the Wrong Side of Environmental History  
  Big Trees as Objects of Science Greenwashing Weyerhaeuser

Big Trees as Natural Monuments

The name "Dragon Tree" (Dracaena draco) has its origins in the Greek myth of Hercules who slew the hundred headed dragon guarding the Garden of the Hespérides in order to bring back three golden apples. Where the slain dragon's blood flowed onto the land, dragon trees grew. The oldest specimen in the world, perhaps a thousand years in age, grows at Icod de los Vinos on Northwest Tenerife (right). For scale, note the two people in the red circle. The Dragon Tree was described and illustrated in the "Atlas Picturesque" (1810) by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. This is an early, famous case of an ancient tree treated as a named individual and preserved as a natural monument. Due to habitat destruction, few dragon trees survive in the wild and the species is strictly protected under national law.


Dragon tree, Icod de los Vinos, 2007
Tenerife, Canary Islands


"Dragon Tree," La Orotava, engraving, 1810
Alexander von Humboldt, Atlas Picturesque

The indigenous peoples of the Macaronesian Islands featured the dragon tree as a meeting place and for burials. Its dark red sap or "blood" was used for medicine and for mummification processes. Humboldt noted: "At Laguna, toothpicks steeped in the juice of the dragon tree are made in the nunneries, and are much extolled as highly useful for the preservation of gums."  The dragon tree owes its name to the resemblance it bears to the monstrous mythical creature. It is pictured in the device of La Orotava, which dates from 1905 and shows two live dragons (symbols of vigilance) flanking a dragon tree (right).

"Garden of Earthly Delights" (detail), H. Bosch, c. 1500
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid


"Habt Ehrfurcht vor dem Baum.
Er ist ein einziges Wunder"
Alexander von Humboldt

The travel narratives by Alexander von Humboldt are filled with idolizing references to big trees. Among his favourite was the Dragon Tree, which is illustrated in his 1810 Atlas Picturesque (left). Humboldt was struck by its "enormous magnitude . . . as gigantic in the fifteenth century, as it is at the present moment. Its height appeared to us to be about 50 or 60 feet; its circumference near the roots is 45 feet. . . The trunk is divided into a great number of branches, which rise in the form of a candelabrum, and are terminated by tufts of leaves . . Among organised beings, this tree is undoubtedly . . . one of the oldest inhabitants of our globe" (Personal Narrative of Travels, 1822).

Device of La Orotava, 1905
Island of Tenerife

Early representations of the dragon tree occur in a religious context as an exotic marker. One such version appears in Martin Schongauer's c. 1470 engraving of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Another dragon tree appears on the left hand panel of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, dated c. 1500 (left). It is likely this image is based on the German Weltchronik (1493) by Hartmann Schedel. Also a dragon tree is found in Albrecht Duerer's engraving, The Flight into Egypt c. 1503. For an iconographic study, see: Peter Mason, A dragon tree in the Garden of Eden (Journal of the History of Collections, 2006). Following efforts to cultivate the species on the continent of Europe, descriptions and images of the tree began to appear in secular botanical works, such as the 1576 Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historiae by the Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius.

Since 1991 the dragon tree has been the official plant symbol of the Canarian Island of Tenerife and the native species is now a protected tree under regional and national legislation.


Humboldt's respect for big trees as natural monuments was reflected in the work by Hugo Conwentz, director of the West Prussian Provincial Museum in Danzig (Gdansk, Poland) from 1880 to 1910. He lobbied the government for the protection of natural monuments such as geologic formations and rare species of flora and fauna. Also trees were included, for their rarity, unique form, age, or due to their historical or ethnological significance. An example is the thousand year old oak in Cadinen, near Gdansk (right), today renowned as the oldest tree in Poland.

Tree preservation was part of the emergence of a "Heimat" (homeland) consciousness in Germany. Shocked by the clearcutting of state forests, in 1899 Conwentz initiated a survey to locate the threatened natural monuments. In 1906 he became head of the Prussian Office for the Care of Natural Monuments, one of the first state nature protection agencies in Europe. The preservation work by Conwentz was well known, especially in Britain and Sweden. See H. Conwentz: On National & International Protection of Nature (Journal of Ecology, 1914).

Ancient trees at Sababurg, Hessen
Painting by Theodor Rocholl

The enduring German love of nature, said Conwentz, was "indicative of the German national character" and he gave the example that "while classical antiquity hardly set any of its myths in the forest, the German fairy tale and the German saga prefer to have the woods as their stage." Natural monuments and the conservation of aesthetically pleasing landscapes, he argued, promoted a greater love of the Heimat. Conwentz's success in making ancient trees natural monuments is seen in the oak "Jozef" near Warsaw (right).


"1000 Year Oak," Cadinen, c. 1900
Old postcard

A painting of ancient oaks and beeches by the German artist Theodor Rocholl (1854 – 1933) appeared on the cover of a book published in 2007 on the "Urwald" (wilderness forest) at Sababurg in Hessen (left). Urwald Sababurg is a 92 ha forest that was once part of a 16th century hunting estate. Both Rocholl and Conwentz took active roles in protecting the forest in 1907.

"Jozef," natural monument tree


"Major Oak," Dukeries, c. 1910
Sherwood Forest, England


An English example of a famous individual tree is the "Major Oak" of Sherwood Forest (left), a 1,000 year old oak named for Major Hayman Rooke, who first described and illustrated the tree in 1790. At the time, its massive trunk was recorded as 34 ft 4 in circumference. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the Sherwood Forest was noted as a royal hunting grounds that covered most of Nottinghamshire. During this time, ancient trees were believed to be a medium of prophecy and knowledge and the home of woodland spirits. Today Sherwood Forest is a remnant of 165 sq miles (423 sq km), part of which is protected as a National Nature Reserve. Of its surviving big trees, Major Oak is the most famous as the legendary place of shelter for Robin Hood. To keep it from collapsing, supports hold up its branches.


Settler societies have boasted of the natural products of their new homelands. Many members of immigrant communities in North America, having come from a European continent that prides itself on ancient and grand monuments of architecture, have treasured the equally grand specimens of nature, non existent or long ago destroyed in the Old World, especially ancient big trees. As a result, these native products of the New World have become symbols of settler culture and powerful national historical monuments.

One famous tree was named after the American president, George Washington (right). When he visited the Hampton Plantation in South Carolina in 1791, he was asked whether the oak should be cut down to create a better view from the portico. He replied that he liked the tree and it was saved.


"George Washington Oak"
Hampton Plantation, South Carolina


"Charter Oak"
Harpers Magazine, 1862

A famed ancient oak tree on the Genesee River grew near the village of Geneseo in New York State. It was so revered by the Seneca Indians that they named the savanna around the tree, as well as their village "Big Tree," which was also the name of an eminent Seneca chief. The Big Tree was the patriarch of the Genesse Valley, with an estimated age of 1000 years. When Benson J. Lossing sketched the Big Tree in 1857, he measured its circumference as 26 ft 9 in. The illustration appeared in "American Historical Trees" (right), an article Lossing published in Harpers Magazine in 1862. Lossing affirmed that American trees are not only arboreal patriarchs, but also historical chroniclers that mark and culturally validate significant events. Patriotic symbolism, in particular, he said, is attached attached to individual trees.


The Charter Oak (left) is regarded as a royal tree, an emblem of strength, constancy, virtue and long life (the attributes of a monarch). It was already 600 years old when in 1614, Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer, sailed down the Connecticut River and saw the giant tree. The Indians believed that when the leaf buds of the huge native oak tree began to appear each year, it was a sign for them to plant their corn. In 1662 Connecticut was granted a Charter by King Charles II of England. The ancient oak tree got its name in 1687 when the Charter was said to have been thrust into a cavity in its trunk for safe keeping.

"Big Tree," Engraving
B. Lossing, Harpers, 1862


"Treaty Elm," Philadelphia
Lithograph by George Cooke, 1812

Also the Quaker artist Edward Hicks chose to portray the Treaty Tree in his painting " Peaceable Kingdom" (right), inscribing in the margin: "When the great Penn his famous treaty made, with Indian chiefs beneath the elm tree's shade." For Quakers, the treaty signing between Penn and the Indians fulfilled the biblical prophecy of a peaceable kingdom on Earth. In 2002 descendents of the Lenape (Delaware) Indians who signed the 1682 treaty visited the Penn Treaty Park as part of a canoe trip to promote stewardship on the Delaware River. They reminded participants in the event that "The only ancient history of Pennsylvania is our people's history."


The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, is said to have entered into a peace treaty with native Indians under an elm tree near Philadelphia in 1682. This "Treaty Tree" has been immortalized by many artists and engravers, including Benjamin West (1771), John James Barralet (1800), William Birch (1800), George Cooke (1812) (left), and George Lehman (1829). When the Treaty Tree blew down in 1810, it was measured to have a circumference of 24 ft (7.3 m), and its age was estimated to be 280 years. Wood from the tree was made into relics that were widely treasured. See: Penn Treaty Museum.

"Peaceable Kingdom," c. 1825 (detail)
Painting by Edward Hicks (click to enlarge)


They are trees — grand old trees, about which memories cluster like the trailing vines. They are not numberous, and therefore more precious. In the shadows of the dark forest — in the light of the lofty hills — in the warmth and beauty of the broad plains of the great globe, they stand in matchless dignity as exceptions. They are Patriarchs in the society of the vegetable kingdom, recieving the homage of myriads of children — Priests, who have ministered long and nobly at Nature's alter — Kings, for whom vast multitudes have fallen protrate — Chroniclers, within whose invisible archives are recorded the deeds of many generations of men who have risen and fallen since the ancestral seens of the ancient trees were planted. B. Lossing, "American Historical Trees," 1862

The Liberty Tree on Boston Common was a famous elm that functioned as a rallying point for resistance to British rule over the American colonies (right). Named in 1765, it became a living symbol of the popular support for individual liberty. In 1775, Loyalists cut the tree down and used it for firewood. As resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown and the remnant of the tree became known as the "Liberty Stump."

"Washington Elm," c. 1884
Engraving, D. Lothrop & Co.


"Liberty Tree," Boston Common
Engraving, American Pictures, 1876

According to a popular legend, it was under the Washington Elm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that George Washington first took command of the American Army on 3 July 1775. In an illustrated article on "Historic Trees" published in 1884,  L. L. Dame wrote that the Washington Elm (left) "has been oftener visited, measured, sketched, and written up for the press, than any other tree in America. It is of goodly proportions, but, as far as girth of trunk and spread of branches constitute the claim upon our respect, there are many nobler specimens of the American elm in historic Middlesex" (Massachusetts Magazine). In 1875, when Cambridge citizens celebrated the 100th anniversary of Washington's assuming the command of the army, the old tree was the central figure of the occasion. But by 1923, it had become diseased and when the tree finally fell, it was divided up into some 1000 relics which were distributed to all states and their legislatures.


European settlers in North America, who no longer could look with pride upon mediaeval cathedrals and castles or Roman and Greek ruins, chose instead to emphasize the grand natural products native to the New World. A well known instance is Thomas Jefferson's boasting to the great French naturalist Buffon that the American moose was far larger than its European counterpart. Also famous were the giant Sequoia trees native to California. The Grizzly Giant in the Marioposa Big Tree Grove was much celebrated in early popular descriptions and illustrations (right).

The Giant is a collosal, still living, Sequoia who measures about 63 m high, 28 m in circumference, and is estimated to be between 1600 to 2000 years old. The German born and trained landscape artist Albert Bierstadt painted the Grizzly Giant in 1876 (below). The Mariposa Big Tree Grove was protected by President Abraham Lincoln already in 1864. As the first such natural monument in the US, it was an important forerunner of the national park movement.

"The Great Trees, Mariposa Grove," 1876
Painting by Albert Bierstadt


"Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove," Engraving
J. M. Hutchings: Scenes of Wonder, 1862

"Viewed as an individual, standing next to familiar man made objects, the Sequoia is more readily placed in proper perspective than when found in communities of Sequoias and other large sized associated trees. Statistics mean little to the initiate because he has no past experience upon which to base mental comparisons. With increasing familiarity, however, the size and grandeur of the giant Sequoia gradually become comprehensible and a true interest and deep respect develop for this forest monarch" Galen Clark, The Big Trees of California, 1907.


The world became aware of giant Sequoias of California when sections of the massive trees were transported across the continent and displayed for eastern audiences. One of the first works on the big trees was "Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California," published in 1862 by James M. Hutchings, soon after the Mariposa Grove was "discovered" in 1855. Appearing in the book were the Grizzly Giant and The Twins (right), both sketched "From Nature" by the artist G. Tirell. Hutchings wrote: "Who can picture, in language, or on canvas, all the sublime depths of wonder that flow to the soul in thrilling and intense surprise, when the eye looks upon these great marvels?" In 1864, Abraham Lincoln protected the Mariposa Grove "upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation, shall be inalienable for all time."


"The Twins," Mariposa Grove. Engraving
Scenes of Wonder, 1862


"Father of the Forest, Entrance," c. 1865
Mammoth Grove, Calaveras County


Among the most remarkable attractions in the Mammoth Grove at Calaveras was the prostrate "Father of the Forest," the remains of an ancient giant that fell naturally to Earth centuries ago, measuring 115 ft in circumference and 450 ft in length. His heartwood had been burned out by legions of fires and within his corpse a "Horseback Ride" trail was made for tourists. Beginning in the 1860s, the "Father" became the subject of 100s of photos which often included humans to make the contrast in scale more apparent (left).

In California, where lumberjacks and settlers were celebrated for clearing the land and converting it to agriculture, there was little motivation to protect the ancient native trees as natural monuments. James Russell Lowell observed: "The American seems to have an hereditary antipathy to Indians and trees, both having been the foes he had to first encounter in conquering himself a home here in the West" (The Spectator, 1857).


"General and Mrs Frémont," Big Tree Grove, 1888
Old postcard

Since 1954 the Big Tree Grove in Santa Cruz County has been protected as part of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the Fremont Tree continues to be visited (right). Many of the big tree monuments in California are named after Civil War politicians and military heroes. Not far from the Fremont Tree is another redwood dedicated to General Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th American President, who visited the Big Tree Grove in 1879, when the tree was measured at 325 ft high, 55 ft in circumference and 18 ft in diameter.


Legend has it that in 1846 while on a mapping expedition General Frémont camped inside a cavernous redwood tree in Santa Cruz County. Decades later Frémont revisited the 270 ft tall, 66 ft in circumference tree, which had been named in his honour (left). This 1888 postcard photo is entitled: "General and Mrs. Frémont with a friend by the famous tree bearing his name."

"Fremont," Santa Cruz County, 2007
Photo: Flickr


President Theodore Roosevelt was given a guided tour of Yosemite Valley in 1903 by the Scottish born conservationist John Muir. A photo of the group was taken at the base of the Grizzly Giant (right). Roosevelt is the third from the left and Muir stands beside him to the right. Roosevelt supported the preservation of the trees: "There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias. . . our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their Children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred."

In 1903 President Roosevelt addressed the California State Legislature to protect the redwoods of Humboldt County: "I appeal to you to save these mighty trees, these wonderful monuments of beauty." Roosevelt's plea resulted in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park being established in 1905 "to be forever maintained in its primaeval state." In 1906 Roosevelt signed the National Monuments Act, which authorized the President to "declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest that are situated upon lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be National Monuments."


Roosevelt and the Grizzly Giant, 1903
Photo: Smithsonian Institution


"Giant Tree," Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Humboldt County, California

Most of the biggest and most profitable giant trees have been destroyed by the forest industry and can only be imagined from archival photos. Ironically many of the largest redwood trees were native to Humboldt County, named in honour of the famed German scientist. Though he never saw them, Humboldt certainly would have been horrified by their brutal killing for commercial profit. One ancient victim, killed at Big Lagoon in Humboldt County, is pictured with eight men – employees of Hammond Lumber Company – standing proudly in her deep crosscut (right). This company became a a primary destroyer of the native forests of Humboldt County following its purchase of the sawmill town of Samoa in 1900. When the industrial logging complex at Samoa was bought in 1956 by the Georgia Pacific Corp, new plywood mills, sawmills and pulpmills followed. In 1972 the complex was sold again, to the Louisiana Pacific Corp which abandoned it in 1980 when the last old growth timber was cut down.


The sign next to the "Giant Tree" at Humboldt Redwoods State Park (left) states that the tree is recognized by the American Forestry Association as a "national champion" with measurements of height 363 ft (height) and 532 ft (circumference). Regretably this Association is a proponent of the wood products industry and its "champion" tree designations are corporate greenwash.

Eight men in a crosscut redwood, c. 1900
Hammond Lumber Co., Humboldt County


Giant Sequoia National Monument

Sequoias are the largest trees on Earth. They are native to a small region on the western slopes in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada in California. To protect the surviving trees and their forest habitats, on 15 April 2000, the 327,000 acre "Giant Sequoia National Monument" was declared on by President Clinton. According to this Proclamation, all logging projects were to be phased out and the trees within the Monument boundaries were not to be cut for timber. Yet logging continues today.

In 2006 29 Members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to the chief of the US Forest Service and the secretary of Agriculture demanding a halt to this vagrant violation:

"These logging operations are destroying the natural Sequoia forest ecosystem of the Giant Sequoia National Monument, in direct violation of the spirit and the letter of the presidential Proclamation . . ." Ancient Forest Act

The Act to Save America's Forests was introduced in 1997. The Act seeks to end clearcutting on all federal lands and stop logging and roadbuilding in the last wild, roadless and ancient forests and furthermore requires federal forest agencies to restore native biological diversity.

Many believe that the Act is the only hope for protecting the Giant Sequoia National Monument. It would remove the Monument from Forest Service control and place it in the care of the National Park Service. The Act is supported by over 100 members of the US Congress along with many leading scientists including E. O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Right: "General Sherman Tree," c. 1860. Sequoia National Park


"National Geographic Tree," ancient cedar before the storm in 2007 (left) and after (right)
Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Amazonia Monument of Nature

International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)
Declaration of the First International Monumnet of Nature
17 November 2007, Manaus, Brazil

When the famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt travelled through the Amazonian forest about 200 years ago, everything reminded him of 'the primordial state of — the Earth' . . . Being aware of the ecological threat to our planet and taking into account the protective measures already implemented or planned by the peoples and governments of the concerned countries. Appealing to the responsibility of all people and countries benefiting directly or indirectly from the largest continuous forest area on earth. Especially in honour of the traditional populations that interact with the rainforests resources on the basis of a sustainable development since thousands of years.

Left: ICOMOS members in Amazonia


In 2006 big tree climbers Michael Taylor and Chris Atkins discovered the tallest tree in the world, the 378.1 ft "Hyperion." According to Mario Vaden, "Hyperion missed teeth of saws by a few hundred feet." The precise location of Hyperion in Humboldt Rewoods State Park has not been revealed to spare it from possible root damage due to many visitors. Some 135 redwood trees that reach higher than 350 ft include"Helios" (376.3 ft) and "Icarus" (371.2 ft), both which were recently discovered in the park, much of which had been clearcut logged prior to its founding in 1983. One 280 ft high arboreal surviver is climbed by George Koch, a professor of biologgy at Northern Arizona University (right). The ethos of big tree trophies has been reduced by modern technology which wipes out the courage or skill needed to kill and fell large living things. Today such acts amount to little more than the callow destruction of rare, threatened and endangered biological masterworks of evolution.


Today, with so few remaining big trees in California, Oregon and Washington, they are no longer cut down as monuments for public display. Instead they are scaled by extreme tree hunters in search of "tall trophies" (left). That these so called "champion trees" are recorded by organizations that greenwash for the forest industry should make one suspicious of this distraction, for it is not the individual tree that matters as much as the habitat of the big tree.

Without the protective, surrounding forest, the groves of big trees are prone to windfall, or blowdown. Cathedral Grove, for example, has had which saw its forest buffer successively clearcut logged, leaving the tiny park vulnerable.

George Koch on ascent of a 280 ft tree
Photo: Sillet-Antoine


Redwood canopy research, Humboldt County
Photo: Stephen Sillett

Regrettably, however, the scientific study of big trees of the past 150 years or so has contributed more to their commerical destruction than to their survival. Scientific forestry as well as the more recent discipline of forest history, because of their funding by the forest industry, have been beholden to their paymasters and provided legitimation for tree destruction more than tree preservation. This is particularly sad, because the survival of ancient tree forest, the little that is left of these on the Northwest Coast, turn out to be of considerable significance in countering climate change and one of its underlying causes of atmospheric carbon dioxide.


In 2006, a single big tree species became the subject of an endowed academic position, established as the Kenneth L. Fisher Chair in Redwood Forest Ecology at Humboldt State University. Stephen Sillett, the first holder of the chair does much of his research high in the canopies of ancient trees (left). These are located in protected areas such as the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where the world's tallest redwood was discovered in 2005, called the Stratosphere Giant, which measures 370.2 ft.

Giant Sequoia canopy research
Photo: Stephen Sillett