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Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, by Jared Farmer

I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting any of the truly ancient trees of the world. The closest I came was during my boyhood in 1960s San Jose, California, where we would sometimes visit Big Basin State Park, home to some 1800-year-old redwoods. A wildfire ravaged 97% of the park in 2020, destroying the historic structures and altering the landscape...but many of the venerable redwoods survived.

Still, the idea of ancient trees is alluring, and so I took a look at Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, by Jared Farmer, published today.  It is an exclusive club—only about 25 species of plants can naturally produce organisms that live for a millennium or longer. And while redwoods are the best known, there are other venerable species, such as olive, baobab. cedar, gingko and pipal, though often their lengthy lives are aided by human intervention. Olive trees, for example, have natural aids to longevity: their low-maintenance hardiness allows them to survive drought and poor soil, and their structure, with different branches connected to different root systems, allows them to survive even as part of them die. But human intervention grafting and pruning assists their long loves. Because of their sectional growth patterns and trunk structures, it is difficult to determine the age of olive trees. The oldest are believed to be the eight trees within the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem. Gingkoes are another hardy specimen and are believed to be able to live for a thousand years. One notable gingko tree survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima less than a mile from ground zero.

The book meanders around the world and across time in a vaguely thematic fashion, mixing natural and human history. Chapter Four, for example, is titled Pacific Fires, and visits, California, Chile, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan. Unlike the smaller long-lived trees like olive and gingko, the Pacific Rim is home to the towering giants like Sequoias, alerces, kauri and sugi cypress, and the tales told here are of destruction versus preservation, both of the trees and of the indigenous population who lived in these forests.

The indigenous Mapuches of Chile and the Yuroks of California both practiced sustainable forestry, but neither were much of a match against the onslaught of commercial forestry. In the early 1960s, the Seattle-based Simpson Timber Company set its saws on ancient alerce forest in Chile, where they anticipated harvesting a billion board-feet of timber. They went in big with their expensive heavy equipment, but to their dismay discovered that a great percentage of the trees had dry rot within their cores. They ended up with only 75 million board-feet. Bill Reed, president of Simpson Timber, later admitted that an operation based on indigenous logging techniques and simple equipment would have generated more profit.

Under Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, moves were made to preserve the alerce forests, but the 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet brought an end to that. Their preservation law was crafted with loopholes that incentivized illegal burning and commercial salvage logging while making traditional Mapuche plank-making techniques technically illegal. The book also looks at the story of Douglas Tompkins, founder of North Face and Esprit, who gave it all up to work on forest preservation in Chile and Argentina, as told in the book I previously reviewed here back in January: Jonathan Franklin’s A Wild Idea.

With the onset of the California gold rush in 1848, the few thousand Yurok people who inhabited the forest regions were confronted

nearly two hundred thousand avaricious young men far removed from the societal strictures of home….In the 1850s and 1860s, Anglo-American volunteers waged campaigns of extermination. Militiamen carried Colts and Winchesters, acquired through federal programs, massacred innocents with the blessing of local and state governments, and later received reimbursements from Congress….

The cleansing of Yurok, Wiyot and Tolowa villages from the coast presaged the clearance of coastal-access forests. Despite the remoteness from markets, and low demand, logging commenced. Businessmen imagined future riches from 300-foot-tall straight-as-mast conifers composed of “clear all heart”—no holes, no knots, just vertical-grained heartwood. By the normal fraud that characterized US land disposal, small firms acquired large tracts of expropriate Indian land intended for homesteaders. Thanks to mechanical “steam donkeys” and the indispensable labor of Chinese immigrants—repaid with xenophobic expulsions—a county named after Alexander von Humboldt became the heart of redwood dismemberment.

These sawed-down coastal redwoods had rings showing between five and twenty centuries of growth, astounding enough to pose next to, but not astounding enough to preserve. And even these venerable redwoods were not nearly as impressive as their massive and even older Sequoia cousins in the nearby mountains.

The first newspaper reports from California in the mid-nineteenth century of the ‘great cedar tree’ of Calavera County (not to be confused with Mark Twain’s celebrated jumping frog) caused a global stir. Naturalists from around the globe undertook the arduous journey to see these trees for themselves. Many people believed the report of these huge trees to be fake news.

Entrepreneurial types set out to prove to the world that these mammoth trees did exist. They bought the Calavera County tract of land on the cheap, removed 40 vertical feet of the outer bark in sections, then labored to fell the tree. The bark was sent by wagon and steamer ship to San Francisco, where it was used to create a cozy room, complete with carpet and piano, which people could rent for parties. A radial section of the trunk was also on display, so people could indeed see for themselves that the bark had encircled a trunk, and could marvel at the countless growth rings.

After a month in San Francisco, the exhibit went by clipper ship around Cape Horn and up to New York City. Negotiations with P. T. Barnum to exhibit it at the Crystal Palace fell through, and Barnum went on to create his own tree room exhibit, smaller than the real one and totally fake, but real enough for the suckers he enticed. The true tree exhibit was a flop, unable to compete with Barnum’s hucksterism, and later burned in a warehouse fire. Another giant, toppled and also turned into a tree room exhibit, had a run in New York and later in London.

Another chapter of the book discusses the bristlecone pines of the US Great Basin region, twisted, straggly-looking trees that grow to only 60 feet at lower elevations and half that at higher elevations. It was only in the 1950s that the Jewish-American botanist Edmund Schulman determined from tree-ring data that these unprepossessing trees might very well be the oldest living entities on Earth. The oldest, named Methuselah, has been verified to be 4,854 years old.

But there had been at least one older tree. In 1963, a man named Donald Rusk Currey decided it would be a feather in his cap to find a bristlecone pine even older. He took core samples of 113 trees without success, but the 114th defeated his efforts to get a core sample. He got permission from the forest service to cut it down. When the rings were counted, the tree was found to be 4,844 years old, just a handful of years younger 59 years ago than Methuselah is today.

The book wanders the world, offering similar stories on the life and death, the inspiration and the exploitation, the survival skills and the dangers, and the political winds the trees face. A worthwhile read.