Croton Project Featured in Wired Magazine
January 13, 2017
Seven Stories (Podcasts) about Science
January 19, 2017
Show all

What does it mean for a giant to fall?

That seems to be what many people were thinking about last weekend when heavy rainfall resulted in the felling of Pioneer Cabin Tree, one of California’s iconic sequoias. Pioneer Cabin Tree was believed to be more than 1,000 years old—and is the subject of many tourist photos.

Pioneer Cabin Tree, however, is only one of several drive-through trees that were created as a means of encouraging tourism (what!? a tree you can drive through?! Let’s hop in the Model-T and go!) and the use of toll roads and railways.  The tunnel was carved from an old fire scar–which speaks to the durability of sequoias. In our lexicon of a disposable culture, these trees are built to last, and to form new growth around old scars.

Last weekend, my social media was flooded with people posting pictures of Pioneer Cabin Tree, and other tunnel trees. The effect was to create a story of how we are pulled to the things that are bigger than us, to the mystery of the natural world, to the way earth will show us its history and ours.

I think it’s easy for us to become complacent—to assume that things that iconic and/or much older than us (or even more than we’re capable of imagining) will always be there. It speaks to the limits of our imaginations. It speaks to the limits of what we can know and predict about the world.

pioneer cabin tree 1

Pioneer Cabin Tree with fire scar (photo from WikiCommons)


As restoration professionals, we must think about not only what a landscape might look like in six months or a year, but in a decade, in a century, in five centuries and beyond. Of course, we cannot know these things. We can make guesses based on what we know about forest management or hundred-year floods or predicted sea-level rise. We make guesses based on what we know about succession, what we know about the land’s status as protected (or not). We model and forecast. We look for trends in the past to predict future trends.

If we think about Pioneer Cabin Tree—and what was happening 1,200 to 1,000 years ago—our inability to forecast the far future is even more evident. In 817, King Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) was still the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor. By 1017, the classic Pueblo period of the Anasazi culture (cliff dwellings) were (likely) barely established and the world’s first novel (The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu) had been completed a mere nine years earlier. To the best of our knowledge, at some point in this period, Pioneer Cabin Tree was a sapling.

It was still alive when it fell.

Pioneer Cabin Tree is far from the first of the giants to fall. Other tunnel trees have gone before it. But this tree fell during a period when more of our tallest and biggest trees are dying, as the California drought stretches on (despite recent rains, including the rains that were falling when Pioneer Cabin Tree toppled).

For me, what makes Pioneer Cabin Tree different is the age of social media. We get to document when our beloveds and our icons die—and certainly for many, the tunnel made this tree iconic. We get to mourn and share in collective grief or sadness or disbelief in an unprecedented way. We also get to share our stories and memories—such a critical part of our human culture—and partake in the stories and memories of others.


Pioneer Cabin Tree, with tunnel


The most memorable image that came through my social media feed of Pioneer Cabin Tree was a friend I’ve known for nearly a decade, re-posting a picture from 2008. At the time, his daughter was still in elementary school. He was then about the age I am now. The photo itself was unremarkable: the family in the foreground, the tree in the background. What was notable to me was how social media allowed him to document this (and dredge it back up). The photo, perhaps taken by a fellow tourist, captured the most fleeing of moments.

Our histories are short. Our stories sometimes last longer. What stories will you tell?