The past could be jettisoned… but seeds got carried. — Joan Didion
For my birthday this year, my five-year-old son presented me with a sequoia seedling just four inches high. Sequoia as in, Sequoiadendron giganteum—the Sierra redwood that, given a couple millennia, can grow to be one of the largest living organisms on the planet. It came, this fragile sprout of evergreen, in a clear plastic tube emblazoned with assurances that this tree could and would GROW ANYWHERE!
This gift was not entirely far-fetched. That February weekend, in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in Central California’s not-so-nevada Sierra Nevada, we had visited several named trees—Generals Sherman, Lee, and Grant still looming large on our western flank—and we had walked the hollowed-out length of one fallen specimen. In every grove, I had exhibited intense enthusiasm for the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, the pitch of my euphoria approaching that of John Muir himself (this from a letter he wrote in purple sequoia sap):
See Sequoia aspiring in the upper skies, every summit modeled in fine cycloidal curves as if pressed into unseen moulds, every bole warm in the mellow amber sun. How truly godful in mien!
I can’t speak for Muir’s rhetorical purposes, but my exuberant performance was intended mostly to move my children, who at three and five are wholly unsurprised that objects in the world are larger than they are. I badly wanted them to know and remember that we were visitors in a rare and significant place; I wanted to rouse in them a worthy state of wonder.
My older son had observed these antics of mine and arrived at the perfectly logical conclusion that his mother was as crazy about giant sequoia trees as he was about Legos and dragons. So when he saw that real, live sequoias were sold at the park gift shop, he knew what to do, and he wore his father down.
“Isn’t it just what you always wanted?” my son wanted to know the moment I pulled the tube-tree from its paper bag, his eyes glittery with the pleasure of there being a present in our midst.
I kissed him and agreed it was, but the adult truth was that the tiny tree I now grasped in my hands suddenly weighed upon me as much as might one of its gargantuan grandparents: What chance had I of sustaining this little life? Regardless of the packaging’s pledges of life guarantees, I knew I could only fail to be a keeper of this tree, and in so doing I would fail my son, and by extension, his entire, soon-to-be overburdened generation.
Don’t get me wrong: I am good with plants. I grew up farming in the Great Lakes region. My father breeds buckwheat, that least-developed of ancient grains, although, technically speaking, it isn’t a grain at all. My mother grows a garden large enough to feed our entire town every summer Sunday at the farmers’ market. I belonged to 4-H and, after I drove our John Deere into the barn wall, I took tractor safety at the local vocational school, and then I spent summer days driving in circles, raking hay or cultipacking corn, all while contorting myself to get an even suntan. My husband too, albeit a generation removed from his arid-farming Texas roots, is particularly gifted at caring for high-needs plants. When I met him, in Central America, he was growing orchids in his kitchen, both the showy sort and wild specimens he’d “rescued” from a patch of jungle soon to be bulldozed.
But we aren’t farmers now. We’re both “visiting” professors, gainfully and gratefully employed ten months a year, but reminded each summer when we move out of faculty housing and into yet another Penske truck that we remain among the rising number of itinerant professionals, members of our generation who bet on the slim hope of a permanent position, somewhere, someday, and with it that fully vested adulthood that we grew up assuming hard work would win us. For now, I cannot secure a rooted life for my own offspring, forget about some puny tree.
Still, we do the best we can. This is why, in the months after we moved to drought-stricken Southern California, from our previous temporary home in the also drought-stricken Midwest, we and our boys had teased from the stale dust of our rented backyard a series of gardens—one of scent herbs, lemongrass and thyme, to mask the sour smell of that suburban dirt—fill I’d hazard to guess—and three beds of vegetables and edible flowers. We have done this everywhere we have lived—compulsively we, as Joan Didion puts it, attempt “to graft [our] ways upon the land,” and, by extension, our rootless selves.
This is practically cliché here in California, to arrive from elsewhere and then try to replicate some past garden. We see it all around our neighborhood: landscaping inspired by the Mediterranean, all olives and fruits; or yards straight out of Iowa, mowed in vivid, velvety stripes. We humans seem determined to remake the world in our own wandering image; if we don’t seem to need a nest, not so long as we can bring the familiar with us and reconstruct our habitat wherever we happen to be.
Certainly this is true of my little family. We plant in our allotted earth to make ourselves feel at home, even if just for a season or two. But the very fact that we water plants in the midst of California’s driest year on record is evidence of our futureless role here. We aren’t conserving what we won’t be around to use later. Our dalliance with gardening in the state responsible for 15 percent of all U.S. agricultural production is—like much of that agriculture—notably devoid of commitment to the particular place. Rather than learn the native plant life or test our soil’s acidity or mineral content (or chemical contamination), we plunk plants into the ground and watch what happens in this freakishly fertile soil, in this bland-as-milk clime. And we are rewarded: garden herbs for Christmas dinner, ripe tomatoes plucked on New Year’s Day, fresh mint for our tea all “winter” long.
Even this decadence feels so very, well, California. Or at least the California I’d read about before ever setting foot on its sour-smelling soil. It is not California itself, but the contrast made stark by this place, that has been seen in turn as a symbol of colonialism, Manifest Destiny, empire, and most lately globalization. We grew eggplants and sunflowers in Indiana. We grew basil in yogurt containers on a red roof in Mexico. Next year, we wondered then, would we repeat offend in Georgia or Ecuador, or, if none of our seed-plans germinate, back on the family farm?
For now—this year, and this year only—my husband and I profess to students at a college whose exquisitely landscaped campus grew up out of what was previously a citrus grove. Nowadays, the students harvest olives on weekends to press into award-winning virgin oils, pluck oranges on their way to class, squeal when they see ripe fruit on the loquat tree. My sons have caught on to this behavior and beg me to harvest the lumpy red berries off the strawberry tree that shades our kitchen window—an Arbutus unedo indigenous to the Mediterranean and Western Europe, all the way north to Ireland. But back before Claremont became known as the “city of trees and Ph.D.s” and adjacent Pomona was named for the Roman goddess of fruit, these were arid scrublands—hills of fragrant, flammable chaparral—climbing up to the looming San Gabriels.
This dirt never bore an orange or a palm nut before some farmer stuck a spade in the ground and wondered if it might. In fact, the majority of the flora of Southern California is as much immigrant as the human population. Forested not only with olives from the Mediterranean, but gums and other eucalypts from Australia, mimosas from China, jacarandas from the Caribbean, and so many varieties of citrus all derived from Asiatic forebears, the college campus is bordered on one side by Foothill Boulevard, that final stretch of Route 66, the Mother Road that bore the Okies and Arkies away from their ecological disaster to the frustrated fantasy of California (back before the 5 from Tijuana became the primary migrant road). The diversity is spectacular, various and vivid for so much contrast, and far easier to appreciate than the more subtle palettes of the pre-conquest chaparral. But even the palm trees—that symbol of Southern California, now badly mimicked by cell-phone towers around L.A.—came by these routes, from the crags and real oases of the Sonoran Desert, planted first by the Franciscan missionaries, presumably because of biblical affiliations. Then, in preparation for the 1932 Olympic Games, and with the hope that the mass planting might help staunch somewhat the city’s rising unemployment, the L.A. forestry division planted more than 25,000 palms around the city.
Since I teach ecocriticism, my students and I sit in the midst of this horticultural artistry and wonder what is symbolized by this garden we have risen to occupy, and what it means when we “go out into the wilderness.” We wonder about romanticizing the native and about the use of feminine metaphors for describing landscapes—virgin forests, fertile soil, Mother Earth, rape of the land. We wonder about the word “landscape” and how it implies something separate from our selves, something we look at but do not occupy. We wonder about the origins of our ecological crisis (Judeo-Christian thought supplanting animism? The capture by early humans of fire?). And we wonder about the proposed solutions (the trope of passing down of that last truffula seed to a child?), and how our alleged lost innocence seems to render adults inept at care. And of course we wonder about the concept of apocalypse—both the Judeo-Christian end-of-days and that prophesized specifically for California, the San Andreas split which the geologist say will one day cast this slab of continent into the rising sea. If this world will end in fire and flood, why not tap all that oil first, why not suck dry every aquifer? If we really are damned once carbon levels top the tipping point, then what happens when that benchmark is met? Do we just have a great big party and burn the fucker down?
Or is there some other story we might tell?
At the end of the semester, we had arrived at more questions than answers.
To get to my surprise Sierra Nevada birthday celebration, my husband drove us north out of the Los Angeles basin and we traversed the Central Valley. Even at the height of what was being touted, in this era of headline weather (polar vortex, formerly known as winter; pollen vortex, formerly known as spring), as a hundred-year drought, the scene is straight from the pages of Steinbeck:
The spring is beautiful in California. Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes, swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to covert the trunks. The full green hills are round and soft as breasts. And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, and the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants.
Or it was once we’d passed the hills of oil pumpjacks pecking the earth like so many thirsty birds.
Even if they did look, acre upon acre, league upon league, like a shallow sea, the San Joaquin Valley’s blooming fruit trees were likely just an illusion of fruitfulness. Of course, that word, illusion, is so prominent in any depiction of this storied state, from gold rushers to escaping dust bowlers to aspiring Hollywood stars, the gleam of promise emitted by California has been more mirror trick, the dust not of star or gold but ordinary earth, and even that earth, so famously fertile, fails in years like this one.
By that February, the wettest month most years, there had been 1.2 inches of rain since we’d moved to the state in August. As we were transplanting flats of broccoli and basil into the dust of our backyard, California farmers, whose agriculture usually consumes 75% of the state’s water, were fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres. The ruins of a town long submerged by man-made Folsom Lake had resurfaced. Dust-Bowl chronicler Timothy Egan described the situation that very week in an opinion piece called “Days of Desiccation”:
Something else is evident in this cloudless winter: when you build a society with a population larger than Canada’s, and do it with one of the world’s most elaborate plumbing systems, it’s a fragile pact. California is an oasis state, a hydraulic construct. Extreme stress brings out the folly of nature-defiance…. The whole fantasy of modern California has long been dependent on an audacious feat of engineering.
California supplements its allotment of naturally occurring water and suppresses that other great rejuvenator, fire, but there is only so much restraint the seas and clouds and mountains will accept. Not even the powers-that-be—the president himself among them—then contemplating the quandary of California’s weather from a farm outside of Fresno, listening to debates over welfare vs. water, as if rain were partisan or could be voted into effect, as if the right man or woman could turn on that rain spigot like Arthur pulling his sword from stone.
Meanwhile, in mountains named for the snow so notably absent that February, we drove down clear roads that are often closed that time of year. On either side of us, the curving road was marked by eight-foot orange stakes lest it become so drifted over with snow that a plow wouldn’t be able to find it. In the Visitors’ Center, black-and-white photographs showed snow to the rafters of buildings or plows driving through cut channels of snow higher than they. But on this weekend, we enjoyed still more glorious weather—bright sun and air pleasant enough that even in the shade of evergreens a coat was too warm, and we savored it. My sons played in what patches of slushy snow they could find, making slouchy snowmen with twig arms and sequoia cone eyes.
Like everyone, we see the problem clearly, if not the solution; but California is not our Eden to lose. We, like so many others, are as alien here as the water-guzzling eucalyptus. Like my husband’s kitchen epiphytes, our roots clutch nothing so much as open air. We taste the fruit, kumquats and tangelos, the reaping of so many Johnny Appleseeds ending their journeys where the land ends. We take in California, its tide pools and tar pits and Disney parks and nighttime temblors, like the tourists we are. And thus we take in the sequoias, tramping along paved paths through the Giant Forest and Grant’s Grove, waiting our turn for photo-ops, and attempting to hike one loop trail with the boys, well knowing we’ll end up carrying them both on our shoulders before we’re done. We suck the nectar of these tenuous days, greedy for their sweetness and ambivalent to all else. We know that, wherever place we end up next, we can decant our memory of California, sip on it like golden honey.
This is, after all, how we have come to live, in California and elsewhere. When my second-born son was one month old, the four of us trekked across highland Mexico to see the wintering monarch colonies. On our way west, from Indiana to California, we visited the Grand Canyon—where that baby who’d slept through the monarchs against my chest now slept in his stroller for the entirety of our walk along the rim trail. In panorama, my boys have seen Joshua trees and petroglyphs and flown their kites over the sand dunes of Florida, Indiana, and Colorado. Whenever we can, we take them to see the sea. They’ve never had a conventional home, a place whose rhythms and contours they know by heart, but in lieu of this, I can only hope they will grow to feel at home in the wide world.
And this is no casual hope—I work to cultivate their appreciation for wherever we happen to be: I do not take my children to any church, but I fully intend to do what I can to engender in them a sense of awe. And I want my sons to see and remember these trees—be they “truly godful in mien” or simply nature that predates the god-complexes of humans. Or, as Rachel Carson put it while standing on this same campus on the very eve of Silent Spring’s first installment in the New Yorker, her own Lorax-Unless:
You who have spent your [formative] years here at Scripps have been exceptionally fortunate, living in the midst of beauty and comforts and conveniences that are creations of men—yet always in the background having the majestic and beautiful mountains to remind you of an older and vaster world—a world that man did not make…. I have dwelt at some length on the fallacious idea of a world arranged for man’s use and convenience, but I have done so because I am convinced that these notions—the legacy of an earlier day—are at the root of some of our most critical problems. We still talk in terms of “conquest”—whether it be of the insect world or of the mysterious world of space. We still have not become mature enough to see ourselves as a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe, a universe that is distinguished above all else by a mysterious and wonderful unity that we flout at our peril.
We go to places like the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, or the Grand Canyon, or the frothing lip of Rachel Carson’s dearly beloved sea for the reprieve of feeling insignificant, for the reassurance that our lives are small, and our problems—like where and how we’ll live in just a couple months—trivial. When scaled alongside gigantic, prehistoric trees, growing out of still more gigantic, prehistoric mountains, we are just busy ants piling up dirt and carrying bits of this and that from here to there.
But there is something else to be learned in these woods we wandered in, and not only by children. Sequoias are sessile creatures; they grow in concentrated groves and sprout not far from where they fall. They are permanently situated in their one plot of granitic soil, thrive on extremes (fire in years like this one, snowpack in other years), and do not, in spite of California’s trembling tectonics, “go with the flow.” At least not so long as their roots can avoid it. They live and, sooner or three thousand years later, they die where they stand. And sequoias don’t fall easily; their trunks are so massive that they shatter upon impact with the earth (this is why the wood from the world’s largest trees on earth was once used to make matchsticks). Large trees serve in poetry for signals of sturdiness, steadfastness, and nobility, but I can’t help but think that they are no other quality so much as tenacity.
My life, I’ve been trained to adapt with metaphors like “bend in the wind.” But giant sequoias do not do flex like palms. Instead, they develop thick skin, fibrous bark that resists wildfires and insects and deep freezes. Their seeds don’t float across oceans like coconuts but remain more or less where they fall, where they wait, sometimes for years, for some catalyst to crack them open so that they might in turn root themselves and set about striving to survive their lot, as we all do. It is an alternative that deserves its place beside the bowing-and-bending model, an alternative that resonates especially as our species’ rate of acceleration continues to increase.
From the euphoric heights of the Muir’s Sierras, through Steinbeck’s blooming Central Valley, and down to the glitter and seethe of Didion’s Los Angeles, from the glorious antiquity to the gleaming modern, I carried my tubed tree. I did not insist on planting it somewhere there within the forest. Nor did I disappear the wisp of it when my son was not looking. I had decided, at least for the time being, to keep it, to carry it with me. I did this even though I realized that a sequoia actually can’t, in spite of the packaging’s promises, “grow anywhere.”
My treeling sat across the table from me as I wrote job letters all spring, in its too-large terra cotta pot set in the cool dappled shade of two camellias (original range: a swathe of Southern Asia, from Himalayas to Japan). I studied it there. I watched as it put on new growth in its first month out of its tube, tiny pale green extensions on its cycloidal proto-branches. I read up on sequoias while I waited to hear back about interviews. The native range of the species is just this slice of the western Sierra Nevada less than one hundred square miles in size. Within this range, the trees prefer southerly slopes at a particular elevation, generally between four and six thousand feet. The trees depend on dry summers, snowy winters (which this one was not), and, critical to their reproduction, wildfire. The sequoia trees we traveled to see predate Christopher Columbus, Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Socrates, and civilization as we know it. As the rejections rolled in, I thought how, in my lifetimes, even if it should thrive, my little giant sequoia would not grow large.
The idea was, of course, that this sequoia sprout would be a catalyst to memory but it was not a memento so much as evidence: I wanted my children to recall their time in California as one fruitful in joy, however fleeting, and this tree might help me privilege this version of the story over the struggle of each transition, the shock at transplant into a new environment and a new culture so very far from perma. Even John Muir took home and transplanted there a giant sequoia to remind him of his beloved Sierras. But this wasn’t the whole reason I felt compelled to keep the tree indefinitely.
I would like to think the reason was not that I had delusions of “saving” my sequoia from anything (although my children’s Lorax-inspired fantasies ran in that direction). Humans have done little to “help” the sequoias since their “discovery” by Europeans less than 200 years ago and their subsequent interference with fire and introduction of livestock, and proclivity for cutting things down if it might be sold (even the specimen dubbed the “Discovery Tree” was felled shortly after the naming ceremony). John Muir’s sequoia, now almost 150 years old, but still young in sequoia time, is dying of a fungus infection. (No matter, I’m told, because a few clones are now growing in dishes in tree safe-house Michigan.) Like Muir’s, the future of my sequoia had been sacrificed when I brought it away from its mountains to be my little totem, my token take-away.
Or, as a poet I told about my tree put it: it was seriously fucked.
For better or worse, having the sequoia in our home came to feel like an homage, not to the tree so much as to the earth it did not live in. Just as my life, and that of a steadily increasing number of globalized generation, has become itinerant, our roots extending downward, but spiraling into portable configurations of carry-on dimensions, so too has that of this sequoia: it is, in short, the sheer absurdity of a nomadic tree that I want to hold in my mind as I work out the riddle of my own living.
Yes, I realize humans aren’t trees: we are designed to move and immigrate and maybe we’re also programmed to manifest some grand destiny. But even conquering nature requires a degree of knowledge that can’t be acquired without observation and deep familiarity, knowledge that has an underlying rhythm, the routine of seasons, yes, and the cycles of drought or patterned weather. Knowledge that is like native tongue—unobtainable after a certain age, but unforgettable once obtained. There is dirt I know by taste and smell, but it is not here in California, a state versed in speaking of terroir—the influence of the earth upon a fruit—in terms of wine, but not of people. And so I kept that sequoia tree on my patio table to remind myself to find my patch of soil and find it quick, before my children grow too old to steep in its particular makeup, to season in it. For my own sake, yes, and also for the organism we call “the environment,” as if it’s something other from ourselves, as if it is only our temporary home.
But in the end, even metaphor proved beyond my scope. When the job offer came, it was an international call and there was simply no taking a tree with us, however tiny. My older son and I discussed our options. We decided we would hike into the San Gabriels at the higher end of sequoia’s elevation window to account for latitude, and look for granite. Maybe we would make a geo-cache, and ask that anyone who visited give the little tree a sip of water. But when we went up Mount Baldy for a little reconnaissance, the ranger informed us that the wind at the entrance to the national forest was over 80 miles an hour, and so we hiked instead through blooming yucca and Spanish broom in the tinder-dry foothills. Then time slipped away from us. Our house broke up into boxes, our hours gave way to logistics and moving quotes, and our hike never happened.
Right on schedule, I began to panic. Once again, I was ripping up my children from the life they were living and designing their next life at the same time. We were selling their out-grown toys and sloughing off every expendable part of our household, like snakes shedding our skin. Our gardens, we all knew—the succulents and the scented herbs, the six-foot hedge of tomatoes—wouldn’t survive the dry weeks of summer between tenants. And in the back of my mind, I struggled to solve the problem of what to do with the sequoia, but like everyone grappling with what to keep alive in California and what to let go, I came up with few answers. In a last ditch effort, on what turned out to be our last evening in California, I telephoned the Botanical Gardens after hours and left a message pleading them to take it for me, with a donation of course. But in the frantic final hours of our final day, most of which withered away on a hot L.A. freeway, I never called back. Nor did I even manage to deposit my guilt at their front gate, like a kitten abandoned in the parking lot of the animal shelter, and presume their good will.
Instead, I scrambled to finish what I could, and when my time ran out I strapped two wailing boys in the car, appeased them with fast food, and drove off into the Mojave with the setting California sun burning my eyes in the rearview mirror.
My husband stayed behind to pack what he could and cast off what he couldn’t and clean up what remained. In the absence of any plan, he was going to put the sequoia in the truck and figure out what to do with it later. But in the end, I didn’t have time for the little tree, and he forgot it, and thus a potentially grand thing was forsaken for trivialities, the trash and the last of the food in the refrigerator and one more box of goodwill castoffs.
The little giant sequoia, along with a catalogue of other minor things, that jetsam of our transient life, remained in the dust to whose smell I had never grown accustomed. And what a grim omen, that some token remnant of a great ancient forest, of our ever-shrinking natural world, should be lost in the wake of our scurry and clutter, our little ant-lives. In our absence, what remained amounted to little more than the shards left behind by some vanished civilization: toys in the dirt, a handbag containing receipts and a chap-stick, a child’s sock, a lost spoon, a paperclip and a penny stuck between floor boards, and, in a chipping terra cotta pot, the desiccated skeleton of one tiny tree.
Molly Beer is the coauthor of Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals (Oxford University Press, 2010) and her nonfiction exploring political landscapes—from the Himalayas to the Pacific Ring of Fire—has appeared in Salon, Guernica, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vela, and elsewhere. She has taught nonfiction writing at Colgate University, as an Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Creative Writing, and at Scripps College. Find more of her work at www.mollybeer.net.
Header photo of child in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park by Molly Beer.