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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

From Sacred Symbol to Industrial Stumpage

An 18th century fresco located in the Church of St. Martin, Westenhofen bei Schliersee depicts the story of Saint Boniface (right). In 723 Boniface felled the Donar Oak, an ancient tree located near Kassel in present day Germany. The monk's purpose was to convert the pagans who opposed the cutting down of sacred trees, especially oaks, by the Church. The Christian doctrine that human beings should master Nature continues to be a justification for old growth clearcut logging and deforestation throughout the world, though many believe that the conversion of ancient forests into industrial tree plantations is an ecological crime. Big trees remind us of the wild natural landscapes that have taken most of human history to evolve, and their destruction for pulp, paper and wood products is unconscionable.


Donar Oak fresco, 1737 (Click to enlarge)
Church of St. Martin, Kassel


"Big Fir," Cherry Valley, Wa, c. 1898
Photo: University of Washington


Some of the grandest examples of big trees are from the Northwest Coast. With what values are these big trees invested by settler society? "Pictures and Politics" is an iconographic study that juxtaposes historic illustrations and photos with present day images of survival as well as of annihilation. Selected big tree representations express a degree of reverence amounting in some instances to veneration. Yet in our modern era of industrial logging, the sacral connotation has been supplanted by that of stumpage volume and commercial greed, big trees being cut down and forever eradicated for the lucre of commercial wood products that may include toilet paper.

Today forest destruction is no longer carried out by loggers using axes and cross saws like those who made a fatal cut in the "Big Fir" (left). Rather the industrial mega machines are feller bunchers that annihilate all in their path. There is no longer any sport in downing a arboreal giant and the heroic logger myth that legitimated the slaughter of the native forests belongs to a bygone era. In British Columbia (BC) the survival of the grand big trees and their ancient rainforest habitats hangs on a silken thread. Having already liquidated 97 percent of the primaeval forests of California, Oregon and Washington, the wood products industry continues its destructive path in BC, clearcutting to the point of economic collapse.


Lieutenant Richard Mayne of the Royal Navy was one of the first surveyors to explore what is now BC. He wrote a narrative of his travels, describing in detail the abundant natural resources that seemed waiting to be exploited. In 1862 on his return home to London, he published "Four Years in BC and Vancouver Island." Mayne's amazement at the giant trees he encountered in the colonies is reflected in the gold vignette engraved on the cover of his narrative (right). The truncated tree is not admired for its aesthetic beauty, however, but as as a lucrative colonial bounty. In 1862, the same year of Mayne's book, the British colonies on the Northwest Coast were hit by a devastating epidemic that took the lives of one third of the indigenous peoples in just over two years. Both the arrogant disregard of their fate and the illegal stealing of First Nations land and resources became the trademark of settler society in BC.

Engraving of an early sawmill, William Creek, BC
W. Cheadle, 1865


Book cover engraved vignette
Richard Mayne, "Four Years in BC," 1862

Left is an engraving of a sawmill at Williams Creek in the Caribou (Tsilhqot'in First Nation Territory). It appeared in the travel narrative written by Walter B. Cheadle, "The North – West Passage by Land," published in London in 1865. This sawmill was one of the earliest to be set up by settlers seeking to profit from the seemingly endless supply of valuable Douglas fir timber. The engraving shows the denuded slopes in the background, covered with logs, and indicates the sort of ecological disaster inflicted on watersheds by sawmills. Cheadle actively supported the development of BC and his book attracted prospective immigrants.


Industrial stumpage, Robertson River, BC, 1945
Photo: BC Forestry Service

The Weyerhaeuser founded tree farm movement was widely imitated by the BC Forestry Service, the Robertson River watershed in Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island being an example of this so called scientific harvesting practice whereby the pristine forest was liquidated (above). Once the timber had been cut down, the remaining snags, stumps and slash were burned off. Also on Vancouver Island, west of Victoria, the ancient forests on Jordan River were massively clearcut for tree farm conversion. One surviving 25 ft high cedar stump was documented by the BC Forest Service (right). Note the man standing in the foreground for scale and the cuts in the stump left by the springboards of the loggers. Such a giant tree, likely well over a thousand years old, would have crashed with a tremendous noise, shaking the ground like an earthquake in protest against its brutal demise. Stumps of this size had to be dynamited and blasted to bits to prepare the denuded land for a new plantation forest with a monoculture species. Such severe degradation of ancient forest biodiversity wiped out valuable wildlife habitat including salmon spawning grounds.


The Euro American settlers who flooded BC lost no time in clearing the forestlands for agriculture. First to go were the most fertile valley river bottoms, where the largest trees, some of them several thousands of years old, grew. The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island (Cowichan First Nation Territory) was home to some of the biggest trees on the Northwest Coast but half a century of relentless clearcutting and slash burning produced a wasteland, documented in 1945 by the BC Forestry Service (left).

Cedar stump, Jordan River, 1929
Photo: BC Forestry Service


Tree plantation, Jordan River, 2004
Photo: Ingmar Lee


Within 50 years the wood products industry had converted the ancient forests on Jordan River to tree plantations (left). Wm. Withers explains how such ecological crimes are perpetuated for profit: "While trees, even as dead 'snags' and rotting logs, offer framework and habitat for a forest community, they account for a small minority of the thousands of plant and animal species in large scale old growth or 'ancient' forest ecosystems. For industry, however, such ancient forests are inefficient. It is therefore cost effective to prevent their redevelopment, which takes centuries, and to replace them with short lived aspen or plantations of other commercially valuable trees, to be 'harvested' when youthful growth rates slow. Such 'management', rather like slow motion lawn mowing on gargantuan scale, has provoked the derisive epithet 'fiber farm' from critics" The Forest Products Industry in Public Education.


Even more horrifying than converting the old growth forest into industrial stumpage and fibre farms is the irreversible degradation caused by development sprawl. At Jordan River on Vancouver Island, the tree farm owned by Western Forest Products (above) is being subdivided for lucrative real estate properties. This process is everywhere evident on the west coast and if the land has not been paved over by sprawl, the second growth forests are being converted to vineyards. An example is the so called "Preservation Ranch" in the Gualala River watershed of Sonoma County owned by Premier Pacific Vineyards (right). See YouTube: Worse Than a Clearcut (Sierra Club Redwoods Chapter). With Google Earth, the clearcuts and other abuses of forest lands that have led to the devastation of whole watersheds can be easily observed. Despite the wholescale greenwashing by the forest industry about "sustainability," the evidence leaves no doubt about the widespread havoc.


Vineyard, Sonoma County, 2008
Photo: Google Earth


"Logging in Sonoma," c. 1880
Stereoview: New York Public Library


The grand redwood forests of Sonoma County were early on stripped by logging companies to supply the building boom in San Francisco. At first the logs were floated down rivers to coastal mills, then transported by ship to the Bay Area. With the completion in 1877 of the North Pacific Coast Railroad, deforestation greatly increased. The largest redwoods grew in the Russian River watershed which was settled by Euro Americans in the 1860s. There are few documentary photos of the Sonoma big trees, such as the stereoview which shows eight people, including a man with an axe, standing next to a downed giant (left).


Stumptown was first settled in 1860 on the bank of the Russian River on an alluvial flat known as Big Bottom. Stumptown was named after a hollow stump which stood above the village, in which 20 horses could stand. In 1877 Big Bottom was described as "a dense growth of mammoth redwood trees" with a yield of 800,000 ft of lumber to the acre; the largest tree measured 18 ft in diameter, produced 180,000 ft of lumber. In 1865 the Swiss settler George E. Guerne arrived in Stumptown (later renamed Guerneville after him) and set up a sawmill. By the end of the century all the big trees had gone from Big Bottom, leaving a barren floodplain of stumps (right). T. J. Butts reported in 1998 that Sonoma's redwood groves, many with trees ranging in diameter from 15 to 20 ft, had almost all been cut down.


Big Bottom, Guerneville, 1898
Photo: Russian River Historical Society


Left: Archival photo of Stumptown, n.d. Three men are standing together on one giant stump. A fourth man stands below them on a log. A primaeval redwood forest, not long ago a wilderness paradise, is being converted to a stump battlefield.

Below: "Duncan's Mill," 1883. Sketch by Charles J. Hittel (1861 – 1938). This sketch of one of the many sawmills that deforested the watershed of the Russian River is unusual for Hittel who is best known for his wilderness paintings in dioramas.

Right: engraving entitled "Heald & Guerne Manufacturers & Dealers in Redwood & Pine Lumber, Shingles, Mouldings, Brackets & c."

Published in 1877 by Thos. H. Thompson.

The view includes a big stump in the foreground, inscribed "12 ft diameter." Guerne's mill cut between three and four million feet of lumber a year, and there were many other mills some of which produced masses of shingles.

Details from the engraving illustrate the text by T. J. Butts, who wrote "my heart is filled with sadness when I think of the ruthless manner in which these silent monitors of otherdays have been despoiled and destroyed."


The Sequoia of Sonoma by T.J. Butts, 1898:

It has been poetically said that 'The groves were God's first temples' and if this be true, then he had no grander nor more picturesque temples upon the earth than the primeval forests of Sonoma County. The tallest standing tree yet discovered in America was the product of Sonoma County.

This tree grew upon the west bank of the Fife Creek, just opposite the town of Guerneville, and was known to all the early settlers on Russian River as 'The Monarch of the Forest.' It was one of the finest specimens of redwood that has ever been seen by man. It measured 45 feet in circumference at the base and was 367 ft and 8 inches tall.

This tree was felled about 25 years ago by Heald & Guerne and converted into lumber.

The largest tree in circumference that ever grew in Sonoma County, so far as known, formerly stood on the bank of Russian River . . . This tree was 23 ft in diameter at the base and was over 300 ft high. It was felled by a man by the name of William English and was manufactured into shingles of which it made upwards of 600,000 and afforded him labour for more than two years. The shingles when sold, brought their maker $1,800.

This tree was so large that English was unable to saw the log into proper lengths, and was compelled to saw out a cut at a distance of 200 ft from the base, and where the log was still over 12 ft in diameter, and with a maul and wedges, he split the huge log (over 200 ft in length) in haves. Had this tree been carefully sawed into lumber it would easily have made 150, 000 ft which would have been worth $3,000 – big enough for a two story house . . .

Within the lives of these great trees empires have crumbled from the face of the earth, races of men have perished and passed away, and their tongues and languages have been forgotten; yet these grand old trees – living monuments of the handiwork of God – still stood the ravages of time, like the gravestones of fallen greatness; they are indeed the living monuments of departed ages.

But these 'monarchs' are no more. The fell hand of the destroyer has been place upon them, and now charred and blackened stumps alone mark the place where they once proudly lifted their mighty forms.

There was another very large tree a mile north of Guerneville. Sawed into lumber in 1875 or 1876 by the late Rufus Murphy and yielded 78,000 feet of lumber of which 57,000 feet was clear. The market value of that tree when converted to lumber was $1,830.

The Baptist Church of Santa Rosa [above] was built wholly from the product of the tree just mentioned. Every part of the wood material came from this tree: the timbers, siding, shingles, flooring, scantling, doors, etc. A person not familar with the vast size of a Sonoma redwood can, from the contemplation of this, form some idea of the magnitude of one of these mammoth trees.

Left: Old postcard entitled:
"Church Built from One Tree, Santa Rosa, California."


Standing at the entrance to the riverside subdivision laid out by George Guerne, called "Guernewood Park," was an enormous stump, the sole evidence of the grand forest that had been eradicated (right). In his 1898 essay on the Sequoia of Sonoma, T. J. Butts described the largest tree that had been logged near Guerneville as over 3,300 years old, " brought into existence while Moses and the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and was a thousand years old at the time of the birth of Alexander the Great. It was over 17 feet in diameter (as shown by the annual growth when Christ was upon the earth)." Another treasured redwood described by Butts, long since converted to lumber, was the Hulbert Camp Ground Tree. Over 22 feet in diameter and hollow at its base, it was used as a two storey residence with rooms over 12 feet in diameter.


Big tree stump, Guernewood, 1914
Photo: Russian River Historical Society


"Picnicing in the Redwoods, Russian River."
Photo: Bancroft Library (Carleton Watkins)

Once the Russian River had been logged, Guerneville and its surroundings were marketed as a destination for pleasure seekers from San Francisco. The tourists travelled on the North Pacific Coast Railroad which had been built in 1871 to transport lumber from the sawmills to the Bay Area. The last stop on the route north was Cazadero (right), a hunting resort for sportsmen. Just before Cazadero, the train passed through the Elim Grove (above), site of an early tourist hotel, named after a passage in the Bible: "And they (Moses and his followers fleeing Egypt) came to Elim where there were twelve wells of water, and three score and ten palm trees: and they camped there by the waters" (Exodus 15:27).


"Some Big Timber, Cazadero, Cal."
Old postcard


The photo of the Elim Grove and the two photos on the left were taken by Carleton Watkins as part of the "New Series" he produced in the 1870s.

They show groups of early tourists from San Francisco who had travelled to the Russian River to picnick and relax among the giant redwoods. A Bohemian Club member since 1872, Watkins was renowned for his photos of the giant Sequoias which had helped to save the trees from logging.


Among the early tourists to visit the Russian River were members of the Bohemian Club, an exclusive men's club founded in San Francisco in 1872. In 1887 the club leased the Elim Grove from the owner of Cazadero and held summer encampments here among the giant redwood trees until 1891.

In 1893 the Bohemian Club bought 100 acres of unlogged forest land from the Sonoma Lumber Company at Rio Monte, two miles south of Guerneville. It became the Bohemian Grove, which has endured until today. Early undated photos show tents and Greek like temples set up in the deep forest grove.

Members of the Bohemian Club who took part in the festivities included wealthy businessmen, powerful politicians, and successful artists, musicians and writers. Among them was author Jack London (left). An ampitheatre under the giant redwood trees provided entertainment (right).


Bohemian Club members take secrecy vows so few photos exist of activities at the Bohemian Grove. Nonetheless, a collection of photos by Bay Area industrialist and club member William Letts Oliver is in the public domain at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley. One c. 1900 photo shows a group of men dressed up as Calvalry officers and Indians in a scene complete with a horse and teepees (right).

Kah-chi-ah Pomo woman, Russian River, 1905
Photo: Bancroft Library (C. Hart Merriam)


Bohemian Grove, c. 1900
Photo: Bancroft Library

The Pomo indigenous peoples living along the Russian River were driven from their homes in the 1850s and 60s by settlers, and they were massacred and hunted for bounties by militias. A rare photo of a Kah chi ah Pomo woman (left), taken by C. Hart Merriam on 19 August 1905 in the village of A kow wah tol on the Russian River, provides a revealing contrast to the dress up antics of the privileged Bohemian Club members from San Francisco (above). For a critique of the Bohemian Club power elite, see G. William Domhoff: Social Cohesion & the Bohemian Grove.


Over the years the Bohemian Club increased the size of its forest holding on the Russian River, reaching its current 2,700 acres in 1944. The forest, much of it second growth, was left unlogged until 1984. Since then commercial logging has continually increased until the current situation, where the semi intact redwood forest is suffering an aggressive assault on its biodiversity. John Hooper (right) pleas for recognition of the ecological significance of Bohemian Grove as a rare opportunity to preserve and restore an old growth forest stand: Save Bohemian Grove. As the last unprotected ancient forest remnant in the San Francisco Bay Area, the urgent need to save Bohemian Grove is palpable. Today the devastating environmental cost of industrial logging is well recognized. Grassroots groups doing valuable educational work are: Russian River Residents Against Unsafe Logging and Forest Unlimited. See also the interactive system for ecological restoration: Russian River Watershed.


Armb Grove ampitheatre
Old postcard

Lumberman Colonel James Armb set aside some 440 acres of ancient redwoods in the 1870s to be preserved and operated as an aboretum. The Armb Grove was not officially protected until 1917, when Sonoma County purchased the property. In 1936 it was finally preserved as a state park and an ampitheatre (above) was built for special events. "Colonel Armb" and other big trees are popular attractions along with the old stumps of lumbering victims (right). Shockingly in 2008 Armb Redwoods State Reserve was proposed for closure, one of 48 California state parks earmarked by a deficit reduction program.


Armb Grove
Sonoma County, California

In his 1898 essay on the Sequoia, T. J. Butts stated that only two stands of ancient redwoods remained in Sonoma County, the Bohemian Grove and the Armb Grove (above): "In these groves one may yet behold a redwood forest in all its virgin beauty. No woodman's axe has ever desecrated their precious precincts."

Stump, Armb Grove, 2007
Photo: Flickr


Further up on the Northwest Coast the forest products industry has done its best to obliterate the evidence of its big tree massacre. For example, virtually nothing is left, apart from the odd stump, of the ancient forest ecosystem on the east coast of Vancouver Island, where not long ago some of the largest and most magnificent trees in the world grew. Comox was one of the devastated places. The well known local settler – naturalist, Hamilton Mack Laing, took a photo in 1938 that shows how explosives were placed under the remaining big stumps to blow them up (right).

Cedar stump, Chehaimus, Vancouver Island, 2008
Photo: anon


Exploding a stump, Comox, 1938
Photo: BC Archives (H. M. Laing)

Another devastated place on Vancouver Island is Chemainus, a logging town founded in 1858. A cedar stump (left) preserved as cultural heritage displays a sign that reads: "Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Age: 500 years; height: over 200 feet; width: 11 feet. This giant, saved from a land clearing off Marie Farms, south of Chemainus, is a tribute to the history and heritage of this town. Felled about 80 years ago, this tree would have framed at least two houses. [Such trees] were chopped down this high up, using spring boards to stand on to get above the pitchy swell butt."


"Queen Mary Stump," Surrey, 2007
Greater Vancouver, British Columbia

Douglas fir stump, Washington, c. 1906
Photo: Whatcom Museum (D. Kinsey)


Nothing reveals more clearly the extent of the tragedy of the loss of BC's big trees than their truncated remains. A rare case of preservation is the "Queen Mary Stump" (left) in Surrey, part of Greater Vancouver. Instead of a living cedar tree of a thousand years in age or more, all that is left is a vast stump, 9 m in girth and 4 m high. The tree was about 500 years old when she was cut down in the 1930s. Today her stump is preserved by local officials as "natural heritage" that serves as a landmark of the forest that existed here prior to European settlement in the 1900s.

Cedar stump, 2007
Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC

A characteristic cedar stump with springboard scars (above) can be seen in Vancouver's Stanley Park. Such stumps are not "natural" heritage. They are the remains left to us by the logging industry's plundering. Most big tree stumps were removed by the slash burning that followed the clearcutting of the forest. The 20 ft high fir stump photographed by Darius Kinsey c. 1906 (left) was an oddity in the community, containing 1200 ft of lumber. Today we view surviving big tree stumps as rare relics of the vanquished ancient forest that flourished not long ago on the Northwest Coast. Some unusually large stumps were recorded before their demise and some have been preserved as tourist attractions (below).


Dancing on the Stump
112 ft Diameter, Wa

Cedar Stump
Vancouver, BC

31 People on Cedar Stump
Sedro Woolley, Wa

Post Office Stump
Elwha, Wa

Stable Stump
Crescent City, Ca

Cedar Stump
Snoqualmie River, Wa

Cedar Stump with Children
Arcata, Ca

Dance Stump
Aberdeen, Wa

Nelder Grove Stump
Sequoia National Park, Ca

Stump Meadow
Sequoia National Park, Ca

Cedar Stump
J. Smith Redwood State Park, Ca

Discovery Stump
Calaveras Big Trees Park, Ca


"Childrens Step Thru Stump," Redwood Hwy
Photo: Amy Meredith


"Childrens Step-Thru Stump"
Photo: Amy Meredith