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A Brief History of Tree Huggers

A conversation with writer Jared Farmer, whose new book chronicles California's forests.

Reposted from High Country News.

Jared Farmer, Utah native and associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, released his third book this week: Trees in Paradise: A California History. The book traces the history of redwoods, eucalyptus, citrus, and palms in the Golden State from 1848 to today. Farmer takes a unique approach by melding cultural and natural histories, taking a deep-dive into early horticulturalism, and exploring John Muir’s arbo-patriotism and the 20th century timber wars. 

Tay Wiles: What led you to this topic?
Jared Farmer: I trace the origins of my book to three haunts. First was the backyard of my father’s childhood home outside Los Angeles. Dad waxed nostalgic for the fruit trees there, and grandma mailed a red-stained box of pomegranates every winter to Utah, where I grew up. Second was the greenhouse my father built in snowy Utah to grow his own citruses and figs. Third was my initial California residence: Stanford University—a school with an ostentatious Palm Drive, a citrus courtyard, aromatic groves of eucalyptus, and splendid relict oaks, not to mention a redwood on its seal and a dancing tree as its unofficial mascot.

Your book is filled with so many obscure facts—everything from the role of eugenicists in the early days of the Save-the-Redwoods League, to the post-Depression palm-planting frenzy in L.A. Which is your favorite random factoid in the book, and what’s one that didn’t make the cut?
Single out my favorite factoid? That would be like asking Brigham Young to name his favorite child. One of my favorite details is the former tradition of Sierra Club members to visit the grave of John Muir and sing “Auld Lang Syne” with arms linked around the giant trunk of the nearby manna gum eucalyptus tree. Such a ceremony of non-native belongingness wouldn’t happen today. I also like the story of the redwood log in Humboldt County chainsaw-carved into a giant peanut as an anti-environmentalist protest symbol. Not to mention all the fun stuff I left out, including Faisal II, the last king of Iraq, and his tour of Muir Woods, or the annual Yuletide radio program at the General Grant (officially the “Nation’s Christmas Tree”).

One of the book’s themes is misperception of reality. One example is that people once believed the American West would get more rain if more trees were planted. What do you consider the most significant misperception in the history of California trees?
That the former treeless environments of lowland California—the grasslands and wetlands of the Central Valley and the Los Angeles Plain—were biological deserts. Not so. By reallocating the waters and by cultivating fruit trees by the millions and billions, American settlers performed a miracle—they turned the Golden State green—but in the process they committed ecocide against fish, amphibians, mammals and migratory birds.

Read the rest of the interview on High Country News.

For more on California's Redwoods, check out Jaimal Yogis's feature article Seeing the Forest for the Trees, from our October 2010 issue.

 

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