What it’s about
The subtitle says it all: “The tree that inspired a nation, created our national park system, and changed the way we think about nature.” In this book, William Tweed is making some big claims about King Sequoia (a term borrowed from John Muir), and he does a good job of supporting them. Starting with the “discovery” of giant sequoias by Euro-Americans in the 1840s, he deftly traces the human-tree interaction through time and space.
First viewed as curiosities, early entrepreneurs stripped the trees of their bark, shipped them to places like San Francisco and New York, and reconstructed them for paying visitors. As settlers moved into California, a tourist industry built around big tree viewing came into existence near Yosemite Valley. This became the foundation for the eventual preservation of the Mariposa Grove in the Yosemite Grant of 1864, which influenced the creation of the beloved national park in 1890. Sequoias were integral to the land grant, not an afterthought as is sometimes assumed, and Muir shows up as an early, eloquent champion. Tweed traces the trees as objects of art and science, tourism and lumber, and ends with a discussion of current challenges, including climate change, air pollution, and ecological isolation.
What I liked
Tweed anchors each chapter with a personal anecdote garnered during his research. He traveled north to south through the sequoia belt, visiting both popular and lesser-known groves, and his affection and respect for the trees is evident. A longtime naturalist, historian, and ranger at a number of parks, including Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, Tweed’s expertise shines through, but his tone is approachable. I’d love to visit some of these places with Tweed as my guide. His history of the sequoias doesn’t shy away from complexity, but he navigates it clearly and absorbingly. Photos sprinkled throughout do a good job explicating the narrative.
“The King tree and I have sworn eternal love — sworn it without swearing, and I’ve taken the sacrament with the Douglas squirrel, drunk Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood, and with its rosy purple drops I am writing this woodsy gospel letter.” — (John Muir quote ca. 1870)
“For the American national park system, 1890 was a key year. …The efforts of a handful of Californians brought to life the idea of a national park system, and in this development, the charismatic giant sequoias played a highly significant role.”
“If one allows one’s senses free reign to dream just a bit, it is possible to gain here a sense of what early-twentieth-century tourism felt like. That’s why I have come — to capture something of that now-remote era when Sierra Nevada tourism moved to a new level of accessibility and comfort, and the Big Trees played muse to a generation of artists, writes, scientists, and, yes, recreational tourists.”