As arbor-scenti know, there are actually two kinds of redwoods — the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). If you can't tell them apart, don't worry — the 1937 California Legislature couldn't either, accidentally combining the species when it named the "California Redwood" our state tree. The details were straightened out to cover them both.
After the Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, California's population exploded and demand for resources expanded accordingly. A hunter tracking a grizzly for food encountered the first redwood near Yosemite in 1852, naming it the "Discovery Tree." Enraptured by the tree's immensity, early Californians engaged in a perverse act of devotion by chopping it down. Parts of the deconstructed tree traveled around the world, attracting tourists to gaze up at, and drive through, the sequoias that survived.
Of course, there was also logging. By 1900, timber firms had consumed the mightiest sequoia grove, and an orgy of destruction followed. Sequoias, which had built up an avid fan base, were the first to find protection; the redwoods came much later, after cultural wars in the 1970s that pitted environmentalists against timber companies. In both instances, Farmer tracks the excruciating legislative fights, sad ironies and infuriating illicit logging with an even hand. Someone who writes a book about trees is clearly in their corner, but he sees clearly how logging the redwoods drove California's early economy and was for many a way of life.
Many new Californians were transplants from forested parts of the country. The scrubby Southern California landscape looked to them like a problem to be solved, and the most enthusiastically embraced solution was the eucalyptus tree. Fast-growing, flourishing with little water and poor soil and smelling great (according to most), the Australasian import was estimated to take up 40,000 to 50,000 acres across the state by 1924, after undergoing two booms.
The most popular species by far was E. globulus, the Tasmanian blue gum. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, these trees were planted as windbreaks — along train tracks, near homes and to shade public boulevards. It was thought to be a miracle tree, one that contained healing oils and that could be used for construction and heating. Fueled by uninformed, self-deluded or greedy speculators, , the irrational exuberance for E. globulus was so great that naturalist author Jack London planted 100,000 seedlings on his ranch.
Californians' infatuation with the eucalyptus began to decline when the trees proved to not fit the ideal. They needed little water because they sucked it from the ground, starving other plants or breaking into fragile sewer lines. By the late 20th century, old eucalyptus trees suffering from summer branch drop had become a hazard; after a 5-year-old girl in Highland Park was killed by a falling eucalyptus branch, measures were taken to trim or remove hundreds of trees from Los Angeles school properties.
The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm, fueled by the messy eucalyptus, forever changed how Californians thought of the tree. Once a romantic favorite, it was understood to be responsible for the deaths of 25 people, the loss of 2,500 houses and $1.5 billion in damage.
Perhaps more than any other, the eucalyptus framed the debate about native versus non-native plants in California. Farmer points out that this language is borrowed from debates about human immigration, often carrying freighted messages about what is desirable — or not.
"[N]on-natives have been described as ugly, dirty, messy, unclean, dangerous, unruly, foreign, inassimilable, overreproductive, insatiable, voracious, predatory, swarming….," he writes. "A number of humanistic scholars have spoken out against this language, arguing that when ecologists use racially charged language to describe scientific phenomena, they unwittingly reinforce the rhetorical foundations of social inequality."
As if to reinforce the idea that non-native is an unreasonable descriptor, Farmer next turns to oranges. The trees aren't suited for California soil or weather, yet the orange crop supported the growth of Riverside and Orange counties and became a symbol of the state's Edenic climate. The same too for palms, an essential part of the city skyline.
Farmer can be a stronger historian than he is a storyteller. The workings of the orange industry are detailed, but apart from the dirty history of smudge pots, not enlivened. In other sections, there are paragraphs of description cobbled together in Zagat-like barrages of primary sources. He faces his greatest challenge with the palm, which he approaches more semiotically than historically. His analysis of the signs and symbols of Los Angeles veers toward the glossy and superficial, seeing it as smoggy, sprawly, plastic, boostery, trendy.
Overall, however, the wealth of research makes this an important addition to the California bookshelf. Farmer shows us how devoted, destructive, foolhardy, ambitious, greedy, enriched and showy Californians can be — not just in relation to our trees but also in general.
Trees in Paradise: A California History
W.W. Norton: 592 pp., $35