Go be forgotten
The largest thing to ever stand or swim still occupies a few select groves of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
The Mokelumne Indians had a word for it, an onomatopoeia—the cry of the deity that slept in the dead heights of its upper branches, upon a wooden crown where no water reaches. Guardian and protector, the great horned owl. Woh-who’nau. Big tree.
Yet for some reason the species was renamed after a man from Taskigi, Tennessee, a Cherokee silversmith, the only known human being to imagine and perfect an alphabet and syllabary. A man who never set foot in California and died before such massive trees were ever imagined.
“Light a fire under them!” Andrew Jackson said. “They’ll move.”
Some however dispute that etymology. The journals of the botanist Stephen Endlicher never mention Sequoyah, his syllabary, or its failure—those rosses rotted with tears that follow the trail of forced removal.
Perhaps the name derives from the Latin sequi, or following, an allusion to several extinct species known prior to the giant sequoia’s discovery and from which they’re believed to descend. The petrified bones of these early autochthons lie strewn throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the rock fields of North America, parts of Greenland and Europe—fallen totems of an unbroken forest that once stretched nearly to the North Pole.
125 million years ago there were pterodactyls sleeping in treetops resembling those towering today a few hours outside Los Angeles. What sound did the birds make in the red dawn that killed the dinosaurs? The collision ignited a global firestorm that incinerated all the forests of earth instantly. Yet somehow the sequoias survived.
A white man named A. T. Dowd officially found them and he had to lie about a massive grizzly he shot before anyone would follow him. The men must have assumed he was sauced again. “Sure Dowd, help you bring the bear down, but I don’t know about any trees.”
Five men spent three weeks chopping down the first sequoia. It held 1,300 rings. They christened it Discovery.
A man named Bidwell said he’d discovered them as a boy. Wooster carved his name in a burnt hollow years before. Walker claimed he found them in 1833. The Prince of Wied stumbled on them in 1832 but no one had spoken up so much before Dowd shot the bear and no one really cared so much for all the hubbub. “Those are my trees,” Bidwell said. “I’m glad they have been found.” The point was they were there.
The year was 1852, and for some there wasn’t enough gold to go around. Word of their size and majesty—“The Largest Trees in the World!” “Language fails to give an adequate idea of it,” “The eighth wonder of the world”—spread through the camps and papers and over the wires in a wildfire of certain profit. The men pitched aside their shovels and pans. They fled in droves from the foothills over the higher climes toward a new mother lode rumored.
Later they walked in awkward lines, the lucky ones wearing gloves, as they wielded vast blades welded together to form saws long enough to span the width of those trees that had stood since the Iron Age, trees that antedated Christ, Attic tragedy, and the earliest true writing systems.
The broadest of them, the Boole tree—far wider than a San Francisco cable car stood long—towers alone today over Converse Basin. Franklin Boole, apparently a benevolent man, pardoned the tree and himself after felling and gutting the entire grove of 8,000 trees.
He and the others all said a single trunk could fashion a telegraph pole 40 miles tall. “If cut up for fuel, it would make at least three thousand cords, or as much as would be yielded by sixty acres of good woodland.” A single trunk might fence in 8,000 acres and put a roof over eighty families’ heads. “If sawed into two-inch boards, it would furnish enough three-inch plank for thirty thousand miles of plank road.”
Mud from the creeks the trees fell across splashed a hundred feet high, splattering the faces of the men. “Its fall was like the shock of an earthquake, and was heard fifteen miles away at Murphy’s Diggings.” A battering ram was deployed to complete the destruction.
The men climbed the canopy branches and trod along the length of the fallen colossus. They adjusted their hats and held still for cameras. Some found wide owl nests which they soaked in the creek like their gold pans prior and they wore them in mockery of the Oriental miners before casting them toward the night’s campfires.
The flaying of the trees required some trouble as the bark stretched some several feet thick, but it was completed “with as much neatness and industry as a troop of jackals would display in cleaning the bones of a dead lion.”
“Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?” Mark Twain, a famous comedian, once opined via pencil in the margins of Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Beyond the bark wrappings the men found a quantity of wood sufficient to begin building their new boomtown. However it was all shattered and cracked, unusable. They devised new means, digging trenches and padding them with brush to soften the blow of the toppling behemoths—innovations to no avail. Sanger Lumber Company, under the guidance of Franklin Boole, spent 20 years clearing the 8,000 sequoia of Converse Basin and didn’t make a dollar.
This is an excerpt. You can read the full text of Barret Baumgart’s “Go Be Forgotten” in the print edition of The Arkansas International 6.
Barret Baumgart is the author of China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe, which won the 2016 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Paris Review, Literary Review, Guernica, LitHub, and Vice, among others. He lives in Los Angeles.