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The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge
Princeton Architectural Press, 2014
208 pp., 29.95
Trees of Knowledge
It was in 1852 that Augustus T. Dowd, in search of a grizzly, stumbled across bigger game: a towering tree to be named a sequoia, after the famous Californian Redwoods. For those not in Yosemite, the reports of Big Trees seemed fanciful. A tree that stretched upward and outward at three hundred feet high? New Yorkers and Londoners scoffed at the idea, even as they eyed, suspiciously, a very long strip of bark that had once covered a sequoia's third. Botanists were less skeptical. But more enterprising minds got to the trees first, felling them for wood and turning the forest into—what else?—a scenic destination for tourists: visitors could bowl down two alleys or dance sets of the cotillion on a smoothly planed stump.
That was the advertising pitch, at least. Soon the multitudes descended, less tourists than pilgrims eager to behold the trees whose very existence inspired curiosity and reverence and awe. Even the resistant among them were provoked. How long had sequoias been around? When David was made Israel's king? Or when Aeneas fled Troy? Certainly when Christ walked our battered earth. The rings of the trees confirmed that. Whether they flourished outside the Americas was not to the point. What mattered was that the trees had stood—and that they still did. They were witnesses, albeit distant witnesses, to the founding myths of civilization.
The trees of our Edenic past were probably not sequoias, but they too were seeming immortals grounded in the earth. In the second creation account, Yahweh plants a garden full of "all kinds of trees" and places a man in it. (The first account in Genesis has seed-bearing plants, including trees, fill the land on the third day.) Life begins in the garden with trees, which feed, nourish, and shade us, and give us aesthetic pleasure. They are "pleasing to the eye." But life also ends with trees, or rather the taste of "the fruit / Of that forbidden tree," in John Milton's ...