quoth General William Tecumseh Sherman in an 1879 speech. Stating the obvious, clearly, but a rhetorical flourish still current today.
Rivalling the predations of human warfare, though, is the battle against the flres now ravaging so much of the West, including one of the greatest beings on our planet. In the path of the destruction, the giant sequoia . So far the fire has burned though almost 18,000 acres.
How can a flimsy piece of aluminum foil save “General Sherman,” the sequoia that holds the distinction of being the largest tree in the world.
Here are just a few facts about the tree, which has endured its share of tape measuring humans over the years. General Sherman has a volume of 52,508 cubic feet, stands 275-feet tall and is thought to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. It’s circumference at ground is 102.6 feet. The height of the first branch above the base is 130 feet. It is the biggest of the big. From the ground, you can’t see to the top of it.
To protect the sequoia forests from the brutal heat of the KNP Complex fire, firefighters have seen fit to wrap General Sherman’s trunk, as well as historic cabins and signs. They think it will work. Also important, the systematic controlled burning of the past 50 years, which has eliminated the brush that would become flame fuel at the base of the trees.
Fire can actually be a boon to giant sequoias, helping them release seeds from their cones and clearing land for young trees to grow. But the intensity of the fires we’re seeing now can devastate groves – The Castle fire last year killed as many as 10,600 large sequoias. Climate change will only exacerbate the destructive heat of future fires.
General Sherman, the tree, has been embraced by Americans, but that wasn’t always the case. The conifer species of the genus Sequoiadendron once grew widely across the northern hemisphere. There are fossil remains of the subfamily Sequoioidae from the Jurrassic period, not only in North America but also Greenland, Europe and Asia. Then came the Ice Age. What was left standing? The giant sequoia and the coast redwood.
Also related, the dawn redwood, from China and thought to be extinct until its chance discovery in the last century by a Chinese forester. Cones were brought to the U.S. by an Arnold Arboretum expedition and today they are often propagated by rooting woody cuttings. A handsome tree, it resembles its family members but is of manageable size.
For centuries or longer the forest surrounding General Sherman had been known by Native Americans – some tribes called it Wawona, named for the call of the northern Spotted Owl, others designated the giant sequoia the Toos-pung-ish of Hea-mi-withic.
Then an entirely new group of people descended upon the land the Indians knew. The giants of California can first be found in hunter’s private diaries from the mid-19th century. Then, in 1852, a man chasing a bear found himself in the forest now known as the Calveras State Park. General Sherman was called the “Sylvan Mastadon.” No one even believed the hunter’s account. It was like finding Big Foot. So people swarmed to the phenomenon. Tourists piled on.
What next? Loggers, of course. They had their way with the trees, traversing new roads, utilizing railroad transport. Some trees were felled to actually verify their existence – for example, the Mark Twain tree, in 1891. Slices of its trunk went to the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum of Nautral History.
Profit drove the felling of huge ancient trees. Ironically, the wood was less then useful because it splintered as it fell. Loggers would dig trenches and fill them with boughs to cushion the blow of tree limbs crashing down.
The great naturalist John Muir fought to create Yosemite Park, and the logging of the giants mainly stopped by around 1920. The founding of the Sierra Club was largely his doing. “And into the forest I go,” wrote the eminently quotable Muir, “to lose my mind and find my soul.” The man was a respository of pithy quotes, and if you haven’t ever read My First Summer in the Sierra you have a treat to look forward to.
Still, until 1980 younger specimens of the sequoia came under the axe. We’re talking 3,000 year old monarchs.
But what of General Sherman, the Union Army hero? How’d the foil-girded tree come by its name? First off, remember that Sequoia gigantean got its name from Sequoyah, the Native American creator of the Cherokee writing system.
William Tecumseh Sherman’s parents also bestowed upon him an Indian sobriquet — his middle moniker a Shawnee chief who built a confederacy of Ohio Indian tribes and fought with the British during the War of 1812.
Ironic when you consider his role in the American Indian Wars, when he urged U.S. troops to “exterminate all the brutes.”
General Sherman the tree was anointed in 1879 to honor the Union general most famous for his scorched-earth “march to the sea”, devastating Georgia and the Carolinas. The story goes that General Sherman the tree was named by a naturalist who served under Sherman the man in the 9th Indiana Calvalry
But names being fungible, General Sherman the tree had already had another title. A 40-person socialist commune inhabited the Sierra Nevada’s sequoia groves from 1886 to 1892. The Kaweah Colony based its economy on sustainable logging. It named the tree Karl Marx. Karl Marx quotes Ben Franklin as saying, “War is robbery, commerce is generally cheating.” I don’t think the sequoia loggers would have agreed.
War is hell. Thank you for that, General Sherman the man. Just living for some people can be hell as well. But wildfire that decimates some of the most magnificent things we know ranks up there. So please, astoundingly brave firefighters, use aluminum foil or whatever it takes to preserve the trees, champions of champions. As John Muir said, “The Big Tree is Nature’s forest masterpiece, and so far as I know, the greatest of living things.”