ONE SPRING DAY IN 1852, a backwoods hunter named Augustus T. Dowd was stalking deer in the wilds of northern California when he chanced upon a towering giant sequoia. Dowd, probably the first white man to see a large (real large ) sequoia, quickly spread the news of his stately vision. Before long, a sharp promoter named W. H. Hanford figured out a way to exploit the discovery. He had 116 feet of bark shucked from the outside of the tree and sent to New York for exhibition.


Many people who saw Hanford’s exhibit sneered at the notion that such an immen-se stretch of bark had come from a single tree. Moreover, tree lovers were incensed at the desecration. The influential Harper’s Monthly went so far as to call for the establishment of a society for the prevention of cruelty to trees.


The American Forestry Association (AFA) comes close to being just that. Alarmed by the chopped, sawed and burned ruins that marked the pioneering push across the continent, as well as by the savaging of forest and wood-lot that occurred during the Civil War, a small group of horticulturists joined together in 1875 to demand some say in decisions involving the oldest and largest living things on earth.


The AFA has been the arbiter of all matters involving trees ever since. In 1940, in the interest of locating and preserving the nation’s tree treasures, the AFA issued this challenge: “Wanted! The location and measurement of the largest specimens of the following 11001 tree species.” A scale was devised: one point for each foot of height, each inch of girth, each four feet of crown spread.


The first Social Register of Big Trees, a who’s who of acacia to yucca, of smallest (balsam willow) to largest (Sequoia National Park’s “General Sherman,” was published in 1945. It identified 228 champion native and naturalized trees. The current register lists 651, five of which appeared on the original list.


The register does not, of course, capture the intense emotion most people feel when confronted by a champion tree. John Steinbeck, writing about redwoods in Travels with Chancy, may have come close: “From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”



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