“From a fallen tree everyone makes firewood”

Who does not keep in the soul	 	 	
one, two, many fallen trees?	 	
Who has not seen on each fallen tree
the symbolic image of an abandoned human
lacking strength and illusion?
— José Santos Chocano
Carlos Barón. Illustration: Bruno Ferreira

A few days ago, during yet another windy and rainy storm, a large part of a tree fell. With its fall, it brought down some power lines and a few cars. Luckily, no human was hurt. At least not physically. Emotionally, is another story. Many of us are grieving.

It was a still young sequoia tree that had been living on the popular Garfield Park, in the heart of the Mission District. Some say that the tree was almost 200 years old, perhaps more. Perhaps as old as Garfield Park itself, or maybe as old as the City of San Francisco. Or even older.

As far as sequoia trees are concerned, it was a young adolescent, barely in the dawn of its potency. Sequoia trees can live up to 2,000 years and can reach up to 300 feet in height. Although the planet Earth is 4.543 billion years old, the origins of the sequoias are also respectably old — they go back 7,000,000 years ago. Dinosaurs used to roam around them!

In 1847, a German botanist named Stephen Endlicher named the coastal redwood trees “Sequoia sempervirens.” Most likely in honor of the Cherokee Chief Sequoya or Sikwayi, who invented a phonetic alphabet of 86 symbols for the Cherokee language.

The sequoias symbolize well-being, health and security. They have a natural capacity to resist fires and other types of decomposition. That, in part, accounts for their longevity.

In spite of all that, according to community organizer Brooke Oliver, “The SF Parks Department decided to take it all down because it might fall and hurt someone. A very short sighted and ugly perspective. Many of us think that this complete hack job was not necessary. These kind of trees are proud and grow again after losing a branch. The center portion possibly could have been reconnected to save it.”  

The fallen Sequoia tree in Garfield Park on Feb. 23, 2023. Photo: Fátima Ramírez

By cutting down the remaining trunks of the tree, the SF Parks Department perhaps decided on the side of caution, most likely also worried about economics. Today, on the corner of 25th and Harrison, only the large bottom of the tree trunk remains, still beautiful in its demise.

I will share portions of a wonderful remembrance, written by T Dea Robertson-Gutiérrez, long-time resident of the Mission District. “Since the third grade (in 1959) going home from school at Saint Peters Elementary, I stopped by often to visit our old friend, the tree. I could scurry to the top in less than two minutes! The tree was a fountain of magical powers. (…) I invited my two brothers and our friends. (…) Up there, stories were told and the tree was an excellent listener, never interrupting, criticizing or condemning us for passing our time there. (…) Search parties went out, trying to retrieve us back to reality .They never did find us! The tree has two brothers in the same park and we often visited them. But this guy was our favored respite from daily grief, earning our respect. I would have given my life to save it if I only knew it was dying.”

In 1960, Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1901-1991), a Malian writer and ethnologist, said before UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) “En Afrique, quand un vieillard meurt, c’est une bibliothèque qui brûle.” (“In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.”) 

The Sequoia tree in Garfield park as it looked in 2018. Courtesy: Urban Hiker SF’s Facebook
The remaining stump of the Sequoia tree in on March 23, 2023. Photo: Alexis Terrazas.

The cutting of that tree, felled by a mix of natural and human reasons, makes me think of that African proverb. The death of that sequoia tree, as many have said before, it is also much more than the end of a single tree. It is also the death of many habitats for birds, insects, worms, fruits…and humans. When the tree goes away, a protecting shade also leaves, a gathering space for a vast variety of memories, good, not so good, or terrible. The intermingling of life and death which that tree witnessed and shared during its lifetime.

As we get older, there comes an urgency to share our stories, our lives, especially if we have lived a rather long life and we have many wonderful experiences. If we have the time and the necessary health…and a tribune like this newspaper column provides, that urgency almost becomes a duty. Not because we are terribly special, but perhaps because we want to share the good, the bad and the ugly that is beautifully commonplace. “Hey, friend! Hey, stranger! Let’s get under that tree and let’s share some stories! Have you heard about that fallen tree?”

I will leave you with a thought that is pecking on my brain the way a woodpecker pecks on a tree: “Why let trees and people fail, but banks are too big to fail?”