Op-Ed: The monumental mortality of sequoias

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In downtown L.A., in the parking lot of the Automobile Club of Southern California, sits a quaint monument, one century old. It’s a cross section of a giant sequoia, propped on its side, with arrows pointing to tree rings marking era-defining events. Meanwhile, in the Sierra Nevada, thousands of crown-scorched sequoias stand dead as de facto monuments of climate change. With both kinds of de-immortalized Big Trees, Californians can see connections between civilizational time and the temporal condition called the Anthropocene.

The AAA timeline at West Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street was one of many derived from a single fallen tree in Sequoia National Park. Starting in 1923, the park’s superintendent freely supplied slabs to educational institutions, as long as recipients paid shipping. With each 1.5-ton piece, the National Park Service sent interpretive instructions, including a list of historical events — though no guidance on finding the correct corresponding rings.

By handpicking pivotal moments, curators revealed prejudices. The most variable tag was the penultimate one, for which they turned to whatever appeared to be the latest world historical happening before the felling of this particular mammoth tree — “World War begun” or “Automobile Club founded.”

The earlier tags repeated themselves. I know because I obsessively tracked down 25 cross sections — mostly giant sequoias, plus a few coast redwoods — installed throughout the country in the first half of the 20th century. The following events appeared with greatest frequency:

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