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Mark Twain and The Big Stump: Can We Save Nature From Ourselves?

As you enter Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park from highway 180 there is a small little parking lot to the side with a couple of bathrooms and a non-descript, standard-issue, brown, wooden park service sign that reads, “Big Stump.” Most people pass on by, headed instead for the nearby General Grant Grove where you can see some of the many towering Giant Sequoias the park offers, or stay in the John Muir Lodge. However, when you pass up Big Stump, you’re passing up not only a portrait into the park’s past, but also insight into one of the most pressing questions in conservation.


A view into Kings Canyon from near the Big Stump Entrance to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park.

The Big Stump Trail is about two miles in length. It winds through grassy meadows, across a couple of streams, and meanders among a few living giants of the forest. However, Big Stump Trail earns its name. The area is replete with stumps. As you might expect, Giant Sequoias, which can tower over 300 feet with bases that can approach 40 feet in diameter, leave huge, gigantic stumps. So large in fact that simply calling them “big” doesn’t do the scene justice. These things are huge.


Tourists in Big Stump Meadow (1972; Daniels, Gene, photographer, Photographer (NARA record: 8463941))

The area around Big Stump use to be home to the Smith Comstock Lumber Mill. From 1883 to 1889, the mill provided timber to the burgeoning grape industry in the valley below. It would often take weeks to fell a single Sequoia. The great irony was that Sequoia wood is so brittle that when the giants hit the ground after being felled, the tree would often severely splinter, resulting in a loss of much of the timber. The bigger they are, the harder they fall indeed. Most of what  could be salvaged was only useful for fence posts or staves. The vast majority of the trees that were fell met their end in this way, but a handful me a rather ironic end. Cut down to be sent elsewhere simply to prove the trees existed.


Sequoiadendron giganteum wood in the Natural History Museum of London (From Wikimedia)

While native peoples had lived in this area of California for well over 6,000 years, European settlers were quite late to the game. Spanish explorers did not venture into the high country on their sojourns into California and early gold miners, looking to make their own quick buck elsewhere, didn’t either. Giant Sequoias weren’t “discovered” by the Europeans until the 1850s. When word of these giant trees reached the east coast of the US, the UK, and continental Europe, it was thought of as quite the “tall’ tale, literally and figuratively. Such claims demanded proof. In 1854, the Mother of the Forest, a tree 311 feet tall, was felled, its bark stripped and shipped to England where it was put on display. Other trees were felled, with sections of their trunks cut for expositions in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. In this age of spectacle, the Giant Sequoia was as Barnumesque as nature came.


Along the trail, within a picturesque meadow where the snow was just beginning to melt during our late March trip, you find Mark Twain Stump. The Mark Twain tree was felled in 1891 so that slabs from the trunk could be shown in museums in New York and London. Today, steps lead up to the top of this stump. And though Sequoias decompose slowly, and the climate in the park is quite cool, the stump has seen its share of wear. The rings are barely discernable, likely worn down from the thousands, if not millions of folks like myself who hiked down the trail and scaled the stairs to stand atop what was left of one of the great trees. I am not entirely sure why the tree bears the name of one Mark Twain, but supposedly (and I am waiting for confirmation on this) one of the slabs cut from the Mark Twain tree is the same slab that can still be found in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, DC. The same one that I marveled at when as a 12 year old I visited the museum. There is still a slab from this tree in the Museum of Natural History in New York City and this slab no doubt has been seen by hundreds of millions of folks, many of whom will never be able to venture to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park and see the living cousins of this enormous slice of history—or the reminders of where they once stood. As soon as these trees were “discovered”, efforts were made to be preserve them and exploit them. A 2013 piece in the Guardian even posits that the events around the discovery, cutting, and exploitation of these forest giants launched the modern conservation movement. And they aren’t wrong. But should it be this way?


The Felling of Mark Twain Tree, Big Stump Grove. In what is now a part of Kings Canyon National Park, this excellent specimen was cut in 1891 for museum display sections. A great loss to the lovers of nature, its felling was regarded as a great feat of logging engineering. Photo by National Park Service.


This is a conundrum that both scientists and conservationists still face. Just recently, I accompanied my youngest son on his first-grade trip to the Richmond Zoo. The zoo is home to many animals, including endangered gibbons, a white rhino, and an Addax. Neither I, nor any of the other parents or kids, are likely to ever, EVER see these animals in the wild. Zoos are the only place many will ever see these (or in some cases, any) animals. Does experiencing what these animals are like motivate people to make deeper, more difficult choices to help preserve them and their environments in the wild? It works for me. I may never see the plains of the Serengeti or the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, but I want to know we are making efforts to preserve these environments and everything therein. But whether these experiences help conservation efforts has been debated in the field of conservation education for a while. We have written on topics like this before here at PLOS Ecology. National Parks themselves are living examples of the compromises we make. Kings Canyon and Sequoia is gorgeous, but honestly, it’d be better off if we just left it the hell alone.


They are quite big trees.

There are no easy answers. Zoos and museums are often the locus of information and discovery for many, many people. They also serve as engines for conservation efforts both directly (e.g. money, time, effort), and indirectly (e.g. creating the desire to conserve or motivating people to become conservationists or scientists). For me, that walk through the forest this past March reminded me of how old this debate is. I have come to the realization that too often my scientific training leads me to answer any question with, “well, it depends…” and I am not sure that is  always helpful. There are a lot of smart people putting a lot of thought to these issues—from how scientists portray what they do to the public, to powerful outreach efforts to educate folks on how to live with wildlife. But it’s a long road to get people to care about something they don’t even know about (and put money behind it!).  I am reminded of the larger white oak trees we have in Virginia, two of the largest ones in the world happen to be just a few miles from my house. You can drive near them and see them, but you can’t actually walk up to them. Their roots can get damaged if the soil gets compacted, which can result from too many people trampling around underneath and around them. One of these trees is fenced in at an airport, and the other is chained off with multiple no trespassing signs. They are cordoned off because the more people who came to see them, the more. There’s a metaphor in there I think.


For more detail on Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park I highly recommend  The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada

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