Jack Ohman

A California landmark falls in a forest, but its spirit stays

Michigan tourists John and Lesley Ripper pose in 2015 in the Pioneer Cabin tunnel tree, which fell during last weekend’s storms.
Michigan tourists John and Lesley Ripper pose in 2015 in the Pioneer Cabin tunnel tree, which fell during last weekend’s storms. Associated Press file

Sometime in the 1880s, men with axes hollowed out the base of the gigantic Pioneer Cabin redwood tree in Calaveras County so tourists could pass beneath it. The tree was fire-scarred at the base back then, and so it was chosen by men far smaller to become a curio, a place where innumerable photos were taken and family memories, some going back to the Gilded Age, were made.

The Pioneer Cabin tree was more than 1,000 years old, maybe as old as 2,000 – and, yes, you read that right. Sometime between the time Jesus Christ walked the earth and the Norseman Leif Eiríksson landed in North America, a seed took root in the ground and we witnessed its death this week. No one is sure precisely how tall the tree was, but it was estimated at more than 100 feet.

Winds and rain take down countless trees each year, and the Pioneer Cabin tree was no more immune from weather or time than any of us. The tree will be allowed to lie where it fell, remaining part of the ecosystem. With a 22-foot diameter, it will provide a lot of nutrients for the living.

Insects, moss, and other parasites will eventually consume the remains of the tree, which will also produce carbon dioxide as it slowly decays.

Trees seem immutable sometimes; they loom over our homes, provide shade in the sun, and almost have their own personalities. People grieve when an old one goes down; they’re like beloved old neighbors.

A walk through a forest is a snapshot; all trees are standing, the young ones pushing up to the light underneath the old, and you don’t notice the dead ones because you’re admiring the living ones as you look up.

I remember walking with my dad, a U.S. Forest Service plant pathologist, in a Michigan forest in the 1960s. An introvert, he was more comfortable in the woods and more inclined to hear the movement of the branches in the wind than the voices of people around him. A big tree awed him, as it does all of us. Man did nothing to build them, but can take them down in a moment.

He told me about the diseases that can take a tree from us; he was an expert on fungi. I suspect I was one of the few children in America who heard more about tree fungus than baseball from his father. But the walks stuck with me, and I learned about baseball on my own time.

When I see a big tree go down, I think about my dad.

The fallen Pioneer Cabin tree must have reminded thousands of Californians about their dads and moms, too. “Hey, remember when we walked under the Pioneer Cabin tree?”

Trees don’t get tombstones, and they are not buried. They are their own memorials in death.

You can still visit the Pioneer Cabin tree. It’s just doing something else now. You can admire it fallen, too.