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Reading trees

“Do you know what the California state tree is?”

I am standing with Sairus Patel in the little arboretum between the Law Library and the bookstore. Sairus is a typographer for Adobe with grey hair and a gentle smile. He’s also a tree enthusiast. He’s explaining to me the difference between the three types of redwood trees in this small area. “This may be the one place in the world where you can see the Dawn, the Sequoia and the Coast.” He says, plucking off a branch from the Sequoia and then the Coast, native to California, and showing me how their needles are different — one with sharp points, the other softer, curved.

“It’s a redwood.” He says.
“But which type?” I ask.
“Both!” He exclaims.

Apparently, when the state legislature voted on the state tree, they didn’t care to check.

The fact that there are these three redwood species all within 15 meters from each other (and you, as you walk to Cubberly from the law terrace) is naturally implausible — the Dawn comes from China, and the two other trees grow in different places on campus. They’re here because Jane Stanford was also a tree enthusiast. She wanted to make Stanford a site of botanical learning. Sairus runs a website called Stanford Trees and their Environs, a catalogue of arboreal existence on campus, which tries to do just this.

The website is based on a book, which he enthusiastically pulls, in all its spiral-bound glory, from his bag. It was written by Ron Bracewell, an electrical engineering professor in the 1950s and (you may be noticing a throughline) tree enthusiast. The book used to be given, along with the whiff of freedom and promise of prestige, to every student on campus. It’s full of tree walks, detailed descriptions of trees and lifesize images of leaves and branches, diligently copied on the clectrical engineering department’s printer. With the decline of the systematic biology department in the 1960s, study of trees on campus was relegated to hobbydom — an impressive, if not obsessive hobby for Bracewell. As Sairus puts it,  “The book records half a century of a man on campus.”

The back of the book features a picture Bracewell, smiling through a thick white beard, perched on a favorite mulberry tree in the quad.

Sairus flips through the spiral bound, typewritten text that looks like a course reader next to his computer, showing me trees on paper and their online counterparts. He has dedicated his free time to translating and updating the site, no small feat considering the translocations of various trees on campus in the years since Bracewell’s retirement.

The entries range from precise descriptions of the length and shape of something like Pinus Pine: “An attractive tree of very characteristic round-topped shape without an apical leader which, one might say, looks like a stone,” geographical digressions: “In its natural distribution the tree hugs the entire north Mediterranean coast from Lebanon to Portugal” and playful asides, like the one on the White Mulberry: “If you have mulberry leaves you can grow silkworms, which is fun for youngsters as first the worms and then the moths do their own thing.” Sairus and I look over the website together as he shows me his “Now Playing” section, a feature that spotlights a rotating selection of trees on campus. He wants to spread his amateur enthusiasm for these species.

“Julia has done some wonderful things with the website,” Sairus says. My friend Julia is the reason I heard about Stanford Trees and their Environs in the first place. She has taken many of Bracewell’s entries and turned them into poetry, transforming lines of the website into stanzas.

“I’m more concerned with the environmental communications aspect of things — how do you make people care about trees?” Oftentimes for her, that just means calling attention to the beauty, not only of the trees themselves, but also of the language that they elicit.

Her poem, “The Pinus Pinea,” named for the same entry, begins:

“The P. pinea nuts are known
as pinóli, pignóli
(which also means pernickety),
or sometimes
pinóchi, in Italy,
where they are much used in pastries and vegetarian dishes.

was a pine nut.

But why
should a pine
be not
like other pines?

Why should this pine
be broad
and rounded

like a stone,
while other pines are
and taper upwards
to an apex? As a rule,

flowering trees spread their crowns,
while conifers
tend to rise above them as
conical spires;

we may accept this distinction
as one of the many differences,
in leaves,
and wood
for instance.”

Here, the Pinus Pine acquires a personality — it’s persnickety, it’s Italian, and it’s kind of silly. While she’s using the same words, the different form and the repetition highlight moments where a reader might pause to reflect: What makes one pine different from another? There is an existential grandeur to Bracewell’s question that gestures toward concerns of the self — of individuality and difference, what distinguishes one member of a group from another, what makes something like the other?

Bracewell’s writing is not intentionally a work of art, but — as Julia’s reconstructed poems remind us — the act of noticing is artful.

When thinking about trees and pernickety Italians, another line of poetry comes to mind:

“As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, til the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground…” So the famed simile continues to describe the souls in Dante’s “Inferno.” The image comes originally from Virgil (the ancient Roman poet), but Dante uses the leaves to re-interpret theological doctrine: Does one soul return cyclically from one season to the next, like in Virgil? Or is each soul distinctive? In a way, Dante’s leafy metaphor is concerned with the same question that Bracewell’s Pinus Pinea entry raises and that Julia’s poem highlights: What is it to be individual or a part of a group?

Dante talks about the four ways to read his infernal journey: a literal, metaphorical, moral and anagogical, or a sort of spiritual interpretation. In Bracewell’s writing, however, the trees are not metaphorical but rather botanical fact. They don’t stand in for a facet of humanity; they represent only themselves. And thus, Bracewell’s description diverges from a literary tradition that employs nature for largely symbolic purposes. However, the resonances between this Dante’s imagery and Julia’s poem do raise the question: How do we read trees? What layers of interpretation lie beyond the bark? In a way, Julia’s poetry allows us to think of the trees themselves as texts, not anagogical or allegorical meant to express something about us, humans — but that encompass broader layers of meaning nonetheless.

If one were to peel back the interpretive layers of the arboretum, aesthetic beauty would come first. It’s what’s most accessible to us — the shape and texture, the smell and color: a literal reading of the trees.

“But it’s about more than just being pretty.” Julia explains. Take, for instance, the eucalyptus — a tree that is almost as ubiquitous on campus as the name Arrillaga. People love eucalyptus. And, on the surface — that “thin smooth bark that peels off in strips, leaving variegated color patches where the new bark beneath is revealed”— what’s not to love? They smell good, they are used to combat malaria, and (more importantly!) before GovCo was GovCo, it was Blue Gum Lane (a variety of Eucalyptus). However appealing to the senses, the omnipresence of eucalyptus trees on campus can be attributed to a deleterious invasiveness: They compete with native plants for water and sunlight, and when their bark — those long sheets of multifarious red and tan — drops to the ground, it produces a chemical that is toxic to native trees. Something you wouldn’t know if you stopped at the first level of arboreal interpretation.  

Sairus agrees that aesthetic beauty is a way in. But, he explains, “once you see the trees, learn their names, you care more.” He likens a familiar tree to a familiar face. Once you know someone, their features become particular to them, their personality and disposition; it’s hard to mistake them for someone else. But trees aren’t familiar to most people, and a lot of conflation ensues (the Norway Maple versus the Sugar Maple, the White Mulberry and Red Mulberry…).

There are consequences to this kind of misidentification. Some, like the duality of the California state tree, are innocuous (if embarrassing for the 1937 state legislature). However, a large part of conservation efforts begin with identification. If you are familiar with a tree, say the Coast Live Oak, whose distinctively gnarled branches hover over the Treehouse and Coho courtyard, you would know that they’re susceptible to Powdery Mildew, a species of mold that has recently inhibited their propagation. Or that global warming is causing species to change location — migrating to cooler areas.

Thus, the analysis of tree as text expands to encompass a conservational ring, which leads straight into the next: the historical. That same oak whose canopy lovingly guards your beer from the dilution of a drizzly evening also produces an acorn that comprised one third of the diet of native tribes that lived on Stanford’s land before Leland Jr. was a star in Jane’s eye.

The tree connects us to the land; Palo Alto, now known for its expansive tech, was once identified by a single tree — a Coast Redwood. The “tall stick” itself resides alongside the San Francisquito Creek that skirts Stanford’s campus and cuts into the city that now bears its name. That Coast Redwood would go on to achieve great notoriety as the Stanford Tree, usurping the “Indian” in the 1970s (a less tasteful yet incontrovertible element of our institutional history) — and has since transmuted into palms and pines and some imaginative species unidentifiable to even the most sophisticated botanist.

There is a photo, notorious in family lore, of my mother, sleeping outside the (now forgotten) Henry Meyer Library, sound asleep. The picture, taken in spring quarter of 1979, was displayed on the front page of The Daily under the caption ”A Place in the Sun.” Around that library, Sairus informs me, was an unprecedented collection of Eucalyptus trees (not pictured in my mom’s photo, but hovering nearby). When the library — aptly nicknamed UGLY — was demolished in favor of the more aesthetically pleasing sunken circle Meyer Green, architects took note of the Eucalyptus species and replanted it around the diamond.

“They will grow, and people will appreciate the trees that people have appreciated decades before them,” Sairus says. For him, there is a pleasure innate and ineffable in recognizing these trees. And maybe there’s something in this sentiment that resembles Dante’s anagogical, or spiritual layer of interpretation.

There’s also another layer of history contained within the trees of Stanford, and that’s one created by the exchange of language between generations of tree enthusiasts. This is the kind of literary history that exists amongst all kinds of texts, particularly a certain genus of poem, the epic.

Remember, for instance, Dante’s autumn leaves? A few centuries later, they surface in another poem:

“Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In ‘Vallombrosa’”

Here Milton uses the metaphor of the leaves to describe a vast array of fallen soldiers. However, by borrowing Dante’s exact phrase he also has a conversation with his literary predecessor. Dante too borrows the image from Virgil, who borrows from Homer, who perhaps (one can only speculate) borrows from the bald cypress which “in autumn produces cones resembling those of a redwood, except that fall apart as they release their seeds. When the leaves fall they fall in complete sprays.” Each time the leaves change slightly; each author, caught in a web of references, a conversation of sorts, adds new meaning. Tracing this conversation imbues each text with a richness that any one of them lacks when taken on its own.  

Sairus’s website is similarly a series of translations and minor alterations of Bracewell’s original text. “Would Bracewell, for instance call this color pleasing?” Sairus answer his own question about Fraxinus (Ash): “No I think not.” Bracewell, in his nearly objective stance toward the trees, also wouldn’t include the “greedy roots”, an adjectival addition Sairus thinks necessary to an understanding of the tree’s character. “It’s important that you know that Ashes need a lot of water if you’re going to plant them. Especially in areas prone to drought.”

Sairus’s playful pragmatism mingles alongside Bracewell’s self-assurance in Julia’s poetry. With her particular repetition, erasure of other details, she adds her own understated aesthetic into the larger conversation with the past.

“But why
should a pine
be not
like other pines?
Surely the stone pine evolved
from ancestors
that received sunlight falling
from high
in the sky,
while other pines
disposed their foliage on tall masts

suited to collecting light

from a sun
that did not rise
very much
above the horizon.”

Like any poem, trees contain multiplicities, histories personal and philosophical, political and environmental. What’s cool about reading Stanford Trees and their Environs and experiencing the trees themselves, just like in Dante, is that these layers of interpretation can coexist. We don’t have to choose. We simply have to know they’re there.


Contact Emma Heath at ebheath ‘at’

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