The tree that adorns the seal of Stanford University has become the school’s unofficial mascot. It dances at rallies and games, marches in the band and is, at any given moment, emblazoned on the clothes of thousands of admission hopefuls, students (themselves called “trees”), proud parents and alumni. Its fame began when, in 1769, Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portolà became the first European to sail into San Francisco Bay. As Portolà and his men sailed south, they fixed their gaze upon a single towering redwood alone on the otherwise barren California coast. Under this giant they made camp and bestowed upon it the name “El Palo Alto,” “the Tall Tree.” From that time and for more than 100 years to come, the Bay Area was best described as “mostly bare” with “hills covered in places with low shrubs,” devoid of the dense, foggy forests for which it has since become known.
Today, however, El Palo Alto is hidden in the city to which it gave its name and is overshadowed by younger, taller trees. These were planted by the icons of the 19th century’s Age of Progress; individuals who embraced forestation as a way to beautify Bay Area communities and provide a lasting gift to future generations. For this task, they chose a variety of trees, principal among them were the many species of eucalyptus, renowned for their fast growth, unparalleled height, resilience and staggering beauty.
Joaquin Miller, “Poet of the Sierras” and founder of California’s Arbor Day, planted eucalyptus by the tens of thousands on his property in the Oakland hills. Adolph Sutro, one of the first mayors of San Francisco, planted eucalyptus trees throughout the city and created the “cloud forest” that now adorns Mount Sutro in the heart of San Francisco. Frank Havens, the East Bay real estate developer, planted them by the tens of thousands, too, throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. And Leland and Jane Stanford, the founders of our uiversity, planted species of trees from all around the world to beautify the Stanford campus. The Stanfords gave eucalyptus trees pride of place by adorning the 1.6 mile “Governor’s Avenue” that ran from their home to Lake Lagunita with 1,000 Tasmanian blue gums, just one of the 134 species of eucalyptus they planted on the Farm. With their towering heights and distinctive shape, the many eucalyptus that now adorn our campus have become, even more than El Palo Alto, integral to the identity of our university, just as the millions of eucalyptus planted throughout the Bay Area and much of the State have become iconically Californian.
Today, however, the fate of the eucalyptus is uncertain. Only 50 of the original 134 species survive on campus, the rest having succumbed to droughts, freezes and parasites. One would think that the death of these trees, which represent a living historical legacy and lie at the heart of the University’s distinctive natural beauty, would be a cause for grief. But when asked once to comment on the loss, the campus tree crew coordinator dismissed concerns, stating that, “Not everyone cried.” Instead of pledging to double their efforts to save the trees, those tasked with their care casually dismiss their deaths. This disregard and ill will towards eucalyptus is tragic not only in its shortsightedness but its contemporary ubiquity.
All across the Bay Area and much of the state, eucalyptus, once beloved and celebrated, are under attack. At present, the City of Oakland, UC Berkeley, UCSF, the East Bay Regional Park District and the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department are actively engaged in killing healthy eucalyptus by the hundreds of thousands, the very eucalyptus raised from seedlings by Miller, Sutro, Havens and other early Bay Area naturalists. Those spearheading the clear-cutting are not the usual suspects, such as loggers seeking to profit from their wood or builders seeking to pave over habitat. Instead, those that claim the mantle of “environmentalism” are leading the crusade to demonize the trees and convince policymakers to seek their destruction.
Their reason for doing so stems from a belief shared by Stanford’s tree caretakers: “Eucalyptus doesn’t belong here.” Why do they believe this even when the founders of the University clearly thought otherwise? These proponents of deforestation claim that because eucalyptus originated in Australia, they are “non-native,” a pejorative term that suggests the value of a living thing can be reduced to its place of origin. In other words, they speak the language of intolerance, based on an idea we strive to overcome in our treatment of our fellow human beings.
Under the nativist philosophy, whatever benefits these trees may confer are disregarded in favor of a narrow litmus test of worthiness — that is, whether or not a particular species’ distribution conforms to artificial borders erected in the human imagination. When it comes to eucalyptus trees — gentle giants that provide habitat for wildlife, trap particulate pollution, sequester carbon and give our campus and region their iconic character — their myriad of benefits are secondary or irrelevant to the fact that they are deemed “foreigners.” Not only is such an attitude in tension with a century of progress based upon our state’s diverse population, but it is in tension with the very ethos of our university. As we were told time and again during New Student Orientation, Stanford prides itself on furthering diversity and inclusion in its student body, bringing people together from around the world to create something new, grand and beautiful — the same goal that was embraced by the Stanfords when landscaping the Farm.
Although proponents of the nativist ideology consider changes caused by transplanted species to amount to harmful “invasions,” these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In reality, introduced species do not cause losses in biodiversity, rather they often increase it. Eucalyptus trees, specifically, further diversity by their own presence and by allowing for a more diverse ecosystem to thrive in their shadow. A survey taken in Berkley’s Tilden park found that 38 different species live beneath the canopy of eucalyptus forests, compared to only 18 in oak woodlands. And while eucalyptus will continue to thrive here and preserve the natural beauty, redwoods, like El Palo Alto, must move north to Oregon if they are to survive a warming climate. Given these facts, an embrace, rather than fear or disdain, of “invaded” ecosystems, such as that which exists on the Stanford campus, is essential to not only diversifying nature but preventing its loss.
We should recognize that the eucalyptus are one of the many treasures of our campus. And we should cherish them, not only because they provide a living legacy to our university’s founders but because eucalyptus trees are the gift that keeps on giving: shade, oxygen, habitat, beauty, a bulwark against climate change, and a reflection and a reminder of that which is best about Stanford University — an embrace, rather than fear, of diversity.
Contact Willoughby Winograd at willjw ‘at’ stanford.edu.