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big tree

21 april 2013

Today's children's books may create the politics of tomorrow. Or maybe they just gesture hopefully towards the politics of tomorrow. Either way, it's easy to see generations of future environmentalists and post-humanists in the rhetoric of Mary & Conrad Buff's 1947 Newbery Honor book Big Tree. (In fact, the book is dedicated "To the children of the future for whom these trees are saved.")

Wawona, protagonist of Big Tree, is a giant redwood. He is unimaginably old, and was even at the time of the pyramids. Yet the project of Big Tree is to imagine his life, even from its inception. The Buffs tell of Wawona's life from a seed packed in the cone of a primordial redwood to his present enormous dimensions. And from Wawona's perspective, the late 1940s might as well be the present. He's described as the oldest living thing on earth, a denizen (most likely) of the Tall Tree Grove in California. But the early chapters of the book see him as a vulnerable youngster: a hero, however sessile, that a young reader can identify with.

Blown fortunately into a clump of earth disturbed by a squirrel, Wawona survives insects and larger predators. His landing place at the edge of a meadow is ideal in terms of sunlight. After a few years, even fire isn't a worry; redwood bark, the Buffs inform us, is proof against fire, parasites, and disease – against everything but the woodman's axe.

The life of a tree is not as thrilling as it might be, so the Buffs intersperse reflections on Wawona's pathetically fallacious consciousness with tales worthy of Disney wildlife films: life-and-death struggles between bucks, fabulous encounters between eagles and bobcats, high-hokum tales of prospectors and flour-covered grizzly bears. It's all good fun, punctuated by the Buffs' restrained and beautiful drawings. (I'm not sure who was writer and who illustrator; no separate credit is given.)

Throughout the book, Man is the bad guy. "He hopes most of all that Man may not cut him down with his sharp axes," say the Buffs of Wawona; "Man is the greatest enemy of forest trees" (10). The climax of the book comes several millennia into Wawona's life, when he's marked for logging until two John-Muir-quoting humans preserve his grove.

Hokey, yes, but in its attempts to get our minds around a 5,000-year-old living thing and its "experiences," Big Tree is profound stuff. The Buffs offer a fascinating sense of how Wawona is not only creature but habitat, and how he outlasts all his individual dwellers. The long now, indeed.

Buff, Mary, & Conrad Buff. Big Tree. 1946. New York: Viking, 1966.