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The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich

The biggest Eucalyptus tree is not Clint Eastwood’s Blue Gum in Carmel, but the Alexander Cockburn Tree in Petrolia. A team of scientists showed up with measuring devices officially validating and registering its 56 foot circumference , vast canopy, and champion status.

Cockburns friends in Petrolia gathered at his grave site for a champagne seance (party) on a Saturday afternoon.  Some one would remember an incident like Alexander arriving in an old giant Chrysler with a trunk full of firewood and the lid secured with a bungee cord.  This would trigger a stream of reminiscences — laughter filled the cemetery.

There were a dozen of us–and many children.  The children remembered Alexander’s handmade casket, the deep hole, and lowering him to rest.  Where is he now asked the youngest?  I pointed to where the casket was buried.  He immediately wanted to dig him up.  Austin was 4 at the funeral and is now 7— it was the kind of memory that sticks!    I explained that the roots of the giant Eucalyptus had already captured the coffin and Alexander too.  Six silent children looked at the ground and then up at the tree. They immediately rushed to the tree and tried to climb up.  I filled my class with champagne (from the 2nd bottle) and followed the flock.

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The branches of the Eucalyptus are bigger than the trunks of most trees and climbing proved difficult.  Finally, we discovered a route up and kids were in the tree and soon hiding in its deep crevices.  Suddenly a van pulled up — doors opened –and out streamed a half dozen people. A man walked directly  to the tree and introduced himself.  He was a professor from Cal Poly –here to measure the tree. I said I’d suspected they might be Christian missionaries here to throw a pall over our cemetery frivolity.  I said we were all visiting our friend Alexander’s grave.

The scientists set about their task–the long tape measure around the trunk—more than 56 feet.  He said they’d recently visited the Eastwood tree and ours was much bigger.  Then out came the little helicopter/drone to measure the height and canopy.  Our children were suddenly hooked on science—they surrounded the scientists with a dozen bright eyes.

While all this unfolded a long procession of motorcycles filed by like a procession!  Did we stage this?   Everyone commented  that Alexander was bored by our talk and decided to spice things up.

The Australian Eucalytologist said there were taller Blue Gums in Australia but none bigger in circumference.  The scientists came to  see Alexander’s monument and photographed it.  After they walked a little off and put their heads together briefly–they returned to tell us the tree would officially be named the Alexander Cockburn Tree.  All of us—scientists and friends–posed in front of the tree for our official family photo.

Hearing the scientists name the tree was silently absorbed by wide-eyed children.  This was for them absolute confirmation that the  tree had swallowed Alexnder!  The magic of words and naming things was still fresh with them.  Nine-year-old Spencer whispered to me that the grave stone should be in the tree with Alexander.  ‘In the center of the trunk”.

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“Truth 5 cents a copy; Dynamite 50 cents a pond”

This innocent tree naming brought to mind the naming of the biggest redwood.   The Karl Marx Tree was named by the Kaweah  Communist community founded by San Francisco radical Burnette G. Haskell.  He was a founder of the Seaman’s Union and published a newspaper called The Truth –whose motto headlines this section.  Impatient with waiting for the revolution, they decided to start living as communists right away.  They moved down to Tulare County and soon were exploring the great  groves of Sequoia Redwoods and  decided to cut down and mill only young trees and preserve the ancient giants. The groves they named and saved are today the park thousands of visit every year.

Their fame attracted Communist donations from around the country. Of course, one man’s fame is another man’s kiss of death. The Southern Pacific Railroad.  They wished to cu downt all the trees, ship the lumber by rail, sell the land to settlers, turn the Tulare river into an irrigation ditch, and Lake Tulare  (the biggest lake west of the Mississippi!) into a dust bowl.

The outcome?  The famous “Stump Meadow” with over 100 stumps more than 2000 years old.

The Kaweah settlers were charged with illegally cutting tees (!!!) and their land title challenged by the biggest crooks in the history of California.  The only great trees surviving were those saved by Kaweah, which became the present park.

The Karl Marx Tree became the General Sherman Tree, as a fitting symbol of Southern Pacific’s scorched earth policy.

The tragedy continues–with all the surface water gone, with all Northern California’s water dumped into the expanding Central Valley salt flats and wastelands.  With the soil actually dropping 1-inch a month as all groundwater is extracted. But this great tragedy is another story.

A final note.  In July of 1950 Christopher Isherwood drove Igor Stravinsky up to the Sequoias.  As they approached the trees Isherwood explained : “We’ll be in lot of small birch trees and suddenly look up and there they’ll be –high above us.”

Stravinsky nodded in full understanding and at once said  “Like Shostakovich in the Hollywood Bowl”.

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Joe Paff is the chairman of the board for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity. He lives in Petrolia.

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