“Even though they are big and beautiful,” I said. “They aren’t the trees people mean when they say the City of Trees. People think of elms and sycamores in neighborhoods.
“Cottonwoods pretty much grow along our rivers. My favorites are along the Sacramento off of 35th Avenue. So many of them growing tall with all that space for light play fit the wide expanse of river there. Everything is majestic.
“I feel I am in a different world. It’s quiet, especially when leaves flutter in the wind.
“I like to sit looking at the reflections of the trees in the shady water, then to the sky beyond the levee.
“It’s a place to live the moment, sitting with your feet in the water watching the river flow, thinking of your failures as you feel lucky to be surrounded by what is most important. You imagine you see your kids on the other side of the river standing on the levee going off to pursue their dreams, or returning from the big sky on the other side to tell you how their dreams turned out.
“You think of people who came here who couldn’t wait to see the confluence of our rivers. They’d make their way through the cottonwoods, seeing a big bend in the river in the distance, the sleepy trees and brush leaning over the water.
“They’d wonder what was ahead for them, around the next turn, why life is usually lived going upstream, if they would ever learn to flow and go where their power and beauty takes them.
“At the confluence they’d sit together. They’d see water sparkle and light play on leaves and trunks. They would wonder if people could merge like this.
“At night in summer they’d walk through the trees to where the rivers meet, turned on by the shape of the cottonwoods’ trunks. They’d smell damp earth and dry grass. ‘The kids will love it here,’ they’d whisper.
“They’d walk faster, horny from heat and hanging vines, loving crickets and the stars between trees.
“You think of what it must have been like when they saw the water through the trees, how badly they wanted to come together.
“From the edge of the trees they’d sit and talk things over, about what it means to merge, to create something basically like you but greater and more beautiful. All night they’d linger, their future twinkling in the sky. They’d watch water from the mountains ease toward them. They’d let their past flow away in the dark.
“They’d dream of giving everything they have, of being there forever for each other.
“It must have been scary, trusting on something as fickle as nature, knowing that things could not always be contained, that they would surge over the boundaries, that some years one flow would trickle and only one of you would sustain everything.
“There must have been times when they’d wander alone along one of the rivers wondering what happened, grateful for their children, walking until the stars came out, until dawn, when they were as far from the confluence as they’d ever been.
“The strong one left behind would look to the mountains for strength, asking why they all weren’t there with the mountains and rivers and trees – everything you could ask for.
“I ask myself all the time why a freeway is over the confluence, why we call the merging Discovery Park when it’s too noisy to discover love and permanence, things that are most important and we desperately need.
“I think of the weak one wandering back to the confluence, the passion they both felt as they watched the mountains, vowing to be true to themselves.
“They’d think and dream about the kids, knowing time was moving on like the rivers, hoping everybody would age like cottonwoods.
“It’s difficult,” I said, “to feel graceful like cottonwoods when I watch the river flow and see the mountains. My dreams were huge.”
“Have we always been the City of Trees?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” I said.
“When the pioneers starated rolling in, Sacramento had trees everywhere. People valued the trees for the shade. Remember there weren’t swamp coolers or fans in those days. But they also needed trees to build and to use for fuel. A lot of people who got here didn’t have a place to live. They built fires against the trunks of the trees. That’s how big the trees were.”
“Then the trees fell over,” he said.
“I guess so,” I replied. “I guess property was damaged and people killed or injured when fires finally burnt enough of the trunk so trees fell, or were so weak when the rains and floods came they got knocked over.
“A lot of trees burned in the citywide fires of 1852 and 1854. Between the cutting and the burning, we weren’t the City of Trees we were when we started. The settlers though, needed trees for shade, even if they didn’t need to build anything else and they had a wagon to haul fuel in from somewhere. They started planting trees everywhere.
“I don’t know when we became the official City of Trees. We started getting famous for our trees in the 1880s. When C. K. McClatchy returned from Paris in 1911, he wanted to make us a city of trees like Paris.
“When I look at art from the 1800s that depicts Sacramento, the name I see is The City of the Plain. It’s a lithograph by George Baker done in 1857. The inscription under the lithograph reads:
A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW OF SACRAMENTO
The City of the Plain
“So he got his image from looking down from the mountains?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There weren’t airplanes. Maybe there was a three story building he viewed the valley from.
“What amazes me is his detail. The lithograph depicts the trees in town to be part of an overall tribute to the precision of city planning and commerce on a flat wilderness. Baker has the space between Sacramento and the mountains all flat. More like geometry’s plane than grassland. He considered a plain to be boring, rather than teeming with life like Indians and John Muir did.
“He makes it look like a vast distance of flat to the mountains, but it’s only ten miles to where the hills start in Orangevale.
“It seems to me he never stepped from his office to see the area a few people marveled at. There’s another bird’s-eye view of Sacramento done in 1870. I don’t think Baker did it, but the same sense of emptiness between town and the mountains exist. The two lithographs captured the boredom of the rice fields in the next century, rather than the home of wildflowers and buzzing bees that Muir walked through and lusted over and slept in.
“I like a painting done in 1849 by George Cooper. It has a lot of trees towering above buildings. Through the trees are the mountains. The painting is exciting and mysterious. It makes me think of how neat it would have been to live here and be part of the adventure.
“The lithographs of 1857 and 1870 make me feel that Sacramento would have been a great place to watch the mountains but a boring place to live.”
“Or the sky,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Without any trees, the sky would have been more important,” he said. “People would have been forced to watch it.”
“There’s a guy who agrees with what you said,” I said.
“Go on,” he told me.
“He wrote an article in a local weekly paper in the 1980s. He said the old timers planted trees so they would not have to see the sky and be overwhelmed by God. I think he was saying that all the talk about God that the pioneers brought with them was put to the test after they destroyed the trees and had to look up and see God go up and out forever. It scared the shit out of them.”
“Kind of like you’re implying the grassland scared Baker,” he said.
“Right,” I said.
“So they planted trees to forget about their fear?”
“That’s what I think he was saying,” I said.
“What do you think?”
“What do I think?”
“I think people feared the plains and the sky. The fear they had from crossing the Great Plains and sailing on the ocean they brought with them here. I think they liked the sky at night, but the vast sky in the daytime was too much. It’s too bad. The Sioux saw the prairie as divine. The ancient Athenians loved to look at the vast sky and the ocean from their city. The ancient Irish saw spirits in trees. We didn’t see trees as divine when we cut them or when we planted them.
“We had it all going for us. Except for the fifteen years between 1855 and 1870, there were good sized trees. If you lost interest in looking at the trees, you could walk to the edge of town and climb one to look out at our great grassland and the mountains and peep through a space between branches to the sky. God was everywhere.
“I see God everywhere like the Spaniards wanted to name something after the Blessed Sacrament. The Spaniards didn’t see nature as divine, but they loved God. They were on the right track when they gave us a sacred name. Of all our names – The City of the Plain, City of Trees, River City, Capitol City, Camellia City – Sacramento is our best. What we need to do is adopt a sacred outlook to go with our sacred name. We can pray to our rivers and use the grass under oak trees as places to make love and have a baby.”
“And look up to the sky together when we finish doing it to thank God for life,” he said.
“Yes,” I choked.
“It sounds great,” he said. “How will you get it to happen?”
“I won’t,” I said. “But think of this.”
“We can’t focus on rivers or trees because they are right here for us to touch and linger with. We don’t know how to touch or linger. We’re always reaching for the future. A view of the sky and the mountains symbolizes the future. The sky is limitless like the future. The mountains are monumental like we hope our future is.
“You can’t walk to the edge of town anymore to climb a tree to look to the mountains and all that sky between us and them. What you can do though is find a building with a view. If you work in a big office building you can walk out to the hall during break and look to the sky and mountains aching for your retirement. If you’re way up on one of the top floors where you can see the rivers and a few miles of trees too, you might feel magical, that life is really pretty good and your kids will be rich and famous like the mountains and all your grand kids will have a blast playing in our urban forest.
“We’re a city of everything. We always have been. That’s where our potential lies, in allowing everybody a view of what we have – our mountains, trees, rivers, the sky, the valley.
“We have the relatively new justice building. Supposedly the grand view is for the jurists, not reserved for the judges. Our next steps are to move the five floors of our library to the twenty-sixth to thirtieth floors of the newest skyscraper. Then we can have public parks on the roofs of future skyscrapers. Everybody who wanted a grand view could have one.”
“It sounds like you don’t get a view,” he said.
“The only view I’ve had was when I went to Sac State,” I said. “On my way to talk with my professors, I’d stand in the hall if it was winter and look to the mountains. It was beautiful.
“I didn’t think of my future though, of having a cabin in the mountains; a penthouse apartment; a private office with a view from the top. I thought of the past, when the air was clear and there were no suburbs and I could walk all over the valley and up into the Loomis Basin.
“Even in the old days,” I continued, “people didn’t focus on walking. They rode a horse, or on a wagon or buggy, a riverboat or train. Today we ride in cars. Our name the City of Trees would mean more if we walked. We could have a mystical passionate image of our city from walking and wondering, rather than a teenage lust to put Sacramento on the map that we have now.”
“But we don’t walk,” he said.
“No we don’t. It’s too bad because walking is one of the most important things if a city wants to be great or magical. With all our trees you’d think people would be walking around filled with wonder or excitement, but like you say, we aren’t.”
“So how do you get to see everything?” he asked.
“I don’t,” I said. “I take what I get. When I lived in Midtown I’d take the bus to see a friend off of 65th near Fruitridge. It was too far to walk, especially with all the cars and few trees.
“The ride through the old part of town and past Land Park is pretty with all the trees. Then you get to the end of the park and look south to all that sky. On clear days it’s great.
“I loved going out there in February and March when it’s clear and windy. I d get off the bus at 65th. As I crossed the street I’d look to my right and left – the Sierras looming bright white and the Coast Range a dreamy silhouette.
“When I got across the street I’d walk real slow past the cemetery to watch the spring grass blow. I’d stop and look. Then I’d start walking, turning to the sky to the south, then to the Sierras. When I got to the corner to turn off, I’d stop and gaze back to the Coast Range.”
“What about the rivers?” he asked.
“I get there when I can,” I said. “The bus ride through the trees, then out to all that sky and the views across the valley and to the mountains was and is beautiful. I feel lucky.”
“Yes,” I said. “I like to go to Capitol Park and look at the trees.”
“Italian Pines and Deodar Cedars,” I said. “Why’d you ask?”
“Because I was coming out of the candy shop on L Street across from the capitol. I noticed a beautiful tree across the street. I stopped chewing my candy to look because I was shook up. I walked over to see it. There was a sign on it like on other trees. I worte the name down – Pinus pinea – Italian Stone Pine – then I put my note pad away and looked for a long time. I touched it. When I didn’t think anyone was looking, I kissed it because it was beautiful to me. I was in a daze the rest of the day. At home I started to tell my wife about it but I started to cry. ‘They’re so beautiful and muscular!’ I cried. I couldn’t go on.”
“They fill me with passion too,” I said. “I know what you mean about trees being muscular. When I look at how bulging and powerful and peaceful Italian Pines are, I become aware of traffic on L Street. I feel and see all this power and motion, but traffic has no beauty and no peace. Even on weekends when it’s slow, there’s an uneasy stillness from the ugly buildings on L Street.
“I get sad like you do. I never had the courage to tell someone and to cry to them about it.
“There have been times I couldn’t look at them because they make me aware of peace I don’t have and power and beauty I am afraid to use.
“I watch people during lunch walk by the pines without looking at them. The Deodar Cedars you can’t help but see. The Italian Pines, even though they are huge, are easy to not pay attention to.
“I’m sure there are people who love them like us. A lot of people probably struggle with themselves as they see the beautiful powerful trees, knowing they have to return to the office to have their spirit murdered. They want to quit work to be free, but know they can’t. The trees keep them alive, yet they become more and more aware they’re dying a slow death. There are probably days they can’t bear to look, just like a man without a lover sometimes can’t look at somebody beautiful.
“There’s always somebody who loves their job, who can look at the pines and be aware of life’s preciousness, then allow it to make them love their job more.
“What did your wife say?”
“She cried with me. It isn’t that she loves trees. After we stopped crying she said, ‘That’s how I felt when I had the kids.’ We cried after that too. We hugged longer than we we ever have.”
“The guy who planted the pines,” I said. “I wonder what he felt?”
“What do you mean?”
“B.B. Redding. He was married with kids. He was mayor here in 1856. He was a philosopher, statesman, theologian and scientist. In 1870 his doctor told him he was working too hard and needed a vacation. He and his wife went to Europe. In Italy they saw Italian Pines.
“Being in a country with all that culture and history, and seeing those beautiful trees, must have moved him like they do me and you. He had vision to bring specimens back to plant around the perimeter of the capitol. There are only a few left. I guess he thought their grandeur would suit the elegance of the capitol. He was right.
“I wonder, since he was getting older and needed to restore his health, how much he realized he could never express and never feel when he saw the trees. It’s kind of a tease. Feeling greatness we can never attain, but wanting to experience it anyway and wanting other pople to experience it. What’s great about Redding is he lived a dynamic life and was a great man. I guess he thought the rest of us could be inspired to be great in our areas of interest and with our personality.”
“You know the buildings across Tenth Street from the capitol, the ones with the quotations that are profound?”
“The buildings were constructed after Redding died. It’s too bad because he lived the quotations. One of the quotations is Bring Me Men to Match My Mountains. The other is Into the Highlands of the Mind Let Me Go.”
“Are those from ancient times?” he asked.
“They’re from modern poets,” I said. “I think it was masterful planning to plant Deodar Cedars on the front lawn of the capitol, then construct two grandiose buildings across from them. After looking at the two buildings and being jazzed reading the quotations, you become more inspired walking over to the capitol with the gigantic cedars from India, a place with more and bigger mountains than we have.”
“It’s a little overwhelming. Isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “The elegance of the three buildings; the eloquence of the quotations; the majesty of the cedars and the beauty, peace and power of the pines probably makes a lot of people afraid to set goals because we know we could not come close to what we just saw and felt.
“But I think there’s more to this than that. The buildings and quotations appeal to our ego. We see the buildings and wish we were a Greek or Roman or southern aristocrat. We read the quotations and we want to be great because we know there are only a few people like Redding who match the mountains and get into the highlands of the mind.
“The trees, as humbling as they are, play second fiddle to the buildings. Our tremendous passion to express, be ourselves and be free is overwhelmed by our desire to compete and be better than.
“It would have been better for everybody if the buildings had different quotations. If one building read Speak Your Truth and Only Your Truth, and the other read Listen to Your Neighbors Truth, we would all feel free and powerful at the same time we felt part of the community. There are a few people like Redding who will stand out among their contemporaries no matter what, but the important thing is for everyone to feel part of a community. We don’t have that.
“Imagine reading quotations like those I made up. It’s a healthier challenge to accept ourselves for who we are than to try to be great beyond our abilities. We’re unhealthy because we refuse to live our truth.
“You know that row of ugly buildings on L Street?”
“They stand for the grandeur we don’t live and the passion and expressiveness we deny. We can’t live the stateliness that we see in the capitol and the two buildings on Tenth Street, but we easily live the lifelessness and constraint of the ugly buildings.
“It’s a struggle for me,” I continued. “When I see the quotes on the buildings I want to be great, to be an important person who knows everybody at the capitol. When I see the trees, I feel I am not livng my passion and beauty, or if I’m confident, I’m inspired to continue to live my truth and be my self. The ugly buildings make me rage because they aren’t great, scare me because they are ugly and make me sad because they stifle my freedom and expression.”
“I don’t know what I’ll do when the last of the Italian Pines blows over or is cut down.”
“We can plant new ones,” he said, “Like Mr. Redding did for us.”
“Sycamores are one of the prettiest trees in Sacramento,” he said.
“Most everybody feels the same way,” I told him. “The trees are all over Midtown, East Sac, Land Park and Curtis Park.”
“I think they come from London.”
“Some do. Some are native to California,” I said. “Sycamores grew along the banks of our rivers. They were here when Sutter came.”
“So they left the sycamores along the river and planted the trees from London in town?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“Well what happened?”
“There were a lot of trees along the shores of the river where the people who came after Sutter settled. In 1847 a guy wrote in his diary that Sacramento was ‘a town in the woods, with the native trees still waving over its roofs.’
“But people cut trees for wood and built fires against the trunks of others. Finally in 1853, the last tree that was native to the plain came down. It was on oak.”
“Then they started planting more natives?” he asked.
“No,” I said. Actually they planted Calilfornia Sycamores in 1850, way out of town at Sutter’s Fort Burying Ground where Sutter Middle School is now on I and Alhambra.
“Sutter gave up ownership of the land in 1849 and 1850. Dr. R. H. McDonald bought the land. He named the cemetary New Helvitia Cemetery. New Helvitia means New Switzerland. Sutter came from Switzerland.”
“So Dr. McDonald planted the trees?”
“Nobody seems to know. But we know that the trees on the school’s lawn at the corner of Alhambra and I are the oldest in town. McDonald could have had them officially planted, or someone who had a loved one buried there could have planted them.
“There was a lot going on. A nursery owner named James Warren was selling non-native trees to replace the natives that had been cut or burned down in town. Over at the graveyard beyond Sutter’s Fort, the guy who bought the land from McDonald in 1857, J.W. Reeves, made a beautiful cemetery with trees and shrubs and flowers. The cemetery went all the way to H Street.
“Cemeteries were a big thing in those days. According to Gary Wills, they were considered parks where the living could go and commune with the dead, themselves and nature. Cemeteries were on the edge of town not just for health reasons, but as a symbolic meaning that death is the end of one world and the beginning of another. At the edge of town in the graveyard, the living were in a spot between both worlds looking out to the wilderness, wondering where their loved ones were and what their own death would bring.
“In 1875 the City gained ownership of the cemetery. From then on it was maintained less and less. After 1912 hardly anyone was buried.
“In 1908, the people who had moved out that way wanted to increase the value of their property. They eventually got the cemetery planted in grass so it would look better, and not so much like a cemetery.”
“And of course the sycamores kept growing?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “I find it interesting that somethng intended to be sacred could become an eyesore and a nuisance in just thirty years.
“While the property owners wanted walls, shrubbery and trees removed from the graveyard, people in Midtown between B and H and 21st and 23rd started planting London Sycamores. That was around 1910.
“The London Sycamores look better than the California ones. They grow taller and fuller. Nevertheless, next time you’re backed up on Alhambra waiting for the light on H or J to change, look to the trunks of the big California Sycamores on the corner of the lawn at I Street. They are beautiful. If traffic’s slow enough, you can sit through a couple of lights and really get an appreciation for the trunks subltleties.”
“So in spite of development, sycamores still stand above everything like they were planted to do?”
“A lot of them have been cut for skyscrapers,” I replied. “Even where they’ve been allowed to remain, it’s hard to notice them because the buildings are real tall.
“There is an intriguing one on the southeast side of the Wells Fargo Building. It leans way out into the street. It breaks up the orderly row of trees and the rigidity of the two tall buildings. I noticed it when I was walking from the parking lot. Even though I was going to be late for my meeting, I decided to sit on one of the benches and look at the tree.
“It got me thinking about the present – what a great city we have. It got me thinking about the future – how important it is to keep our old sycamores so we can enjoy them, and how important it is to plant new ones so they will be tall when the old ones come down.”
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