Monster Tree

Several of the collections staff are starting to work on an exhibition for next summer on “the west” in fiction and reality. Right now we’re combing through the collections to find the objects we want to use and this handbill made my day when my colleague Karen Schoenewaldt showed it to me last week.

Mammoth-treeLaid into Moxon travel diary (1855) AMs 760/24This handbill was part of a collection of materials assembled by a western traveller in the 1850s. He collected everything from stagecoach timetables to cocktail recipes on his journey, making for a fascinating assemblage. The idea of a “Vegetable Monster” was what grabbed me about this piece and as I read through it the breathless 19th-century prose only got better. Potential tree-viewers are reassured that a Senator, the owner of the Adams Express Company and “numerous other gentlemen of undoubted veracity” could testify to having seen the tree in the ground and they are informed that the tree is worthy of “universal admiration, not only from its unrivalled magnitude but from the straightness and symmetry of its bole.” All that and a brass band to boot–don’t forget that “Haywood’s Splendid Quadrille Band” will be in attendance! For some reason I was having trouble getting the picture above to come out large enough to read it all, so I’ll reproduce an excerpt below: Mammoth-tree excerptLaid into Moxon travel diary (1855) 760/24On a more serious note, reading this handbill reminded me of the Ken Burns National Parks series, which I recently watched on PBS. In this handbill the fascination with the gigantic trees of California is manifested in cutting down a tree for display and profit, despite the fact that”it is supposed that there are not more than one hundred of these great trees in the state,” but in the following few decades this fascination would lead to the creation of parks such as Yosemite. It is also interesting how consistent the language is that is used to describe these trees; the idea that these trees were “saplings[s] before the first stone of the Pyramids were laid, and was contemporary with Moses and the Prophets” comes up over and over again–similar sentiments appeared repeatedly in the Burns documentary and even in the American Museum of Natural History, which displays a slice of a giant sequoia cut down in 1891. Something about the immense antiquity of these trees is irresistible to us.Whether this handbill ends up in the exhibit or not remains to be seen, but it was way too much fun not to share.