Agencies for Utopia: Subverting Technological Consumption
During the turn-of-the-century, the redwood landscape was viewed in two primary ways: as a resource and a superb American tourist destination. By 1880, vast portions of California’s wilderness had sold to logging and mining companies, and visits to Yosemite, and other big tree resorts became increasingly practical . The photographs and postcards circulating during this time advanced these commercial views of the landscape. Portraits of loggers next to thirty-foot-wide “trophy” trees became the quintessential view of industry, while postcards of tourists in wagons traveling through a tunnel-tree circulated in editions of thousands. However, while images of the redwood landscape marketed specific sites and trees as well as mythologized logging, a new vision of the landscape was developing. As part of the arts and crafts discourse of the turn of the century—a movement spawned by a philosophical backlash against the disrupting effects of industrialization—the aesthetic value of an interconnected landscape—the experience of nature as a boundless expanse of rivers, valleys, animals, and trees—overshadowed the monumental praise of specific trees. In addition, figures such as John Muir, the mythical wanderer who explored the Sierras on foot and who adamantly opposed commercial exploitation of the Sierras, set the tone for an ecological understanding of the redwood landscape. Inspired, early environmentalists groups and institutions such as the Sierra club (1892), the Sempervirens Club (1900), and Save-The-Redwoods-Foundation (1918), along with the Universities of Stanford, Berkeley, and Santa Clara University brought these new philosophies of the redwood landscape into a public dialogue. As a result, the visual images these groups produced became compositions prioritizing the aesthetics of redwood landscapes in their natural condition.
Andrew P. Hill
Leading this cause was Andrew P. Hill and the Sempervirens Club. Named after the coastal species of redwood Seqouia Sempervirens, the Sempervirens Club was made up of local academics—chemists, mathematicians, botanists, and civil engineers, from Stanford, Berkeley, and Santa Clara and through their efforts preserved California's first State Park, Big Basin. But, without the group’s leader Andrew P. Hill it may not have been possible. Not only was Hill an impassioned activist but he was also a commercial photographer. During the 1890s he documented much of early Santa Clara County for journals and magazines. He photographed livestock, particularly Santa Clara’s fine poultry, as well as the subject for which he would come best known, the coastal redwoods between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz.
The impact of logging redwood had become noticeable to the communities growing in and around the Bay Area. Steep hillsides and ravines in Santa Cruz—previously considered impossible to log, became available with advancements in steam technology. In 1899, a major forest fire erupted near the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos. Hill photographed the burning trees for a London Newspaper where the editors marveled at their size.
For the remainder of Hill’s life, he used his documentary practice to provided one of the greatest contributions to the early 20th century environmental movement. As one of the founding members of the Sempervirens Club, the visual contributions of his practice was a unique facet of a dynamic group of individuals, but without a particular incident involving Hill, the Sempervirens Club would have never formed.
On assignment, Hill took the train from San Jose up into Felton, a small logging town in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to take photos of the famous John C. Fremont tree, near the property of the Big Trees Resort. As the story goes, Hill set up his tripod, and began taking photos when Joseph Welch, owner of the resort, intervened. Welch asked Hill to leave, and offered to sell him souvenir pictures available in the Big Trees Resort gift shop. Hill’s frustration with the encounter is noted in his memoirs.
“I was a little angry, and somewhat disgusted, with my reception at the Santa Cruz Big Trees. It made me think. There were still fifteen minutes until the train time. Just as the gate closed, the thought flashed through my mind that these trees, because of their size and antiquity, were among the natural wonders of the world, and should be saved for posterity. I said to myself, ‘I will start a campaign immediately to make a public park of the place.” I argued that as I had been furnishing illustrations for a number of writers, whom I knew quite well, that there was a latent force, which, when awakened to a noble cause, would immediately respond, and perhaps arouse the press of the whole country. Thus was born my idea of saving the redwoods.”
Like the photographs of the Sierra Big Trees produced by Carlton Watkins thirty years earlier, Hill’s photographs became factual documentation of the California redwood landscape. Both practices of landscape photography developed out of the medium’s origin as a visual method used to surveys the western landscape during the 1860s and 1870s and evaluate the lands for economic resources. How Hill and Watkins deviate from the underlying consumptive purpose of photography is where a difference in their work can be comprehended. In 1863, Watkins was hired to document the logging industry town of Mendocino. In a time when Mendocino could only be reached by ship, the photos he produced of the mill, town, wildlife, and people imagined a harmonious and investment-worthy relationship between nature and industry. In contrast, Hill’s work in 1900-1901 subverts the exploitive role of photography by framing the redwood landscape as valuable in its natural state. This is shown in this image of a small pond and waterfall in the Big Basin area, its unremarkable qualities are its strength. The waterfall is miniature, and the two figures are neither posed nor affluent, but it was this pedestrian quality of spending time in the redwood landscape that Hill wanted to capture, and the reason Hill’s photography functioned in the campaign to preserve Big Basin. When Governor Gage signed the California Redwood Park bill on March 16, 1901, and stated, “Now poor and rich alike might enjoy the pleasures of these grand groves of nature,” Hill received much of the credit.
The motives behind Andrew Hill’s photography were different than those of commercial redwood photographers and tourists of the time whose commercial exploitation of redwood trees and sites were defining public knowledge. Hills work was revealing an endangered enviroment. Instead of producing images that championed individualism over nature, he asked the public and State politicians to understand the old-growth redwood landscape in its natural condition. In this way he attempts to subvert the inherent qualities of the photograph as a comodified object, and a commodifiying object, to communicate a nature aesthetic that attempts to orvercome a message of technological consumption.
Andrew Hill used the technological advancements of photography and print media to promote the natural conditions of redwood landscapes, and it was convincing. At the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY in May 1901, Hill debuted an eighteen by two foot panoramic view of forty trees in the proposed park area composed of thirteen negatives side by side on one roll of paper. But could the physical use of redwood lumber, like photography also promote the natural conditions of the redwood landscape? The work of Bernard Maybeck would have you believe it could.
By the early 1900s, the coastal redwood had become a valuable building material. The moist ocean climate and soil encompassing the trees enrich their core with phenolics and tannins—protective elements that resist fire, termites, and shattering. Coast redwood was used in dozens of applications, as fence posts, telegraph poles, railroad ties, trestles, bridges, piers, pipes, coffins, exterior shingles, interior siding, and stadium seating. It was particularly popular in the climates of Central America and Hawaii, where, as window frames the wood remained straight despite the humidity. Its heartwood, compressed by hundreds of years of growth, was valuable in early water systems: flumes, dams, storage tanks, and, amazingly, whole pipes made from entire logs turned and hollowed. For fifty years redwood pipes with a diameter of twenty four inches and clamped with iron rings, brought water five miles from the artesian zone between Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers to Long Beach.
Maybecks’s comprehension of the material however, transcended general consumption in the same way that Hill’s photographs differed from that of the tourist. Like Hill’s use of photography for activist purposes, the use of forms in the architecture of Maybeck was considered eclectic. On the one hand he borrowed structures of the past, such as chalets, and tent-like gothic roofs—forms connoting traditions and cultures from the past. But the vigor in which he adapted such forms to new materials, such as redwood, generated contemporary and unique results that transcended the status of redwood lumber as a comodified object. In the two-story chalet design for “Grayoaks,” a home built in 1906 for the lumber baron J.H. Hopps; the different methods of redwood-use compliment each other. The ceiling, being made with “rough sawn-boxed beams with visible blade marks add to the primitive quality of the room,” while the interior siding—polished redwood paneling and shelves, are elements of sophistication.
The different use of redwood throughout the interiors of Maybeck’s work shows that he considered not only the way people experienced spaces of a home differently, but how redwood as a material could adapt to those experiences. The relationship between the experience of the material and environment is seen in the exteriors of his homes as well. Nowhere is this better represented than in the Club House Maybeck designed for the Bohemian Club. Located on 160 acres of redwoods North of the Bay Area, the Bohemian Club was a one-room building located on a ridge and raised up into the air on stilts. Shingled in three-foot sections of redwood bark, the building seemed, “as deeply rooted to its site as the trees that surround it and even pierce its eaves.”
Through his use of redwood, Maybeck appropriated the natural state of the redwood landscape. He selected unique burl patterned boards made from the deformed undulations of tree-bases, and when he did use paint, it was mixed in earth tone hues to compliment the natural red and gold color of the wood panels and beams. By fully investigating the textural, and material qualities of redwood, as well as their placement in the landscape, his buildings became symbolic of the natural conditions of the redwood landscape and its role as a resource in California.
Both Hill and Maybeck shared a fascination with the ‘reality’ of the redwood landscape—a utopian ideal achievable through a balance of industry and nature. Each attempting to escape what John Muir describes as being on the world: “Most people are on the world, not in it. - have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them - undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”
Hill and Maybeck, as well as conservationist clubs such as the Sierra Club, and Sempervirens Club, sought integration with the natural redwood landscape during a period when the landscape was increasingly being consumed by logging. A third party championing the aesthetic qualities of unspoiled redwood landscape was the Save-The-Redwoods-League, which formed in 1919. The efforts of the Save-The-Redwoods-League to preserve trees along the newly established Redwood Highway bound together an unlikely pairing between the appreciation of old-growth redwoods, and technology through auto-tourism.
The media of the Save-The-Redwoods-League, “embraced the automobile as a tool with which to build a constituency for the redwood region.” Their earliest logos depict cohesion between the road, the automobile, and trees. Campaign photographs show members standing with their cars holding signs that read “Save The Redwoods.” As Gabrielle Barnet explains in her essay Drive-By-Viewing, Visual Consciousness and Forest Preservation in the Automobile Age, ‘The Redwood Highway became the conceptual spine of the preserved forest, as roadside preservation practices reinforced the nostalgia of redwood motoring…fusing utopian vision of the future with images of a distant, mythical past.” In its beginnings, the Save-The-Redwoods-League, embraced the view of the automobile as a means appreciate the natural redwood landscape, however by the end of the 1920s preserving this utopian vision became a struggle to mask logging from drive-by viewers through a roadside visual management policy. The “pre-modern” experience of slowly traveling along the highway through the forest was eroding as automobiles became faster, and traffic from tourists and logging trucks increased.
The environmental aesthetic developed through the redwood highway, the architecture of Maybeck, and the photography of Hill utilized the same contemporary tools of comodified cultural progress that was spoiling the unspoiled landscape, namely, the photograph, the automobile, and the lumber industry. Although the work of Andrew Hill, Bernard Maybeck, and the Save-The-Redwoods-League, show that within space of technology is an agency for imagining a utopian relationship with the redwood landscape. Through these examples we can determine that it is not images, or image making or media that are the root cause for the destruction of the redwood landscape but rather how images were used and perceived.
(details/ formatting forthcoming fyi)
Through the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, ten million acres of land was sold for two dollars and fifty cents per acre. The idea of the Timber and Stone Act was to aide the prosperity of thousands of small land-owner-loggers. But in fact, large companies sent recruiters to California, to make purchases. In one case, The California Redwood Company, a company controlled by Scottish investors, recruited 400 locals and sailors to lay claim on 46,000 acres land, and sell it back to them for a large return. “Farmers were stopped on their way home, merchants called from their counters and sailors lured from border houses and brought to the Land Office where land claims were filed for them. A shake shanty, often transportable, would be set up on a man’s claim, to represent the homesteader’s home. Then the homestead changed hands for a few dollars…Thus the government –and the American people—allowed the most valuable timber lands in the world to pass into the hands of a real or phony homesteader for a song.”
As public redwood landscapes were transferred into private hands, both legally and illegally, late 19th century technological advancements made logging the massive Coastal and Sierra redwoods a far more reasonable practice. Innovations such as the steam donkey-- a mobile steam engine that wound up the tentacles of steel cables pulling logs along skid roads—replaced the jobs of horses and bull teams. Similarly, steam engines and pulleys formed early craning systems and bulldozers.
While most of the logging occurred(s) in the coastal groves, it has been estimated that twenty percent of the original old-growth Sierra redwoods were also logged. Articles promoting the timber capacity of Sierra redwoods, such as this one printed in the New York times in 1875, were written prior to the realization that the Sierra redwood trees—some measuring forty feet in diameter—shatters it’s own brittle timber as it falls, rendering it nearly useless. “This forest (Sierra Redwood) is so extensive, the timber so abundant and excellent in quality, and the demand for it so great…that it cannot be withheld from the axe and the saw-mill.” In defending logging practice the article states, “ It was wise in Congress to make a reservation for pleasure purposes of the Mariposa Grove, which is near Yosemite…but the Tulare-Fresno forest…cannot be converted into a public reservation.”
In 1888, Hiram C. Smith and Austin D. Moore—San Francisco lumber merchants—illegally but systematically purchased thousands of acres of Tulare County land and formed the Kings Lumber Company. By 1891 two high-altitude lumber mills began churning out planks of yellow pine, mountain pine, sugar pine, redwood, and cedar. Chutes erected along hillsides and across valleys brought the wood from the high-altitude mills 54 miles down to the main mill. After the first season, logging in the Sierras proved to be a challenge. The expense of the mills, railroad and flume were not being made up quickly enough to make their loan payments. For this reason a railroad was extended into the Converse Basin—five thousand acres of Sierra redwood forest, where, as Hank Johnson describes in his 1966 book They Felled The Trees, “the whole affair was all for naught…to fell big trees in rough terrain, (and) chute them to the mill for cutting…was a waste of time in felling timber that shattered beyond salvage, and a waste in blasting logs that split into kindling.”
The effect on the landscape was catastrophic. In 1903, renowned conservationist Gifford Pinchot visited the Converse Basin and observed, “It is true that lumbermen in America are second to none in skill and ingenuity, in the perfection of their tools, and in the effectiveness of the methods they have devised. However, it is unfortunately also true that at the present method of lumbering are tremendously destructive, wasteful and costly.”
Smith, Michael B. "The Value of a Tree: Public Debates of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot" Historian 1998 60(4): 757-778. Issn: 0018-2370
de Vries, Carolyn. Grand And Ancient Forest: The Story of Andrew P. Hill and the Big Basin Redwood State Park. Fresno Valley Publisher 1978. Number 363 of 500
John C. Fremont tree story here
Saving the old trees in Big Basin was a media driven campaign. It was driven by a new philosophy of ecological stewardship, but without the cooperation of H.L. Middleton, “the largest stockholder of Big Basin Lumber Company,” they couldn’t have even explored physical region of the Big Basin area, let alone save 2,500 acres of it. Middleton, who was willing to sell 40,000 acres at $100 dollars per, exemplifies a business-minded compassion for preserving old-growth groves somewhat typical of private landowners during the early 20th century. With their willingness to sell land, a balance between conservation and industry was created to satisfy a basic aesthetic consideration for saving local groves.
Example: Mt. Tamalpais Muir Woods, Roosevelt, William Kent, Antiquities Act, National Monument, 1908-295 acres, now 550 acres and most visited redwood site.
Waldie D. J. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Waldie D.J. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Woodbridge, Sally B. Bernard Maybeck, Visionary Architect. Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, London, Paris. 1992 pg 73