The unlikely survival of the 1,081-year-old tree that gave Palo Alto its name
PALO ALTO, Calif .– It could have changed a long time ago.
On the one hand, he’s a loner, miles from his family, who thrives in much wetter climates. Its massive roots are sandwiched between a concrete wall and railroad tracks. It has withstood the coal and diesel smoke of passing trains for over a century. It has survived record earthquakes and droughts, as well as a less destructive man-made force: graffiti.
El Palo Alto – a 1,081-year-old redwood tree that has long served as the 120-foot-tall symbol of Palo Alto, the town that took its name – is arguably Silicon Valley’s original tech-less startup.
It still exists after almost 11 centuries because it was chosen for reverence, and people tend to have an emotional connection to the charismatic mega-flower with a story to tell, from the cedars of Lebanon in the Middle East to the major oak. which would have housed Robin. Hood and his men in Sherwood Forest. It is El Palo Alto on the official emblem of the city of Palo Alto and the official seal of Stanford University. And it’s El Palo Alto, of sorts, dancing at the Stanford games as the unofficial campus mascot, a wide-eyed costumed tree with limp branches.
“He embodies the pioneering spirit of Palo Alto,” said Walter Passmore, the town’s former urban forester, who tended the tree for nine years until he left office in May. . “Palo Alto has always been proud to be home to innovators, leaders and creative thinking. This is what some people see in the tree.
After decades of near-death experiences, El Palo Alto awaited a final rescue effort that Mr Passmore and others said would secure the future of the big tree. Caltrain, a commuter train line, has plans to electrify diesel trains that rumble about 25 feet from the tree, a move that would eliminate the pollution that pours into them daily.
But the great tree will have to repel the fronds and arrows of its urban location for a while yet. Caltrain’s plan to switch from diesel to electric was due to take place this year, but authorities have decided to postpone it – until 2024.
On a recent visit, Mr. Passmore walked under the branches of El Palo Alto, a damp, spicy land filling the small stream-side park that serves as the tree’s base less than a mile from the ‘city Hall. While he was speaking he had to take a break. The flashing red lights and the ringing of bells at a railway crossing barrier stopped. A minute or two later, a steaming Caltrain diesel was spinning at full speed.
The very existence of El Palo Alto there was a fluke. Redwoods are insatiable rain and fog drinkers, thriving in places with annual rainfall of five to 10 feet. In Palo Alto, less than two feet of precipitation is common. The tree is shorter than before – it was around 50 meters high in the 19th century, but parts of the top have died, probably from coal and diesel smoke – and as a result, it is a pipsqueak compared to other 400ft taller sequoias. And it’s still only middle-aged – the country’s oldest redwood is estimated to be around 2,500 years old.
Mr. Passmore believes that a coastal redwood seed may have been swept from the mountains by the San Francisquito Creek, bought and nurtured over the centuries by the waters of the creek.
Population growth and a flurry of wells have lowered the creek’s water table in recent decades, depriving the tree’s roots of water. Termites and compacted soil added to the decline. In the 1950s, the tree looked thin and sickly. George Hood, an arborist in the city at the time, concocted a plumbing system that sent water to the trunk that bathed El Palo Alto in a mist-like haze.
“He called it a ‘Fool the Redwood’ plan,” said David Dockter, a retired municipal arborist who has helped take care of the tree for more than two decades and still monitors its health. “The redwoods drink from their crown as well as from their roots, and he wanted to trick the redwood into believing it was on the coast, drinking a glass of water each day when the fog came in.”
The wells were plugged to raise the water table. A ground penetrating radar was put in place to check the health of the interior of the tree. A camera-mounted drone was transported to the crown for inspection. And a prism was placed at the top of the tree so that surveyors could monitor its stability.
“So far he hasn’t budged,” Mr. Dockter said. “It would be the first sign that there is movement on the ground.”
Nevertheless, an emergency relief plan was put in place: the seeds of El Palo Alto were collected and planted in 2004 in a historic nursery managed by the nonprofit American Forests, in case the tree would fall and die.
El Palo Alto grows on land that once belonged to the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen nation. It made history in 1769, when Spanish military officer Gaspar de Portola and 63 of his men entered the region on a mission to expel the Jesuits from California. They spied on the solitary double-trunked redwood from a distance and camped near it. They first called it Palos Colorados, which loosely translates to “red trees,” because of the red bark of the redwood. Later, when the second trunk fell in the 1880s, the tree became known as El Palo Alto, a Spanish phrase meaning “the big stick”.
One of the unsolved mysteries in the history of El Palo Alto is that the tree could be some sort of suitor.
“The tree we know as El Palo Alto may not be the tree that Portola camped under,” said Steve Staiger, historian for the Palo Alto Historical Association. “Perhaps it was a tree further downstream that was cut down by a Spanish military engineer to ford the stream.”
Leland Stanford, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad and Governor of California, purchased the land where the tree stood in 1876 for his family home and breeding farm in Palo Alto, where he later founded Leland Stanford Junior University. . The college was named after her only son, who died of typhoid while traveling in Europe at the age of 15.
After the loss of the second trunk in the 1880s, Mr. Stanford ordered that a strong wall be built to protect the remaining trunk, using logs and railroad ties. His widow, Jane Stanford, then had a taller concrete wall built 25 feet high to prevent the stream from pulling up the roots and overturning the tree.
Students at Stanford University held an annual competition to attach the class flag to the top of the tree. The last ascent took place the day before admission day in 1909. It took place as students often do: rather badly.
According to a report from the city of Palo Alto, “the student found himself stranded in the crown after dark and had to be rescued by his comrades.”
In the 1970s, a new tradition was born: asking students to dress up as zany El Palo Alto to stimulate the school spirit at sporting events. The fanfare’s irreverent mascot, called the Stanford Tree, has become so revered that the ancient tree costumes are stored in an air-conditioned room in the archives of the university’s Green Library.
Stanford’s current tree is Grayson Armor, 21, a junior aerospace computer engineering student. He was chosen from a group of “shoots” vying to participate in games with an uninhibited dance, and has already adopted the same unconventional fighting spirit of the tree to which his wide-eyed costume pays homage.
“If you’re the UCLA Bruin, there’s a personality book that you’re supposed to follow and play the character,” Mr. Armor said. “We don’t have a personality book like a lot of mascots. I can do anything I want.