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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Jared Farmer presents on California’s environmental history

On Thursday, March 20, an audience representing numerous academic disciplines gathered in Founders Gallery to hear Jared Farmer “speak for the trees.” Instead, Farmer’s lecture revealed how humans speak through the trees, interpreting major historical events on each of the many rings they contain.

Farmer’s presentation focused primarily on Sequoiadendron gigantium, the mammoth sequoia trees of California, and the various reasons and ways in which humans have historically connected with these coastal giants.

“Scientists and non-scientists alike have wondered what trees would say if trees could speak,” Farmer said. “Unavoidably, these . acts say a lot more about us than they do about trees.”

Aided by travel guidebooks, 19th century American nature writers, and documentation of scientific research, Farmer was able to develop a chapter in the history of American interest in the huge West Coast conifers.

“Initially the buzz was all about size,” Farmer told the crowd. “But over time, the focus shifted to the age of the trees.”

Thinking about their tremendous age “became the vehicle to the sublime,” as Farmer put it.

Farmer’s personal research involved looking at how age affected the ways in which the trees were personified.

“These trees saw the deluge; they saw the crucifixion; they saw Luther; they were here to receive Columbus,” said Farmer.

There is a trend to cut wedges from these huge trees and display them with a linear timeline leading from the center outwards. Farmer catalogued as many examples of this as he could find as a way of studying what events were chronicled along the trees’ rings.

“We study tree rings because they manifest our two main conceptions about time, linear time; living, growing, dying, because that’s what trees do, but also trees use a cyclical time,” Farmer said. “They’re aware of the change in the seasons.”

Damon Akins, assistant professor of history, said, “In short, he ‘read’ these museum exhibits as a narrative, looking at what it tells us about what we value as a society – e.g., what sorts of events were included and which ones weren’t.”

Tom Guthrie, assistant professor of anthropology, was also present at the lecture.

“He was using these trees to get at how people think about history, especially because with the timeline, people were imposing historical narrative onto these trees, in kind of weird, interesting ways,” Guthrie said.

Farmer’s lecture gave Mark Justad, director of the Center for Principled Problem Solving, cause to consider the different ways human beings think about time.

“It’s an interesting contention that the Western Christian mindset tends to look at time in a linear fashion, not so much in a cyclical one, so these timelines on the trees made perfect sense to me in terms of Western culture,” said Justad.

The most common historical events depicted on the tree trunk displays included Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the Declaration of Independence.

“These are very nationalist histories, very imperial histories that really don’t have anything to do with sequoias in California — but these trees are allowing people to tell these stories about the greatness of America,” Guthrie said.

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