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Google Trekker Shows the Way to Living Memorials

Sempervirens Fund maps 60 miles of hiking trails in Big Basin, enabling those who've dedicated redwood trees and groves to virtually visit the park.

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Oct. 29, 2015—The first time Jacqueline Wender dedicated a redwood tree, it was for a fellow student at Stanford who had died of cancer. “It was a very shocking thing to happen,” says Wender. “I was probably 21 or 22 and just sort of felt this need to do something.”

A longtime family friend suggested memorializing the fallen comrade with a planted tree. The concept of a redwood, planted by Sempervirens Fund for the 1970s-era student-friendly fee of $25 (now $50), as living memorial spoke to Wender. “The idea that you were creating a lasting, long-living tribute to someone was something I found tremendously comforting and satisfying,” she says. When a beloved uncle died unexpectedly a few years later, Wender again spearheaded a tree planting. Her aunt’s emotional and grateful response confirmed her earlier sense: “OK, we’re tapping into something fairly deep here.”

The grandeur and longevity of redwood trees make them remarkable memorials. Photo by Miguel Vieira.

The thousands of individuals and groups who have dedicated redwood trees through the Sempervirens Fund tribute program apparently agree. Since the 1960s, the organization has planted 23,000 trees and facilitated the dedication of more than 6,000 mature redwoods and 300 groves throughout Big Basin, Castle Rock and Butano state parks. People dedicate trees in memory of loved ones, to commemorate weddings or victory over illness, even to honor pets. One divorced couple, their sense of humor admirably intact, dedicated a stump.

Planted trees are not individually identified; you wouldn’t be able to go visit yours. But dedicating a mature redwood, which can cost $1,000 to $15,000 depending on size and accessibility, means your tree will be marked with a plaque and its location recorded in Sempervirens Fund’s extensive system. Groves get signs and are registered with the state of California. Many people develop deep attachments to their trees or groves, journeying to them annually. One donor visits his tree each week.

Some donors, however, live in other countries, while others aren’t as mobile as they once were. Still others might want to know how the forest has changed before making a pilgrimage to their tree or grove.

A view of the Trekker as worn by Sempervirens Fund tribute program manager Amanda Krauss. Hilltromper photo.

Soon donors will be able to virtually walk the trails in the parks where their dedicated redwood trees and groves thrive. In August and September 2015, Sempervirens Fund teamed up with Google Trekker to map 60 miles of trail in Big Basin, including Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail and 29 miles of other trails. In a few months’ time the footage will be available through Google Streetview at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Just as importantly, the video information will allow new donors to see what the park looks like. And while many dedicated trees and groves are not directly on trails, viewers can still get a sense of the area.

“I’m a visual person,” says Amanda Krauss, administrator of the Sempervirens Fund tribute program. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to show these places.’ Then I read about what Google Trekker was doing with the state parks and I thought, ‘This is what we need to do.’”

Google Trekker in the Land of Giants

On a cool September morning, Krauss and Sempervirens Fund volunteer Paul Davis meet in the parking lot at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. After studying a map of the park, they highlight today’s section of trail, near the Blooms Creek campground. Standing on the ground next to them is what looks like the offspring of an external frame backpack and Robot from Lost in Space.

Google Trekker weighs about 40 pounds, and it’s a little top-heavy, meaning that whoever’s wearing it needs to pay attention when ducking branches. The sphere on top contains 15 cameras to film the famous 360-degree view. For this reason, a Trekker shlepper must always travel alone, lest a hiking partner become a permanent feature of the park on Streetview.

Sempervirens Fund dedicated grove signs are made from reclaimed wood by the state parks department so as to fit in with other parks signage. Photo courtesy Jacqueline Wender.

Though I’m not allowed to operate the Trekker, Krauss lets me try it on and walk a short ways with it. It’s heavy, and the oddly distributed payload takes some getting used to. Davis assures me that no matter how brisk the morning, Trekker schlepping has a way of warming a person up. Just last week a wrong turn on a trail turned a several-mile hike into an 8-mile journey that left Davis, who is a fit and outdoorsy kind of guy, knackered.

And now it’s time to get down to business. Krauss and I hold the Trekker while Davis wiggles into the arm straps. Belts are cinched, straps adjusted. Krauss and I take off first, and when we’re out of sight, Davis turns on the Trekker's recording apparatus and starts hiking.

Krauss and I talk about her job as we walk. She often arranges dedication events for people—ash scattering, anniversary visits and the like. She helps them figure out how to reach their trees and groves, secures permits if those are necessary and makes sure they remember to carry snacks and water. These events can be very emotional, she says. “I feel honored. It’s almost like they’re inviting me into their home.”

Redwoods as Living Memorial

Sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood, is uniquely suited to fill the role of living memorial. Its name literally means “sequoia always-living,” a reference to the long life span—up to 2,200 years—achieved by some individual redwoods. But it could also apply to a feature of the redwood life cycle that verges on the mystical.

A classic human's-eye view of a redwood forest. Photo by Daniel on Flickr.

When a mature redwood is fatally burned or is cut down, it sends up shoots from its root system, effectively making genetic copies of itself that manifest as a circular “fairy ring” of younger trees. A single organism can persist in this way for many thousands of years, its DNA spreading slowly across the forest. In a sense, then, redwoods never have to die. This makes them the perfect symbol of the eternal.

Since the late 1970s, Jacqueline Wender has dedicated numerous mature redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains through Sempervirens Fund. She and her husband have dedicated trees to siblings and friends; Wender’s father has dedicated trees to his siblings and friends; and the Stanford chemistry research group run by her husband, chemist Paul Wender, has dedicated an entire grove.

For Wender, a former administrator at Santa Clara and Stanford universities who now serves as vice president of the Sempervirens Fund Board of Directors, redwood dedications speak to our yearning for meaning in a way that is refreshingly nondenominational. Like Thanksgiving, it’s something everyone can relate to.

“This is a way to produce a tribute, a memorial, that's full of life and hope but has no connection to any religion whatsoever,” Wender says. “This is free of it."

Plus, let's face it: they're magical.

"There's just something so uplifting about that iconic image of looking up at the sky, looking up this fantastic straight tree trunk and seeing the branches and the needles catching the sunlight at the top," Wender says. "I do think that's something that grabs people's imaginations."

Tribute trees make unforgettable gifts for weddings, holidays and birthdays, as well as memorials to loved ones. To learn more about dedicating a redwood tree or grove, visit the Sempervirens Fund Tribute Program page.

—Traci Hukill

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