Stage director Peter Sellars recently drove three hours east of San Francisco to see the stump of what was once one of the tallest trees in the world -- the Discovery Tree.
"The stump is a vision from Dante," Sellars said on a break from rehearsals at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House for his new opera, Girls of the Golden West. "It's some wild rage of the spirit world that just is coming out in this twisted scream of roots."
Artists have long romanticized California’s Gold Rush -- just think of the writings of Bret Harte, or of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, The Girl of the Golden West, the title of which Sellars and his collaborators shamelessly stole.
Contrastingly, Girls of the Golden West tells a much darker story of greed, racism and environmental destruction. And at the center of the stage is the stump of the Discovery Tree.
Sellars first heard about the stump, which is located in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, when Girls of the Golden West composer John Adams emailed him an antique etching of it.
The image shows a bunch of well-dressed couples dancing on top of the stump. At around twenty-four feet across -- about the size of a small ice rink -- it must have made for a bucolic setting for the two-steps and waltzes of wealthy nineteenth century tourists.
"I was just stunned because of course it's a shocking image," Sellars said.
This incongruous vision of a bunch of humans twirling and stomping all over the dead remains of one of the biggest marvels of the natural world captured Sellars attention. It spoke to the bleak themes of his opera.
"The destruction of the natural world; the kind of relentless and heartless progress of this idea that the only thing that matters is money, and the Gold Rush of course epitomized that," Sellars said.
The November morning I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park, no one was dancing on the stump. The air in the grove was crisp and damp. I was entranced by the steam rising off the lofty, chocolate-colored trunks.
And then I saw The Stump.
The park gets around 200,000 visitors a year, and Big Trees State Park docent Sanders Lamont said 95 percent of them come to see the 1,200-year-old hunk of wood.
Lamont said word got out about the tree in 1852, when a hunter named Augustus T. Dowd came across it while chasing down a bear. But no one believed Dowd about his find at first.
"Dowd said, 'Man, I've found the biggest tree in the world,'" Lamont said. "And they said, 'Shut up and have a drink.'"
But Dowd eventually convinced a crew to return to the site with him. They were floored, and news of the Discovery Tree spread fast.
"Even in Europe it was a sensation," Lamont said. "And from there on it becomes a story of typical eighteen-hundreds exploitation."
Lamont says sequoias don't make for great lumber and firewood. So some enterprising local businessmen quickly realized they could make money from the Discovery Tree another way: by hacking the giant down and turning parts of it into a traveling exhibit.
The road show failed to make money, in part because the famous impresario P.T. Barnum saw it as competing with his own exhibits in New York City. After Barnum's claims debunking the tree spectacle in the press, it didn't attract enough visitors. Eventually it burned in a warehouse fire.
Back in California, tourism to the sequoia grove and the Discovery Tree's stump took off in a big way, especially when the entrepreneurs added a hotel, a bar and even a bowling alley.
Those giant sequoias, meanwhile, started to attract scientists’ attention. The eminent naturalist John Muir visited the grove on a couple of occasions, and was one of a number of authors who wrote articles calling for the preservation of the trees. Other voices around the world joined the campaign. Eventually the state park system came into being to protect the large trees.
"The outrage over the cutting of this tree sparked the modern environmental movement all around the world," Lamont said.
A full-size recreation of the giant stump — made from wood, foam and resin — takes up almost the entire stage in Girls of the Golden West. It sits front and center for some of the opera’s most cataclysmic moments, including an attempted rape and an angry mob yelling for non-white miners to get out.
The whole thing ends with a baleful aria describing the mess the miners have made of the landscape.
“The whole bar is thickly peppered with empty bottles, oyster cans, sardine boxes," one of the characters sings in the final scene of the work.
But like the role the Discovery Tree played in igniting the public’s conscience about caring for the natural environment, so the opera ends on a slightly positive note -- with an image of the fathomless splendor of the California sky.
'Girls of the Golden West' runs through Sunday, Dec. 10, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. More information here.