Several weeks ago, my wife and I made our escape from pandemic prison, driving four and a half hours to Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada. Sequoia offers visitors rugged natural beauty and quiet contemplation; a proper place to reflect on events of the past sixteen months and place them in their historical context. While we humans battled a global plague, this forest survived a devastating wildfire in September 2020 that consumed more than 174,000 acres, destroying as many as 10,000 mature Giant Sequoia trees representing up to 14% of the species’ population. It was the most destructive fire in the area since 1297, according to tree ring data. Yet the primeval forest endured.
While COVID-19 and its mutant variants raced across the continent, controversies raged over the memory of a man-made scourge that also killed more than 600,000 Americans. The Civil War has never been a remote or distant event in the American mind. It is an open wound, festering, dividing us as a nation and a people 156 years later. We simply cannot escape its legacy, even in such a remote place — a fact that became obvious to me as I gazed up through massive tree limbs at the largest life form on the planet.
The General Sherman tree towers 275 feet above the forest floor, dwarfing tourists with mouths agape and cell phones held aloft in a futile attempt to capture a natural wonder for their Instagram feeds. This Giant Sequoia was nearly 700 years old when Jesus Christ was born, so it pays little notice to the crudely carved wood sign naming it after some tiny, inconspicuous being who spent a mere 70 years on Earth.
Legend claims that one of William T. Sherman’s former lieutenants, James Wolverton of the Ninth Indiana Cavalry, gave the tree its present name in 1879. Several years later, a utopian socialist colony purchased the land. Disturbed by Sherman’s efforts to subdue and remove Native American tribes in the west, the new owners renamed the tree in honor of Karl Marx. When the fledgling socialist community disbanded upon the establishment of Sequoia National Park, the tree was again named for Sherman. The mighty sentinel did not so much as shrug.
Before the Gold Rush of the mid-nineteenth century, virtually all of California’s Giant Sequoias and Coast Redwoods survived in their pristine, natural condition. Native Americans called them Wawona and considered the large trees sacred. Birds were the trees’ spiritual guardians. With white settlement came logging, which accelerated in the years following the Civil War, slowed somewhat by naturalists and preservationists who recognized these unique landscapes as precious and integral parts of the planet’s biosphere, like the Amazon rain forest. The practice of naming natural features like rivers, lakes, and trees for accomplished Americans sometimes devolved into destructive monument-making in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as Americans’ greed, vanity, and hubris increased.
Following the Civil War, it was not enough for us to erect marble statues and granite memorials to political, military, and cultural heroes in parks and other public places. We began degrading the natural environment to create monuments to those whom the most powerful among us deemed great.
Mount Rushmore may be our most infamous example of cultural insensitivity: destroying treaty-protected Native American sacred space to build a shrine to political leaders. It was environmental destruction on an epic scale. Georgia’s Stone Mountain served as the Confederate counterpoint. The Crazy Horse monument, carved out of the Oglala Lakota’s sacred Thunderhead Mountain, sends mixed messages of Native American pride and natural desecration. Lakota medicine man John Fire Lame Deer lamented that “the whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain” into a statue represents “a pollution of the landscape.”
Meanwhile, protracted battles over the value and significance of Confederate monuments continue unabated across our pandemic-stricken nation. Statues of Confederate military and political leaders are being toppled and relocated from hundreds of public spaces. Confederate imagery, long cherished by Lost Cause revisionists and coopted by modern white supremacists, is being effaced from public view and relegated to museums and private land. Military bases may soon be renamed for loyal soldiers and others who did not fight against the United States Army.
In the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, three huge trees named in honor of Confederate general Robert E. Lee stand as they have for thousands of years. In June 2020, just three months before the devastating wildfire, National Park Service employees removed signage from the Lee Tree (ironically located in Grant Grove) in Kings Canyon National Park, which adjoins Sequoia N.P. Officials claimed that their action would help respect the diverse backgrounds of park visitors. But the rationale for such decisions may be too narrow.
Should we convert timeless works of nature into monuments to glorify ourselves by permanently disfiguring them or insult them by appending the name of some temporary human hero? Public monuments to individuals are tributes and always carry political intent and messaging. Always. They act as symbols of the norms and values of those in power at that time. Furthermore, opinions and appraisals of popular political and military leaders change over the years. Witness the ebb and flow of Thomas Jefferson’s reputation or the current debate over Robert E. Lee’s legacy. Whether or not you believe that Jefferson was a rapist or Lee a traitor begs a larger question. Should we immortalize these mere humans, with their laudable and insidious character traits, and place them on par with the great works of creation? Deify them to satisfy a particular patriotic impulse at a static moment in history?
Perhaps my dear friends at the National Park Service should remove the names of Sherman, Grant, Lee and other mortals from the wondrous groves of Giant Sequoias and Redwoods that grace our treasured landscape. This would not be a partisan political move or an effort to erase or revise history. It would simply recognize our fleeting, humble existence and restore dignity and perspective to us and to our fellow species.
David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General(Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).
 Bettina Boxall, “Hundreds of towering giant sequoias killed by the Castle fire — a stunning loss,” Los Angeles Times, 16 November, 2020.
 U.S. National Park Service, “The General Sherman Tree” Sequoia National Park, http:///www.nps.gov/seki/naturescience/sherman.htm.
 Marc Norton, “The Karl Marx Tree: How Southern Pacific Railroad killed a socialist colony in the name of creating Yosemite National Park,” Red Hills, 27 August, 2014.
 “Crazy Horse and Native American Spirituality,” Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching (blog), https://sowingtheseed.org/2016/10/28/crazy-horse-and-native-american-spirituality/.
 Joshua Yeager, “Sequoia, Kings Canyon to remove all mention of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from parks,” Visalia Times-Delta, 23 June, 2020.