The Phoenix  by Roger Behrendt

This is a story of a log, a wildfire and an artist who captured the spirit of those who traveled in the shadow of this magnificent tree.

The Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego mark a division between the desert in the east and the ocean to the west. The high elevation and proximity to both the wet ocean air and dry desert air create a very unique environment.  It is here that one of San Diego’s oldest trees gave up its ghosts in the Cedar Fire of 2003.  This particular pine tree got its start as a seedling in the mid 1500’s.  The tree eventually stood near 150 feet tall with a trunk so thick that it would take several men to encircle it with outstretched arms.

If this tree could tell its history, it might go something like this: “I have lived for over 450 years and have provided shade, comfort and oxygen to many friends. The Kumeyaay Indians lived with me for most of my life. Together we met the Spaniards, who showed up when I was a young whipper snapper of only 216 years old. Their missionaries were a religious people trying to change my Indian friends into something they called “God fearing”. My Indian friends saw a growing number of visitors, all claiming to own the dirt and water that gave me nourishment. The Spaniards gave up their claim to my soil to Mexico when I was 268. Mexico gave me to Don Olvera as part of the Rancho Cuyamaca land grant when I was 293.  This whole land ownership squabble reminds me of the fleas I hear arguing over who owns the dog.

Next thing you know, the Mexicans are fighting with new frontiersmen called Americans, and my soil becomes part of the United States of America in 1850.  I am now almost 300 years old. During this time, my Indian friends have become very few in numbers, as many of them have lost their lives to illnesses their medicine men could not treat. I cherish the time I lived with these people, and their spirit will always whisper threw my needles.

The next 50 years got pretty busy around here, and I was lucky to have survived. The Pony Express, the telegraph, the railroad, the loggers, the Kelly Ditch Trail and the Julian Gold Rush stirred up a ruckus.  It seemed like everyone with an ax or saw was up here cutting timber to take to someplace. A lot of these workers were a new kind of foreigner from China.  In 1870, about the time they found Gold in Julian, I was only 320 years old, and just entering my prime.  I still miss many of my tree friends who took the ride down the Kelly Ditch Trail to help build mine shafts, homes and hotels. I’d bet my lower branches that many of my best friends were used to build the Hotel Del Coronado, which opened in 1888, when I was 335.

It wasn’t long before the industrial revolution showed itself with airplanes overhead and cars on the ground. I’m told that the Wright Bothers in 1903, and Henry Ford in 1908, got this started.  I am now 355.  Things got quieter around here for awhile as many of my American neighbors were called to war. WWI  in 1914 and WWII in 1939, I am 386;  Korea then Vietnam Wars, in 1950’s and 1960’s, I am 407. These wars took many of my American friends and, like the Indians, their spirits rest with me.

Throughout my life, there have been so many to keep me company; not only the men and women, but the animals and the plants. Of course, I would not be here if it  were not for the sun and the rain, but I’m particularly impressed with the Horses, who like us trees, quietly and majestically carry the loads for men.

During the 1960’s and through the millennium change, I saw a wave of new neighbors to these mountains. These newcomers built homes and lives. I’ll admit that I was again nervous, but I’m happy to report that none of these folks came at me with a chainsaw. I was feeling increasingly secure as it seemed that my girth was intimidating the would-be sawyers.  My big surprise came with the fire that ended my life in October of 2003.  I was 450 years old.  

The 2003 Cedar Fire was not just a forest fire.  It was the largest and most devastating wild land fire recorded in California history as measured in lives lost, homes destroyed and acreage burned.  Sixteen humans lost their lives fighting the fire or trying to escape it. I will remember them like my Indian friends and soldier friends whose spirits rest with me. This fire destroyed almost all of the animals and trees which were my neighbors and friends. It destroyed habitats and homes. It crushed the spirits of many who survived, but would never recover. Their spirits rest with me!

It’s 2007 now, and it has been over three years since the fires took my life.  My spirit is challenged, and sometimes dominated, by the anger and angst of my passing and of those who rest with me. But a most unusual thing has happened to me.  A man found my timber and he has helped me to reconcile my life, enabling me to reflect on that which I have seen and fundamentally respect.  The sculptor saw within my timbers the spirit of the friends that rest with me. He symbolized us as a challenged rearing stallion, as we are strong, we are majestic, we are sometimes angry and we will fight!  We are of power, of hope, of resourcefulness, of initiative, of kindness and of love. The family of spirits that rest within me is bigger than just me, and has been captured in the likeness of this giant stallion. So now I have a name. I will wear it proudly for myself and for my Indian friends, my Spaniard, Mexican, American and Chinese friends, my Cuyamaca friends, my animal and plant friends.  We are “The Phoenix” !”