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
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
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”