Reviewed by Annie Powers
Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.
Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.
California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.
Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.