California’s Napa Valley, famous destination for wine-swilling tourists, is also home to a small forest petrified by volcanic ash 3.4 million years ago. The lesser-known cousin of stone forests in Arizona and Yellowstone, the Petrified Forest near Calistoga advertises itself as the place where you can (the gate says) “See Worlds Largest Petrified Trees,” ancestors of the redwoods. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—this hype, the forest itself might seem disappointing.
Take the trees that first come into view. These seem to testify to the apocalyptic geological event that preserved them for millennia: bark peels to reveal spindly red branches, as though the eruption of nearby Mount Saint Helena was not just volcanic but nuclear, stripping skin from veins. But the map included with the price of admission indicates that these are just manzanitas, molting as they do every year when baked by the California sun. The “petrified” trees that give the forest its name are initially indistinguishable from, well, just regular trees. A faint grayish-pink mottling is all that signals their transformation into stone.
Visiting the Petrified Forest has been an anticlimactic experience since it first became a tourist attraction in the late 19th century. In 1871, a Swedish homesteader named Charles Evans noticed a log on his property that was strangely hard, like a rock. He made his discovery available not just to scientists but also to the public, for a small admission fee. One of Evans’s first visitors, the Victorian author Robert Louis Stevenson, described himself as “mightily unmoved” by the place; he even generalized on the basis of his trip that “sightseeing is the art of disappointment.”1 Nineteenth-century newspapers celebrated the Petrified Forest as “one of the wonders of the State” even as they admitted that the grandeur of its name “conveys an erroneous impression, for there is no forest nor any petrified tree in a standing position.”2
Although the Petrified Forest may be slightly more scenic now than it was over a hundred years ago, something of this characterization remains true: the petrified logs lie in glassy puddles, or are broken into smaller pieces and scattered along the trail. Volcanic ash embedded in the soil, as the map notes, resembles nothing so much as concrete.
However, it may be this very quality of anticlimax that makes the Petrified Forest so symbolically rich and resonant, both for the Victorians who discovered it and for visitors in 2022. Like a blank slate (if the pun can be forgiven), the Petrified Forest absorbed the projections of 19th-century writers ambivalently nostalgic for a world lost to industrial modernity. Today, it reflects, perhaps, our imagined proximity to climate apocalypse—a transformation of the earth that is both sudden and yet almost imperceptibly slow.
The main trail through the Petrified Forest is a half-mile loop, with the option to extend your trip by another half-mile on the Meadow Trail. Along the way, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Saint Helena, framed picturesquely between two trees. It is hard to believe that this serene mountain, dimpled with shadow, could have been responsible for the explosion that almost instantly destroyed the surrounding countryside, prostrating the redwoods and smothering them in ash. The Meadow Trail ends in an ash deposit so large it is almost a mountain itself, bristling with new plant growth. The ash fall is whitish-gray, spangled here and there with quartz particles and stained with circles of rust. Irregularly distributed, like a poorly fluffed comforter, the terrain challenges you to imagine the ash in its liquid state, mowing down the trees in its path like so many clothespins.
The petrification process was not instantaneous, however. Instead, it was a collaboration between a few moments of upheaval and deep time.
The trees lay buried for thousands of years, protected from oxygen and bacteria, nourished by mineral-rich water. The water infused the trees with silica and then evaporated, leaving the grain of the wood preserved in perfect detail as the trees were turned to stone. Touch them (the signage does not forbid it) and you will understand: the bark feels cool and smooth against the skin, sculpted by the elements. Some fragments even have patches of minty patina, as though nature were imitating the decay of art.
The fallen redwoods are, in terms of their size, as impressive as their names: the Giant, the Queen, the Monarch. These trees are 6–8 feet in diameter, and 65–120 feet in length. The Tunnel Tree, protected by a wooden scaffold, stretches so far back into the earth that you cannot even make out where it begins.
But no less impressive is the new growth. Scrappy, blackened saplings fight their way through the bones of the dead trees; a living coast live oak sits at the head of the Queen like a crown. Moss lines the grooves of the petrified wood pieces left in their natural state. A sign reports that caretakers clean them by hand each year, but the moss always grows back, creating living ecosystems out of the dead.
In recent years, wildfires have ravaged California, saturating the air with smoke and reducing the sunlight to an eerie orange glow. In fact, parts of the Petrified Forest itself burned in the Tubbs Wildfire of 2017. That’s why it might be tempting for locals to see the Petrified Forest not just as our past, but as our future—a future we are moving toward at such a comfortable pace that, at times, we can almost forget that it’s happening.
One day, our wooden houses—like these ancient trees—may be preserved for millennia under ash. But winding through the forest on a fall day, after the fire season has ended, that world without us is hard to imagine. Deer graze at the head of the trail, moving so slowly that from a distance they seem almost still, their gray-brown bodies just barely distinguishable from logs. The stripes of shadow hugging Mount Saint Helena’s side look like the impress of three fingers, as though she were molded by some giant, unseen hand. The mountain was there before us, and it will be there after us still, watching new things grow out of the ash-strangled earth.
Even as the Petrified Forest evokes a future when our own civilization is buried in ash, it conserves our ability to imagine the past.
The Victorians who discovered this place were less afraid of the future than they were of forgetting the past. For them, the new trees that sprouted up from the old ones signified not progress or rebirth, but decadence. An article in the Manitowoc Pilot from 1875 described the Petrified Forest like a “cemetery” in which “the stateliest trees were embalmed to last forever, while those of smaller growth were allowed to mix again with mother earth and lose their identity.”3 Twenty-five years later, at the turn of the century, petrified forests still seemed to represent species decline: “It seems as if the smaller trees and undergrowth of to-day are now feebly trying to hide from sight the dead giants of the older times.”4
Writing about the petrified trees preserves glancing references to the indigenous population that Spanish and American colonialism had displaced. An 1877 article in the Vancouver Independent described the jagged edges of a log, suggesting that it must have been “hacked with an axe, probably made of obsidian.” This observation leads the author to denigrate the local native American population: “man was in California before the birth of Mount St. Helena even,” and “was of a type superior to the people who inhabited it at the advent of the European, for he knew how to fashion cutting tools.”5
A whole history is compressed in that sentence: the indigenous population of Wappo Indians had been all but driven out of the Calistoga area by the late 19th century, decimated by warfare and European disease. While the author marvels at the preservation of an ancient forest, in half a sentence he wipes out the dignity of the people who first encountered it.
For Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scot newly married to an American, the Petrified Forest inspired somewhat facetious reflections on the loss of ethnic purity in an age that facilitated international travel. For the Petrified Forest to come into being as a “pure little isle of touristry among these solitary hills,” a Swedish settler who had worked as a sailor in Scotland and other parts of the world had to come to America and make good on the American dream.6 It is the figure of Charles Evans who interests Stevenson the most, more than the “tangled, briery hillside” that constitutes the forest itself.7
In his account of his travels in the Napa Valley, The Silverado Squatters, Stevenson writes of Evans: “Here was a man, at least, who was a Swede, a Scot, and an American, acknowledging some kind [of] allegiance to three lands… But, indeed, I think we all belong to many countries. And perhaps this habit of much travel, and the engendering of scattered friendships, may prepare the euthanasia of ancient nations.”8 Stevenson’s remarks have some irony, given his own liminal status as a Scot by birth, an American by marriage, and author of numerous travelogues. However, the disturbing mention of “the euthanasia of ancient nations” contains a hint of the same nostalgia, put more crudely in the newspapers, for a time before the modern age with its steamships and telegraphs, before its international immigration and cultural melting pots.
The loss represented by a visit to the Petrified Forest could also be figured not ethnographically but historically: the ordinariness of the Petrified Forest as a place prompted reflection on the limits of what humans can know about the past. Scientists and reporters were fascinated by the possibility of unlocking mysteries through attention to detail: each tree had a history, encoded in its perfectly preserved rings, its “long and straight splinters,” its “knot holes and fractures.”
Nonetheless, it was difficult to get a clear image of a world without us on the basis of these particulars: imagination was necessary to fill in the gaps, because the fallen trees “present a picture and suggest a story which the most facile pen cannot describe” (as the San Francisco Call put it as late as 1910).9 A turn-of-the-century article about Yellowstone described petrified forests as similar to Herculaneum and Pompeii, since both were embalmed by volcanic ash. However, the author notes, Herculaneum and Pompeii, themselves ancient, pale in comparison to trees preserved for millennia: “The 1800 years since the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed these cities, is as but a day compared with the vastly longer periods required to pile up those strata until nearly half a mile thick… It has taken a century or more for man to uncover the small portions of the buried cities, but how short a time compared with the ages of sunshine and storm at work uncovering these buried forests.”10 Here nature appears in the role of both destroyer and archaeologist on a larger-than-life scale, piling up and dispersing the strata of ash across periods of time that defy the imagination.
The author in 1900 concludes, however, that the imagination is precisely what is at stake in environmental conservation. Both nature and man’s efforts to preserve forests—living and dead—must be respected, because our ability, however imperfect, to envision the past might otherwise be lost: “We need to save the few living Sequoia groves we have left with us, to help the imagination carry us back to those earlier scenes on our planet.” It would be a “crime” to allow such trees “to be destroyed merely for the lumber their majestic trunks would furnish.”11 At the turn of the century, an impassioned plea to save trees from becoming mere grist for the capitalist mill treats our ability to imagine the past as the truly threatened natural resource.
Fittingly, the Petrified Forest, once a site of Victorian anxieties about forgetting, is now one of several places in the area where one goes to remember the Victorian era. An exhibit at the end of the trail displays newspaper articles about the site from the 19th and 20th centuries. References to Robert Louis Stevenson are everywhere: in the tree that bears his name, in a commemorative plaque, in the map and guide to the site. Indeed, the Petrified Forest is just one of several places you can visit in retracing Stevenson’s steps through the Napa Valley.
In nearby Calistoga, the Sharpsteen Museum is similarly a monument to nostalgia for a 19th-century past. The creator was Ben Sharpsteen, a Disney animator and producer that lived from 1895 to 1980. He was obsessed with preserving the Calistoga he remembered from his childhood, and this extended into a larger mission of recording Calistoga’s history through the ages. The museum devotes displays to the Wappo Indians, the colonial era, and the Donner party (many of whose surviving members settled in Calistoga).
But the highlights of the Sharpsteen Museum are the Victoriana: an enormous diorama reconstructing 1860s Calistoga; a life-size model of a horse-drawn carriage; and period rooms, restored from the original cottages of the Calistoga Hot Springs Resort. In the diorama, you can glimpse a model of the famous hot spring covered with pieces of petrified wood, a subtle reminder of the way the Petrified Forest was part of the history of the town before it was recognized as a tourist attraction and as a scientific curiosity. But the museum also references the Petrified Forest as we know it today: a sepia photo shows Sharpsteen with his family at the Petrified Forest in the early 1900s, with the caption, “A walk to the Petrified Forest proves Educational.” For someone born in the 1890s, the 1890s already felt historic, “educational,” worth preserving.
The Petrified Forest and the associated sites of 19th-century history in Napa Valley do as much as any late Victorian might have hoped. Even as the Petrified Forest evokes a future when our own civilization is buried in ash, it conserves our ability to imagine the past, both distant and more recent. The forest remains enchanted by what 19th-century visitors thought and said about it, preserved in artifacts, reconstructions, and old newspaper articles—petrified in paper and ink.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters (Roberts Brothers, 1884), p. 45. Available at: http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/works/the-silverado-squatters-1884/. ↩
- Alexandria Gazette, February 6, 1871. Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1871-02-06/ed-1/seq-1/. ↩
- Manitowoc Pilot, April 15, 1875. Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85033139/1875-04-15/ed-1/seq-4/. ↩
- Daily Morning Journal and Courier, May 8, 1900. Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020358/1900-05-08/ed-1/seq-2/. ↩
- Vancouver Independent, October 18, 1877. Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87093109/1877-10-18/ed-1/seq-1/. ↩
- Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, p. 38. ↩
- Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, p. 44. ↩
- Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, pp. 43–44. ↩
- San Francisco Call, March 17, 1910. Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1910-03-17/ed-1/seq-6/. ↩
- Daily Morning Journal and Courier, May 8, 1900. ↩
- Daily Morning Journal and Courier, May 8, 1900. ↩