Certain landforms are nature-made for human meaning-making. These include springs, caves, natural arches, volcanic cones—and solitary trees. Isolated plants generally mark the edges of habitats—the tolerable limits of temperature, precipitation, or soil composition. The kind of ecotones that produce lone trees occur most often in temperate-zone, semi-arid regions with variable altitudes, where forestland abruptly gives way to shrubland or grassland.
The American West is one such physiographic region; central Asia is another. It is no coincidence that “l’arbre seul” entered the European imagination through The Travels of Marco Polo. Even though Europe did not contain many lone trees, the idea of it became rooted by 1822, when Caspar David Friedrich painted Der einsame Baum. In nineteenth-century Germany, a solitary oak could represent rootedness and continuity, while in nineteenth-century America, a solitary cottonwood or pine could represent mobility and change.
Beyond the 98th Meridian, Euro-American colonizers and cartographers often coopted organic landmarks used by Natives. Near the Dalles, at the scrubby edge of the Cascade Range vegetation zone, a solitary conifer grew on the south shore of the Columbia River. The Wasco people fished here at Lone Pine (wacáqws or wacuqws), a site that subsequently became known as “Ogden’s Tree,” after mountain man Peter Skene Ogden.
Given the international competition for the American West, it is no surprise that the regional genre of the lone tree included Spanish-named specimens (notably El Palo Alto) as well as French. The “Pathfinder” John C. Frémont reported how he “looked in vain for a well-known landmark on Powder river” in Oregon, the “l’arbre seul,” and eventually “found a fine tall pine stretched on the ground, which had been felled by some inconsiderate emigrant axe.”
On the eastern side of the Continental Divide, emigrants on the Oregon Trail used a sequence of solitary eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) as landmarks and mile markers, as described in guidebooks. A couple of these trees went on to be marked with historic plaques in the twentieth century, but most died before the closing of the pioneer period. The very process that made the trees markers of national history killed the trees. Or, rather, the killing of the “trail tree” was the U.S. historic event. A historian of the Platte River wrote about one specimen: “Like all Lone Trees, it was gradually hacked at and dismembered even as it was being admired.” In 1911, in Central City, Nebraska, locals erected a trunk-like monument to the “original,” and planted a new cottonwood next to it.
From the prairie-and-plains states to the Pacific Slope, pioneers named a few dozen towns “Lone Tree,” “Lone Oak,” “Lone Elm,” or “Lone Pine.” Since tree-planting was one of the first things settlers did in the West—the inverse of the East, where settlers began by clearing—these names quickly began anachronistic. That may have been the deeper point of such literal place-names. The eponymous plant became a kind of historic tree as it witnessed the leafy colonization of the landscape.
In twentieth-century Utah, a female pioneer society made the connection explicit by marking and enshrining the “Lone Cedar,” the specimen of Juniperus osteosperma that, according to myth, had been the only tree growing in Great Salt Lake Valley before Latter-day Saints made the “desert” (i.e., Ute-Shoshone land) blossom as the rose.
In Montana, where precious metal was the prevailing religion, a different kind of tree marked the pioneer period. Outside the capital, Helena, in Dry Gulch, a large specimen of Pinus ponderosa grew by itself, making it a convenient place for lynching, and, after it was cut down in 1875, a temporal landmark of the state’s “vigilance days.” Through photographs and other souvenirs, Helena’s “Hangman’s Tree” proliferated: “That tree became as famous for the number of canes in produced, as it had been, for the number of persons that had cast their last look up among its branches.”
After 1869, settlers and tourists alike took transcontinental trains to the Far West, and early rail riders marked the passage of time and space at a “lone pine” in the narrows of the canyon of Utah’s Weber River. Purportedly it was the sole tree right on the Union Pacific route, and it marked, more or less, one thousand miles from Omaha. A swinging signboard—“1,000 Mile Tree”—hung from one of the lower branches. Trains frequently stopped here to allow passengers to picnic and pose for photographs.
Many westbound tourists who passed this way continued to Yosemite, where the adventurous ones posed—making personal history—beside or atop the “Lone Pine” (a specimen of Pinus jeffreyi) clinging to the rim of Sentinel Dome.
This rugged individualist was for a time the most photographed tree in the American West, before the heavily promoted “Lone Cypress” near Carmel-by-the-Sea supplanted it. As a graphical image, this Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) has since 1919 been a registered trademark of the Pebble Beach Corporation.
The genericization of the western treescape was sometimes successful to the point of bewilderment. In William C. Morrow’s Blood-Money (an 1882 novel about California’s Mussel Slough conflict that predates The Octopus), the protagonist looks for stolen treasure buried under the “only original Lone Tree,” only to find that “the Lone Tree had been multiplied indefinitely.”
The western aesthetic of the lone tree reached its apotheosis with Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the decades after dendrochronologist Edmund Schulman, writing for National Geographic in 1958, declared it the “oldest known living thing.” The most famous of the ancient bristlecones live in low-density forests near timberline in California’s White Mountains. Though specimens rarely occur alone, you wouldn’t know it from an internet image search. Because the exact location of the oldest known tree is not public knowledge, the public has decided which kind of tree should be “Methuselah.” The key characteristics: It should be convenient to the parking lot at Schulman Grove; it should be gnarled and all but dead; and it should be photographable as a lone tree at a low angle for maximum effect. Digital photographers with wide-angle lenses and tripods have trampled the soil around more than one not-Methuselah.
This is an old dynamic. Turning lone trees into landmarks brings endangerment. For example, the 1,000 Mile Tree perished in the late nineteenth century after being riddled with bullets, and the Lone Cedar of Salt Lake City was felled in 1958 by a nighttime vandal. Even the iconic (and gated) Lone Cypress has endured multiple arson attacks. In the Mojave Desert, the process recently repeated itself: The isolated Yucca brevifolia depicted on the album art for U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987) became a pilgrimage site for fans even after the plant’s death in 2000, but then, in 2015, a despoiler—or souvenir-taker—dismembered it with a saw.
Today, heat and drought and fire are altering ecosystems and ecotones in the North American West. As climate continues to change, the regional area suitable for large vascular plants will contract. As western forests die back, a newly ragged edge of habitability should, for a time, feature more lone trees—relics of the late Holocene climate that persist in microhabitats even as arboreal neighbors succumb. As a generic historical landmark, the “lone tree” evokes a settler-colonial past, but, as an ecological symbol, it heralds an unsettling future.