California Trees Stand Tall as Our Elders

From the joshua tree in the Mojave to the giant sequoias in the high sierra, to the ancient bristlecones overlooking Payahuunadü and the coastal redwoods in the north, California offers the oldest, largest, tallest and most unique tree elders in the world.

By: Francis Mendoza + Save to a List

Honor Your Elders, Both Human and Tree. As a first generation immigrant from the Philippines, I know this proverb well. We were always taught to revere anyone older than us, even those just days to months older, like my kuyas and ates (pronounced coo-yahs and ah-tess) which means older brothers, sisters and cousins. This meant arguments were always solved by whomever was older, which often infuriated me because it didn’t allow for any discourse or critical thinking to enter the fray. 

As the bunso (pronounced boon-soh) or youngest in my family, this meant I was never right about anything. From my choice in friends and who I hung around with, to my coming out as gender non-binary and my decision to become a naturalist, park ranger and advocate for equity in the outdoors; none of it was good enough to satisfy my family's expectations of me. Nevertheless, I still honored my elders dutifully, especially my Lola Nanay (or Grandma), who I loved dearly. She was the one elder who would listen to me, comfort me when I was sad and cook me arroz caldo (chicken and rice porridge) when I needed some Filipinx food to warm the ventricles of my heart.


Attendees of the California Indian Conference hike on Bay Miwok land with Indigenous elders and youth.

Never did it enter my young, anthropocentric mind that this also meant my other relatives, the non-human ones, are also my elders. The trees that stand tall, like the coast redwoods, and those not quite as colossal and leafy, as the bristlecone pines in the high sierra, are as much our elders as my own Lola. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in some of the most arbor-rich, forested areas in the world, from the tropical forests of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, to the lush redwoods and oak/bay laurel habitats of the Oakland bay area, the ancestral, unceded and contemporary land of the Chochenyo Ohlone and Bay Miwok. 

Even the non-native and naturalized blue gum eucalyptus from Australia that now dominates the California landscape has been a part of my conservation history, which includes helping to preserve habitat for the now endangered monarch butterfly. From the tallest to the biggest, the youngest and the oldest, the state now known as California has ALL the trees. And they’re all our relations, the majority of which are our elders, as the Indigenous people who have lived here since time immemorial have known from the jump.

Naturalist Francis Mendoza in front of a re-created sweathouse with a redwood bark roof, in Tuibun or present-day Fremont on Chochenyo land.

I started my career as a naturalist in the most unlikely of places - an historic, urban farm in the middle of the fourth largest city in the bay area. Right behind San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, the city of Fremont has one of the largest and most diverse populations in the bay area, a region with more than 7 million people living on native land. It is incredibly ironic and sad that the namesake of the city is General John Fremont, who led massacres on Indian men, women and children in the 1800s. 

In 1994, I worked as an interpretive farmhand in a working 19th century farm called Ardenwood Historic Farm, where you can find a large eucalyptus grove which provides wintering habitat for the endangered monarch butterfly. As the butterflies migrate southward from present-day British Columbia, Canada, they use the large eucalyptus trees planted around the farm to huddle together and keep warm over the winter. Originally thought to be ideal for firewood and construction, it was bad for both, but serendipitously became a welcome respite for the diminishing population of monarchs over the last century. The farm also had an impressive collection of plants from all over the world including palm trees, a victorian garden and a dawn redwood tree from present-day China, once thought to be extinct.

Francis Mendoza with an elder coastal redwood tree on Wiyot land in Redwood National and State Park courtesy of Mya Mendoza.

Over the last fifty years, the conservation focus on California flora (and fauna) has shifted from planting non-native eucalyptus trees to preserving and restoring native trees like the endemic coastal redwood and its larger, but shorter relative, the giant sequoia. Situated in the Sierra Nevada foothills, groves of giant sequoia trees, some as old as three thousand years, serve as a reminder that there are still some natural, open spaces that stand unfettered. To be clear though, that doesn't mean humans have left them alone; we've always had a relationship with these colossal elders, from the Central Sierra Miwok in the central part of the state to the Wokchumni Yokuts towards the south. 

Unfortunately, the narrative of colonization, environmental degradation and climate change has dominated the conversation, especially over the last two hundred years. As we now struggle to "leave no trace," Indigenous Californians have left every bit of themselves on the landscape, through horticulture (and agriculture in the south), sacred pictographs and petroglyphs, bedrock mortars and cupules and a fire regime that promotes the health and sustainability of the land, not to mention fishing and gathering processes that ensure a healthier watershed for generations to come. All the while, these elder trees stood tall while humans struggled to deal with the ravages of colonization.

Francis Mendoza teaching a young student how to make fire using an elderberry hand drill and redwood hearth board.



As fires currently threaten large sequoias called monarch trees in the Sequoia National Forest and National Park, I can't help but imagine what the land (and water) would have looked like if Indigenous burning was not outlawed, creeks and rivers weren't damned to satiate our voracious appetite for energy, causing whole villages to be submerged, or huge agribusiness farms didn't dominate the central valley, most of which is on Yokut land. We have definitely left a monumental trace on the land, and to deny it is myopic at best and negligent at worst. 

Save the Redwoods League has been on the forefront of active fire management to account for climate change, drought and more than a century of fire suppression. Prescribed burns help to decrease the fuel load, and an increasing number of parks and forest managers are looking to the Indigenous peoples whose land they occupy to manage these burns. To “manage” is a purely colonial term that disavows Native peoples’ close relationship with the land and the elders that occupy it, so I choose to use the terms “heal”, “give medicine” and “honor” instead. It also weighs heavily on me and many others, native and non-native alike, as we collectively mourn the deaths of hundreds of monarch trees over the past few years due to fire, many of which were more than a thousand years old.

The Great Outdoors LA campout in the Sequoia National Forest with some first-time campers and OG campers; photo courtesy of Bryan Matsumoto.

Last month, I went camping in the Sequoia National Forest with a 2SLGBTQIA+ group called Great Outdoors LA. Many of us are familiar with the LGBTQIA+ acronym, but the “2S” in front denotes the Two Spirit Indigenous people who identify as gender non-binary and have long been a part of Native leadership in their respective tribal organizations and intertribal circles. The Windy Fire on the Tule River Indian Reservation was nearby, and I could see the hazy sky, with a red, furious Sun seemingly breathing fire and smoke at us for letting things get this bad. 

Despite the threat of evacuation, we shared stories of love and heartache, played camp games, swam in the river and hiked the giant sequoia redwood grove nearby. Great Outdoors has been around since 1978, and many of the campers in attendance were there from its inception. They are the elders, themselves, of a community that has also been marginalized, subjugated and made to feel less safe in the outdoors, much like our Indigenous brethren on their own land. It was transformative, fun and healing to share this space with them, despite the constant threat of fire nearby.

Harriet Tubman courtesy of the National Park Service.

As an outdoor advocate for equity, justice and accessibility, I work to dismantle systems of oppression that have roots in white supremacy. This includes the cis-heteropatriarchy along with the militarized industrial complex, overlaid with western colonial settler mentality. Yes, Generals Sherman and Grant were seminal figures in the Civil War, but so was abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who is rightfully credited for having led many enslaved Black Americans to safety on the Underground Railroad. 

But many folx (a term I use for gender non-binary folks to be more inclusive) don’t know that she was also a brilliant spy and military tactician, as she was the only woman to plan and lead a successful raid that freed more than a hundred enslaved folx during the Civil War. Not to mention the fact that she was an astute naturalist, navigating by the stars and emulating owl calls to ensure her survival and that of those she was leading to the north. So as we celebrate the resiliency, leadership and stature of patriarchal sentinel trees such as the General Sherman and General Grant trees, why not also the matriarchy with such a pivotal figure as Harriet Tubman?

Mya and Keira Mendoza “snuggling” up in front of a coastal redwood tree on Wiyot land.

My own teenage daughters have had a special relationship with the trees of Califas (as California was possibly once called, alluding to a Queen Califia). They’ve hiked, camped and fished much of the state, and this is the matriarchal story I choose to tell them of the elders (and ancestors) that came before them. When they were younger, we visited Redwood National and State Parks in the northern part of Califas, and they were astounded by the sheer magnitude of the standing elders, as was I. 

We chose not to drive through any of the trees that were carved out for that purpose, nor visit any fell trees because they questioned the harm done to them for the sake of novelty and our human propensity to dominate nature. We visited the Grace Hudson Museum on Pomo land in present-day Ukiah and we were all astonished by the beautiful basketry on display, lovingly weaved by the women in the tribe. We also visited Yurok country and saw how Yurok men would painstakingly make dugout canoes from redwood trees, and how they would use them to navigate the waterways and coast to fish for salmon and lamprey, a jawless fish that resembles an eel, hence the name of the Eel River.

Francis Mendoza in front of a bristlecone pine tree courtesy of Ermina Teramura.

On a separate trip to the eastern part of the state, we visited the oldest of all the elder trees in the eastern sierra, which the Owens Valley Paiute call Payahuunadü, meaning “the place of flowing water”. There, in what is now called the White Mountains for its snow-capped peaks, stand the Great Basin bristlecone pine trees. They are considered one of the oldest living organisms in the world, some estimated to be as old as 5,000 years. 

As we marveled at their gnarly trunks and branches, the dearth of leaves and the way they take root on loose, rocky soil, I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize them and compare them to the Numu (the original Paiute people), through their strength, beauty and resilience. Even in the face of colonization, climate change, drought and capitalistic ventures such as tourism and logging, these elders have endured it all - both human elders such as the Numu and tree elders like the bristlecone pines. Their resilience is admirable, but it shouldn’t be continuously tested and taken advantage of.

A joshua tree in the Mojave Desert on Cahuilla land courtesy of Francis Mendoza.

Despite our human recognition of these elders’ resilience, it does not give us further permission as a society and government to continue to deny them their right to exist. As fires continue to destroy and threaten the largest of our state’s trees, climate change severely threatens one of our most unique, the joshua tree. Actually a type of Yucca and colloquially named a tree, it is estimated that only 0.02% of joshua trees’ habitat will remain by the end of the century. Averaging only a 150 year life span, they are the teenagers of California’s trees, yet have been adorning the Mojave desert landscape for 2.5 million years. 

Just recently, California’s Fish and Game Commission voted to protect the plant to conduct further research on their viability, from a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. One would think that the fires wouldn’t affect this desert-swelling species, but the introduction and proliferation of non-native grasses have provided a means for fire to spread into the Mojave, as the most recent Dome fire has scorched more than 43,000 acres of joshua tree habitat.

Payahuunadü, where the water flows, with Tumanguya or Mt. Whitney in the background by Francis Mendoza.

From the joshua tree in the Mojave to the giant sequoias in the high sierra, to the ancient bristlecones overlooking Payahuunadü and the coastal redwoods in Northern California, our state offers the oldest, largest, tallest and most unique tree elders in the world. Despite their resilience to anthropogenic climate change, logging, misguided tourism, and conflagrations in lieu of a more sustainable fire regime, they are still susceptible to our mistreatment. As elders, they deserve better. 

They deserve protection and preservation, and it’s up to us as conservationists to provide that. They deserve the equivalent of a warm bowl of arroz caldo, much like my Lola used to make to make me feel better. They deserve honor, respect, and love, borne from being a dear family member, keeper of knowledge and carrier of the sacred fire. They deserve good medicine and healing in the form of Indigenous prayers and ceremony by the Native people who themselves, have also been displaced, marginalized and oppressed. They deserve their lands to be rematriated, finally giving solace to their ancestors and elders, both human and tree.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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