Historic tree takes root on campus

By Jing Ye

A clone of a 400-year-old tree was planted on the lawn south of Parking Structure 3 at ELAC’s Monterey Park campus on April 22 to celebrate Earth Day. 

The ancient sycamore tree was a historic natural landmark in the city of Compton. It was given the name Eagle Tree because eagles once nested in it, according to a blog post by preservationist and Esotouric tours of Los Angeles owner Kim Cooper.

During this day of nature preservation, the Anthropology, Geography and Geology Department introduced a device called PlantWave. It was demonstrated with the Eagle Tree at the ceremony—the device enables the trees to sing.   

Kira Millar, a student from the Anthropology, Geography and Geology Department, demonstrated how to use the device. She connected wires onto the Eagle Tree and the music started to play from the stereo connected with the device. 

She said the device uses patented sonification technology to turn plant biorhythms into music. It works by measuring slight electrical variations in a plant’s leaves using two electrodes. These variations are graphed as a wave and translated into pitch messages that play music. 

“With PlantWave, every single note is a real-time expression of a shift in a plant. The electronic wave detecting device was also used by NASA to detect sounds from outer space,” Millar said in an email.  

“The tree has feelings. It listens and feels, and now we can hear (it),” Millar said.

Cooper and her husband Richard Schave, fellow preservationist and owner of Esotouric, joined Stephen Koletty, chair and professor of the Anthropology, Geography and Geology Department, to host the ceremony dedicated to planting the historic tree’s clone. 

Dylon Littlefield, a catholic priest and commissioner for the Historic Preservation Commission in Alhambra, also joined to give a blessing at the ceremony before the tree was planted. Littlefield is a priest at the Chapel of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Pasadena, an old Catholic church.   

 “We had boxes with stretched netting, we shook to get the good stuff out and dug pretty carefully too. We found animal teeth, small gemstones, plastic tools, pottery pieces, limestones and unknown metal pieces,” Cooper  said, who displayed a box of small articles collected from the tree’s roots.

She said it took them a whole afternoon to get through hundreds of tons of sand around the roots in order to obtain these precious pieces. 

“Everyone knows about this tree. If you are obsessed with CA history like us, you know the Eagle Tree. It’s in every tourist guidebook about Los Angeles,” Schave said.

In a blog post by Cooper on the Esotouric website, she said that the original tree, a California native species, was used to mark rancho boundaries in 18th century California and would mark Spanish land grants. It was documented in the book “Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles” by the California Arboretum Foundation in 1988. 

“In April 1947, in cooperation with the Standard Oil Company who held a pipeline easement beneath the tree, the Compton Parlor, [and the] Native Daughters of the Golden West unveiled a large boulder set with a plaque marking the Eagle Tree’s cultural and historical significance,” Cooper said in the post.

Cooper said around 2017 the Eagle Tree ceased producing leaves after a lightning strike. The trunk remained standing. Then on April 7, 2022, the Eagle Tree fell. 

Following the fall, Cooper and Schane urged the city of Compton and Standard Oil’s successor company Chevron Oil to preserve the seven-ton trunk as a historic resource. It was moved to safety by crane.

Cooper said Esotouric worked with environmental horticulturist Donald R. Hodel to arrange access to the site with Chevron over several months to take genetically identical cuttings from root suckers from the original specimen. A root sucker is a shoot springing from the roots of a plant. 

She said these are being cared for by botanists at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, California Botanic Garden in Claremont and the Theodore Payne Foundation. 

In her post, she said many of the cuttings have survived, and are growing into mature trees that will soon be made available for distribution to municipalities and historic sites around Southern California. These sites include the original site in Compton, to preserve the legacy and story of this iconic living landmark. 

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