The Groves Were God’s First Temples
The Groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave, And spread the roof above them - ere he framed
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,
Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down, And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks And supplication.
William Cullen Bryant, A Forest Hymn, 1860
One hundred fifty years ago it was this, the first line of William Cullen Bryant’s poem, The Forest Hymn, which inspired Mrs. M.R. Moore to name one of the Giant Sequoias of the California Calaveras Mammoth Grove after Bryant. At the time, the Grove was privately owned and it was possible, for a payment of $50, to have a tree named and a marble plaque mounted on the tree. (Calaveras Big Trees by Carol A. Kramer, Arcadia, 2010) The tree named for Bryant was located in the North Grove, the first grove of sequoias discovered in 1852 and was measured at 305 feet high and 49 feet circumference at 6 feet above the roots (Across the Continent: a summer’s journey by Samuel Bowles, 1865, p. 436.)
On July 17, 1865, Mrs. Moore wrote the following letter to Bryant from San Francisco. Bryant responded on August 30th from Roslyn, New York. Both letters are reprinted from Parke Godwin’s A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, 1883, vol.2 pp.232-233.
On a recent visit to the Mammoth Grove in this State, as I entered the forest proper of the so-called ‘big trees,’ my first feeling was one of awe, of worship, if you will, and involuntarily there rose in my mind these words: ‘The groves were God’s first temples’; and never did they seem so appropriate as when, standing in the midst of this patriarchal forest, the mind attempted to trace their history far back on the stream of Time. Three thousand years of life!
As we passed through the grove we saw that many trees bore names of which all Americans are proud—Webster, Clay, Everett, Starr King, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, our lamented Lincoln, and of others whom we claim as kindred in feeling, if not as brethren; Richard Cobden and John Bright—statesmen, warriors, scholars, and men whose names are household words. But, as I remarked that as yet no poet had been so honored, a feeling of joy rose in me that perhaps the proud privilege might be mine of christening one of those magnificent growths. I made inquiries of the owner of the grove in regard to it, and was informed that all that was necessary was to send a marble tablet appropriately lettered, and it should be placed on the tree I might select. Accordingly, I selected the second tree at the right hand of the path very near the entrance of the grove, a very old tree, one of the largest, and one that has not only braved the storms of centuries, but which has felt the scourge of the savage fire. It is a splendid specimen of a green old age, still strong, still fresh, the birds yet singing in its lofty top, a fitting emblem of the poet of the forest, Bryant.”
In response, Bryant wrote the following:
My dear Madam.
I thank you for the great honor you have done me in giving my name to one of the venerable trees in the Mammoth Grove of California. I hope that the tree which you find vigorous and flourishing will be none the worse for it.
The portion of the bark which you were so kind as to send me, as well as the cone and seeds reached me safely through the kindness of Mr. Brown. The seeds shall be committed to the ground in the hope that they will sprout in due season; the cone and the bark are placed among my curiosities.
I do not much wonder that in naming these trees, political and military celebrities should be first thought of. The events of the last four years have kept the public attention fixed upon the actors on our political stage, and the gallant deeds of our commanders in the war have, for the moment at least thrown all other kinds of fame into the shade. That I should be the first of our poets whose name is inscribed on one of these giants of the forest is an honor which, I fear, if it had been left to the arbitration of public opinion, instead of the partiality of an individual, would not have been awarded to me. Perhaps,
however, the length of time, during which I have been before the public as an author—more than half a century—had its weight with you in connecting my name with one of the most remarkable productions of your magnificent country….
Thanking you for the kind wishes expressed at the close of your very obliging letter,
I am madam
very truly and faithfully yours
W. C. BRYANT”
Unfortunately, nothing further is known about Mrs. Moore. The story of the Calaveras Mammoth Grove, however, is well documented. The North Grove containing about 100 sequoias, was “discovered” in 1852, and became a major California tourist attraction. In 1853 one of the largest trees was cut down, and in 1855, another was stripped of its bark up to 110 feet, which was then exhibited in New York City and elsewhere. The Grove remained in private hands until 1931, when it came under the protection of the State of California and became the Calaveras Big Trees State Park. In 1954 the South Grove, containing 1,000 trees, was added to the park. Located near Arnold, California, the park is still operated by the State of California.
After my initial research, I contacted Big Trees State Park Interpreter, Wendy Harrison, to verify that the Bryant tree was located in the North Grove and to see if the plaque was still on the tree. Thanks to Ms. Harrison’s kind response to my inquiry, I can report that the Bryant sequoia is clearly marked on a 1924 map of the North Grove, though the entrances and trails have changed over the years. She also informed me that today there are no plaques on any of the trees in the North Grove and the Bryant tree is not identified. The lack of plaques is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, since it is now 150 years since Mrs. Moore, inspired by his poetry, selected and named one of these majestic sequoias for William Cullen Bryant, who himself was inspired by the grandeur of nature.
This article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam was originally published in the July/August 2015 Bryant Library Newsletter.