hen drought felled a dawn redwood on the grounds of the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia two years ago, it seemed a portentous loss of one of the garden’s oldest trees. Thanks to luthier Dennis Hays, its life cycle is being extended through art. This Sunday at the Arboretum, Hays will talk about building a guitar from the tree’s wood and Laurence Juber will give a pop/jazz concert playing that instrument. And scientist Peter Del Tredici will discuss the tree’s history, which is richer than is widely understood.
The dawn redwood’s story reaches back to the fraught period just before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. According to Del Tredici, a Marin County native and senior research scientist emeritus at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in Cambridge, in 1941 a Japanese botanist discovered and named a “metasequoia” — a “living fossil” in rock. In 1943, a “weird conifer” was discovered in China, and a Harvard-educated Chinese botanist, after stumbling across a paper by the Japanese botanist, reached out to an American school chum who was now director at the Arnold Arboretum. World War II was raging across the globe, but leave it to botanists to value Mother Nature and peace over politics.
“He said, ‘We’d love to study this tree more but we don’t have any resources to collect it’ because it was in central China in a remote area,” Del Tredici recounts. The Arnold Arboretum director sent $250 — “a small fortune in those days” — to collect more living specimens and seed, in exchange for which the Arnold received two pounds of dawn redwood seed. In 1948, as the Communist Revolution closed up China, the director distributed those seeds, collected the year before, “free of charge to 600 botanical gardens and interested individuals” around the world.
“Most of the original introduction of all the [dawn redwood] trees growing throughout North America as well as Europe essentially came from this one massive collection,” Del Tredici observes.
“Standing behind every tree is the ghost of the person who went to great lengths to bring it into cultivation. So the metasequoia has an amazing array of ghosts. If not for the fact that this guy had been a graduate student at Harvard and knew his good friend was now the director, and he could write to him and ask for money, none of this would have happened. Because China did not open again until the 1970s with Nixon; no Americans really went there until 1980. Had it not been serendipitously collected, and the seeds sent to the US in 1948, the tree never would have made it out of China.”
Flash forward to 2017 and serendipity continued playing a hand after the dawn redwood at the LA County Arboretum succumbed to drought. Hays, a woodworker inspired by post-war designer Sam Maloof, volunteers at the Maloof Foundation in Rancho Cucamonga. Because of that, the Arboretum invited him to create artwork with a chunk of the redwood for its “Forces of Nature II” exhibit in late 2017.
For much of his career Hays made furniture, but more recently, “totally out of the blue,” he began building guitars. “It was just a fluke,” he says, “that my first guitars were made out of rescued redwoods.” He retrieved some eucalyptus and “four large beams of the dawn redwood” — “air dried by nature” — and … let it sit.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” Hays admits. “Quite frankly, I’d been making guitars for several years — I’ve probably made 40 in total — but I’d started back on my studio furniture making. A couple weeks before the show, I said, ‘I’ve gotta do something significant with the dawn redwood. I’m not a sculptor, I’m not an artist in that sense, so I’ll make a guitar’ — just a total ‘what the heck.’ And it turned out incredibly well. I’ve made a total now of five dawn redwood-topped guitars.”
Cedar, mahogany, maple, spruce, swamp ash and even koa are the usual woods of choice for guitar makers. Hays opts for walnut for his guitar bodies and necks, Spanish cedar for the interior bracing, and redwood for tonewood on the top: “It really does make the majority of the sound.”
Hays says he studied classical guitar forms for “dimensions, proportions, sizes” before creating his original design. He learned to play and now jams regularly with some friends. The redwood sounds beautiful, he says, but his main goal is to open minds.
“My main theme in all this rescue wood at the Arboretum is to try to highlight using unconventional stuff and getting out of the stereotypic mode that a lot of woodworkers have that you have to make a guitar with spruce top. No, you don’t,” he declares, adding that all his dawn redwood guitars are made “for the benefit of the Arboretum.”
As a scientist, Del Tredici has long studied the relationship between woody plants and their environment, and increasingly he’s focused on the effects of the climate crisis. In that context, the dawn redwood offers potentially more lessons as Southern California girds itself for a hotter, dryer future.
“Everybody makes these assumptions that the native species are the best adapted, and it’s true, they are very well adapted — to the conditions that used to exist,” he notes. “But what is going to adapt to the conditions that are going to happen in the future is an open question. So this whole idea of native and nonnative is a very thorny issue … In California, where the weather is changing, predictions are that in a lot of the savannah area, there’ll be more shrubs and grasslands than trees; there won’t be enough moisture to support tree growth over the long haul. You can see it in the San Gabriel Mountains. As you go to higher elevations, a lot of those trees have died already. It’s a huge problem. They just can’t tolerate the modern conditions.
“Botanic gardens provide a window [and] give you some inkling of the plants that will perform under changing conditions. That’s why it’s really important that we don’t just grow native plants, but keep collecting plants, and experimenting, looking for what’s going to make a good street tree in the future.”
“Ancient Tree Reborn in Music” with Laurence Juber, Peter Del Tredici and Dennis Hays at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, 3-5 p.m. Sunday, June 23; tickets are $12 for Arboretum members/$15 for nonmembers. Info: (626) 821-3222. arboretum.org, laurencejuber.com, dwhays.com, arboretum.harvard.edu/people/peter-del-tredici/