About This Artwork

Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

The General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park, California, January 1994

Chromogenic print, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"
33.3 x 26.5 cm (image); 35.4 x 27.9 cm (paper)
No markings recto or verso


In the 1880s the Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth, a socialist organization in San Francisco, acquired the homesteading rights to a large tract of land in the High Sierras. The initiator of the group was a powerful labor organizer Burnette G. Haskell. His friends who had joined him in hope of creating a new society based on cooperation were primarily sea men and intellectuals. They spent years debating about their land’s development.

Finally in 1885 they decided that they would harvest and sell lumber. Three hundred members boarded railroad cars and traveled south to Kaweah. They spent four difficult and wonderful years building a logging road on which they hoped to carry giant redwoods down from altitudes of eight thousand feet. Eighteen miles of granite ledges had to be hewn by pick and shovel in order to complete it.

Building the road was not the only treacherous obstacle the group faced: railroad companies, lumber interests and conservative newspapers missed no opportunity to attack in print both Kaweah and the socialist threat it presented. Just when the logging road and the dream of a steady means of support for their community was nearing completion, the US Congress created Sequoia National Park and took their land. The tree the colonists had called the Karl Marx Tree officially became the General Sherman Tree.

In creating this park, Congress may not have been acting out of a pure interest in wilderness preservation. By then the importance of tree cover in the mountains in maintaining the watershed was well known to farming interests in the San Joaquin Valley below.

Though the road they built provided the only access to the High Sierras for many years to come, the Kaweah Cooperative was never compensated for building it.

From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall, 2008.749




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