No Patriotism in Exaggeration

Words by
Lucy Kaldor
| February 12, 2014

On the second-last day of the 1888-1889 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition a new photographic exhibit appeared in the picture gallery that caused an instant sensation. The photograph was an enlarged print of a mammoth Dandenong Ranges gum tree, photographed by prominent Victorian landscape photographer Nicholas John Caire. The picture’s caption noted that the tree depicted was a specimen of Eucalyptus amygdalina var. regnans (a.k.a Eucalyptus regnans, the mountain ash), which had been measured at a staggering 466 feet (142 metres) high. 

Meanwhile, over in the main exhibition building, dusty and resented, hung the official display of giant tree photographs exhibited by Victoria’s Vegetable Products Commission. The display consisted of eight photographs of individual E. regnans specimens, complete with measurements and geographic coordinates. And, with the largest measuring 326 feet one inch tall (approximately 99 metres), the trees in this exhibit were veritably dwarfed by Caire’s monster.[3]

Caire’s photograph represented manifold regrets. The official trees had been located and photographed at considerable public expense, but cost was nothing compared to the price paid in colonial honour. For the intended audience of the commission’s giant tree photographs was the Californians, with whom the Australian colonies had been engaged for several decades in an unofficial but fairly serious competition for the coveted title of World’s Biggest Tree.

And the Californians had already gone home.

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The need to find and name the world’s largest tree became a matter of colonial importance in the early 1850s, with the revelation of conifers in California as big as hotels. The enormous Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood, had been known to Europeans since the 1790s and was of course discovered ‘in a literal sense long previously’ by California’s first nations.[4] The even larger Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant sequoia, was likely first noted by a non-Indigenous American, J K Leonard, in 1833[5], although it was not officially classified until 1853.[6]

By the mid-1850s, scientific and botanical communities all over the world were abuzz with news of the giants:
Imagine a hollow tree that a man can enter on horseback and ride through for a space of two hundred feet, as if he were in the Thames Tunnel… The idea of such magnitude in a tree is almost beyond comprehension, and really becomes oppressive. Nothing short of the most accurate and reliable statements which we have now had in abundance, can compel us to regard these prodigious measurements as any thing more than mere fiction. [7]

However, stories of the ‘mighty Eucalyptus, those giant trees of Australian forests’ were known to the world as early as 1811[8], and indeed, prior to 1853, Australians had fairly good reason to assume that their eucalypts were, on average, ‘the largest trees in the world, if not the very largest that have ever been measured.’[9]

Although they sneered at ‘the common American idea the bigness constitutes majesty’, Australian colonists were anxious to disprove at the claim that ‘nothing previously’ had ever ‘created so strong a tax upon the credulity of mankind, as the discovery of the mammoth trees of California’.[10]Confident in the ability of their vegetation to test the limits of mankind’s credulity, a decades-long war of dimensions ensued, played out on the battleground of the popular press.

The competition gained fresh momentum in the lead-up to the 1888-1889 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, when a Victorian politician received a letter from well-known big tree enthusiast Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr, requesting that photographs of giant eucalypts be obtained for the exhibition.[11] Here was a challenge the Victorians could not resist.

While Californians anticipated that their sequoias’ gigantic girths would secure victory, Victorians hoped for record heights. A dilemma inherent to the competition for tallness, however, was that measurement of very tall objects was not a simple exercise. In Australia’s earlier colonial years, data on trees was obtained from those already felled. However, the competition for the world’s biggest tree implicitly required that the candidates be still standing, if not still alive, and the only available measuring devices for an upright tree were the theodolite and chain, the standard tools of the surveyor.

To accurately measure a tree’s height using a theodolite, a surveyor required a clear line of site to the bottom and the top of the tree at once – something often impossible to achieve in a forest, where very large trees are usually found. Thus, measurements of virtually all big trees in Australia’s and California’s forests were only educated guesses; but, as this was well-known across the board, and as there was usually little anyone could do, the matter was simply ignored.

At the time that Victoria was preparing for the Exhibition, Nicholas Caire of South Yarra was the only photographer known to have photographed Victoria’s giant gum trees. The Exhibition’s commissioners wrote to him early in 1887 requesting negatives for the upcoming Exhibition[12]; Caire responded that for the sum of £250 he could obtain ‘25 negatives of our giants over 70ft in girth’ (he did not mention height) but that it would take him five years. [13]

This would not do. The Exhibition’s commissioners required pictures of impressive specimens for the opening of the Exhibition in August, 1888, but they were willing to pay more for their expeditious return. By April 1888, the Vegetable Products Commission had secured the hefty sum of £600 for the photographing of large trees for its forestry display, and was authorised to proceed with the arrangements.[14]

As photographer Nicholas Caire had declined to revise his proposal, John Duncan Peirce, an ‘excellent photographer’ and a civil engineer besides was chosen for the job.[15]

Advertisements were placed in the public press for several weeks prior to the trip, ‘intimating that any person having knowledge of the locale of a tree four hundred feet in height would receive £20 upon pointing out the same, and an extra amount of £3 for every additional five feet’.[16] Equipped with tip-offs, in the winter of 1888 Peirce set out into the forests around Melbourne with a surveyor and assistants, surveying apparatus, a camera, tripod and collodion dry plates to find and photograph Victoria’s biggest trees.[17]

The trip, Peirce later reported, was a difficult one: he and his party had ‘unexpectedly camped out in 4 inches of snow without even a coat, and nothing to eat or drink for 31 hours.’ Unhappily for the troupe, however, they got little for their efforts: ‘…in the face of reports, apparently most reliable, of trees reaching four hundred and fifty and even five hundred feet, the highest specimen found measured only three hundred and twenty-six feet one inch.[18]

The Exhibition’s commissioners were palpably disappointed with the results of the expedition, as were the local public. Victorian visitors to the Exhibition scorned the ‘mere whipsticks’ exhibited by the Vegetable Products Commission[19], and Nicholas Caire wrote to the editor of the Argus that ‘Our colonial honour in regard of our possessing actually the largest trees in the world is being somewhat jeopardised’.[20]

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In the midst of all this, Caire decided to take matters into his own hands.

Certain that trees taller than 326 feet were to be found, he engaged the services of David Boyle, an amateur natural historian who collected botanical specimens for Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the first director of Victoria’s Royal Botanic Gardens.[21] Boyle had claimed to have previously measured a specimen of E. regnans which came in at 525 feet (160 metres) high, and which he had named The Baron, in homage to Mueller. So, with Boyle in the lead, Caire’s expedition marched off into the forest, and after some difficulty managed to locate The Baron, which was still healthy despite having lost a portion of its top in a gale. Caire photographed it and Boyle applied trigonometry to the remaining trunk, which he measured at 466 feet.[22]

Buoyed by the success of the expedition, Boyle took the irresistible opportunity to bask in the warmth of superiority. ‘I am too much of a botanist to pay any attention to the those who have no knowledge of the vegetable kingdom’ he wrote to the editor of the Argus. ‘It is a great mistake that such large trees 25 miles from Melbourne should be unknown in the public’.[23] Caire weighed in again, criticising the commission for making Victoria’s giant trees the laughing stock of thousands of people who know better’.[24]

Ultimately, though, the trees were not the laughing stock.

Caire’s photograph had caused a predictable stir among big tree fanatics and as a result, several high-profile Victorians, including William Robert Guilfoyle, curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, insisted on personally photographing and measuring The Baron.[25]

A second state-funded expedition was arranged and the tree was again found, so thickly surrounded by scrub that the surveyor could not properly use his theodolite. After two days of clearing, Victoria’s giant hope was measured and found to be a catastrophically mere 219 feet (66.7 metres), less than half the height originally claimed. Boyle’s trigonometric calculations had gone awry in the undergrowth.[26]

The story of the second, myth-busting expedition to The Baron was reported in the Argus by Francis Myers (alias Telemachus), a nature-loving columnist.[27] Myers’ article was highly critical of those who had sneered at Peirce’s original photographs. Myers expressed sympathy for the grand, 300-foot ‘patriarchs’ who had been ‘despised’ as a result of the unrealistic 500-foot ideal.[28]‘As a good Australian’ he wrote, ‘I conceive it to be my duty… to praise the land and magnify our heritage here, but there is no sound patriotism in exaggeration.’[29]

There was, however, patriotism in hope. Myers, who was genuinely disappointed by the whole affair, found fresh hope in a technical detail. While Victoria’s biggest trees had been rigorously measured using theodolite and steel tape, there was no real proof, he pointed out, that anyone else’s trees had been subjected to the same procedure. ‘Has it ever been done in Western Australia? Has it ever been done amongst the big trees of California?’ he wondered doubtfully (his emphasis). ‘We, properly humbled people of Victoria are curious now to obtain true and authentic answers to these questions’.

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CODA:

In the century since the Centennial Exhibition, we’ve grown notably better at measuring things (like, for example, the distance to the sun), and true and authentic answers are now available.

Wikipedia’s excellent entry, ‘List of Superlative Trees’[30] details the trees now known to be the tallest, stoutest, and largest by volume, as well as the oldest.

Of the nine tallest ‘reliably measured species’, first place goes to (drum roll) a Californian Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens ) known as Hyperion, at 115.72 metres. At third place (neck and neck with second, I might add) is Centurion, a specimen of Eucalyptus regnans (Hobart, Tasmania), at 99.6 metres. Three other Tasmanian eucalypts also made the cut.

The Wikipedia entry is, however, missing an important classification. The grandest of the Eucalyptus species – regnans, globulus, amygdalina and friends – are easily the tallest hardwood angiosperms* (*flowering plants) on Earth.

So there.

This story is modified from an article originally published in Ampersand Magazine

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Footnotes:

[3] ‘The Argus, Thursday January 31, 1889’, The Argus, 31 January 1889, p 6
[4] Murray, Andrew, ‘Notes upon Californian Trees’, in Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (Edinburgh), Vol 5 (1857-1858), pp 210-217
[5] Farquhar, Francis P, ‘Exploration of the Sierra Nevada’, California Historical Society Quarterly, March 1925
[6]A Gigantic California Evergreen Tree : The Wellingtonia Gigantea’, in The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Vol 8 (1858)
[7] Barry, P, ‘The Big Tree Of California. Sequoia Gigantea Of Torrey (Wellingtonia Gigantea Of Lindley)’, in The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste Vol. 10 (1860), pp 398-401
[8] ‘Baudin’s Voyage to New Holland’, Select Reviews and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines, by E Bronson & Others, Vol 5, 1811 (E Bronson, Lorenzo Press, Philadelphia), p 163-176
[9] ‘Gigantic Trees in Van Diemen’s Land’ (letter from the Rev Thomas Ewing of Hobart Town, communicated by J Gould, esquire), in Henfry, Arthur, The Botanical Gazette (R & JE Taylor, 1849)
[10] ‘Current Literature’, The Argus (Melbourne), 12 April 1884, p 4; Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California, p 32
[11] Peirce, John Duncan, The Giant Trees of Victoria (Melbourne, Vic.: Vic. Dept. of Lands and Survey, c1889) [one page of text only]
[12] Peirce, Giant Trees of Victoria.
[13] Nicholas Caire, ‘The Giant Trees of Victoria: To the Editor of the Argus’, The Argus (Melbourne), 30 January 1889, p 8
[14] ‘The Centennial International Exhibition’, Argus (Melbourne), 25 April 1888, p 5.
[15] Peirce, Giant Trees of Victoria.
[16] Peirce, J D, ‘The Giant Trees of Victoria: To the Editor of the Argus’, The Argus (Melbourne), 7 Feb 1889, p 8; Peirce, Giant Trees of Victoria.
[17] Peirce, Giant Trees of Victoria.
[18] Peirce, Giant Trees of Victoria; Peirce, J D, ‘The Giant Trees of Victoria: To the Editor of the Argus’, The Argus, 7 Feb 1889, p 8
[19] Caire, N J, ‘The Giant Trees of Victoria: To the Editor of the Argus’, The Argus (Melbourne), 30 January 1889, p 8
[20] Caire, N J ‘Giant Trees for the Exhibition: letter to the Editor of the Argus’, The Argus (Melbourne), 10 September 1888, p 8
[21] Bonyhady, Colonial Earth, p 252.
[22] Caire, N J, ‘The Giant Trees of Victoria’, The Argus (Melbourne), 30 January 1889, p 8
[23] David Boyle, ‘The Largest Tree in the World: To the Editor of the Argus’, The Argus (Melbourne), 18 January 1889.
[24] Caire, N J, ‘The Giant Trees of Victoria’, The Argus (Melbourne), 30 January 1889, p 8
[25] ‘The Argus, Thursday January 31, 1889’, The Argus (Melbourne), 31 January 1889, p 6
[26] Telemachus [a.k.a Francis Myers], ‘Our Tall Trees Shortened’, The Argus (Melbourne), 22 May 1889 p 6
[27] Bonyhady, Colonial Earth, p 114
[28] Telemachus, ‘Our Tall Trees Shortened’, The Argus (Melbourne), 22 May 1889 p 6
[29] Telemachus, ‘Our Tall Trees Shortened’, The Argus (Melbourne), 22 May 1889 p 6
[30] Wikipedia contributors. “List of superlative trees.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Feb. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.


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