DJ Q&A

SAVING THE REDWOODS FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS. Author Traci Bliss, a descendent of Santa Cruz pioneers, examines the intersection of history and community in her most recent book, “Big Basin Redwood Forest: California’s Oldest State Park.”

DJ: How did your personal experiences lead you to write a book about Big Basin?

TB: Jennie Bliss Jeter, my great-great-aunt who settled in Santa Cruz in the 1870s, inspired me when I was a young girl. I am the fifth generation of Blisses to live in Santa Cruz. We were on a family outing to the park, celebrating her 98th birthday, when she told us about the indispensable role of women in creating the park. Much later I discovered that in almost all the writing about Big Basin women had been sidelined. My two previous books include the unreported role of women in environmental history and community building, so that major discrepancy nagged at me and was always in the back of my mind. I retired early from academia to pursue the story.

DJ: How often have you been to Big Basin?

TB: From feeding deer as a child to hiking as an adult and gathering data as a writer — probably around 30 visits. For many of us who grew up in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County, feeding the deer — which is so hard to imagine today — was a thrilling experience.

Living in close proximity to the park, I haven’t camped there, but I loved the challenge of finding period photos of the earliest campers. Several pictures I’ve included in the book from 1901 and 1902 feature my relatives, the Sempervirens Club and the Sierra Club.

DJ: How did your professional experiences help shape the writing?

TB: As an education professor, I taught seminars on how to make history come alive. Sharing the Big Basin story meant I would have to practice what I preached! Midway through the research I realized the benefit of my first career in state-level public policy. It helped me understand and convey the complicated context during the park’s very precarious first decade. For example, the preservationists were determined to prevent the state bureaucracy from cutting down redwoods that had burned in the 1904 fire but were still very much alive. The expose, called the Rape of the Redwoods, shows how successfully the activists overcame official resistance to sparing the trees.

DJ: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Big Basin when you were researching your book?

TB: The very hands-on involvement of the Stanford community was a complete surprise: from the university’s youngest trustee to the chair of the Botany Department to the heroic action of undergraduates. Without their commitment, I seriously doubt Big Basin would have become a public park; neither would it have survived major challenges. Significantly, Professor William Dudley, the Stanford botanist and leading expert on the park, ensured it was a data-driven movement.

DJ: Who — connected with Big Basin — was most helpful to you in your writing?

TB: After the fire, I wanted to capture the harrowing experiences of Big Basin State Park staff who were right in the midst of the conflagration when it was most intense. Two seasoned employees, Alex Tabone and Susan Blake, gave me many hours of interview time to produce their unvarnished first-hand accounts. Even now when I reread the epilogue — which consists of their stories and the heroism of many State Park employees — it’s hard not to tear up. They demonstrated what’s characterized Big Basin from the beginning: resilient commitment.

DJ: Of those who played an important role in the park’s history, who would you have most liked to have met?

TB: I would like to have met Louise Coffin Jones, whose photo graces the book’s back cover. As president of the San Jose Woman’s Club, she showed her bridge-building leadership style. She excelled as a journalist and her writing about Big Basin makes you feel like you are in a sacred sanctuary — a place of joyful rejuvenation.

DJ: What lessons can we learn from the history of Big Basin that will be most useful going forward?

TB: The team of activists, known as the Sempervirens, had no idea how much their intense commitment would be tested. But after the extraordinary success passing the Redwood Park legislation, they faced a decade of unimaginable challenges. They had no precedents whatsoever, yet give us such a wonderful example of what it means to stay the course for our beloved redwoods. I’m in awe of the vision, fortitude and unselfishness of Big Basin’s Founders.

DJ: Do you have author appearances scheduled in the next few months?

TB: Several are in the works but firming up dates will depend on COVID. tracibliss.com has more information about the book and future events.

Susan Cohn is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association. She may be reached at susan@smdailyjournal.com.

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