Auburn family bids farewell to 70-year-old redwood

It was a 120-foot-tall ‘powerful form of life’
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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About 70 years old, 120 feet tall and four feet in diameter, the redwood next to the McNee’s residence on Cora Lane in Old Town Auburn was a family tree in the truest sense.

It has always had a presence in Jim McNee’s life. His grandfather, who built the house, planted the tree when it was “the size of a broom handle,” McNee said.

On Wednesday, McNee bid farewell to it as the last piece had been hauled away, ending the emotional process of having it cut down over the course of more than two weeks.

Now all that remains in its place is a pile of rust-colored sawdust.

Its massive root system had been lifting the house from its foundation and disrupting the earth under the sidewalk, and Jim and wife Miccie made the tough decision to have it removed after they realized they could not put it off any longer, he said.

“It was too big for the area that it was in,” said McNee, a 70-year-old retiree who manages properties in Auburn with wife Miccie, 65. “It was a hard decision, because we’ve all grown up with the tree.”

His earliest memories of it are mowing the lawn surrounding its trunk when he was 10 and would visit his grandparents’ house during the summer. Later in life, he remembers days sitting in its shade or watching his children or grandchildren playing under it, using the old rope swing.

A niece told him she’ll always remember how its aroma filled the air and how the dew would fall from its leaves.

“It’s sad, it’s sad,” Miccie McNee said. “We look at the space and really miss the tree. Walking under it meant quite a bit. More than I knew, actually.”

She called their redwood “a powerful form of life.”

Less than 4 percent of Auburn’s trees are redwoods, and it’s rare to have one of such a size in a small neighborhood, said Ken Menzer, a certified arborist and longtime consultant for the City of Auburn, speaking generally as he did not have knowledge of the McNees’ tree.

The largest redwood in Auburn is in Aeolia Heights, standing about 130 feet tall, 4 1/2 to 5 feet in diameter and is around 80 years old, he said.

The varieties found in the area are either coast redwoods or giant sequoias, Menzer said, and while beautiful, they’re also beastly.

“In grade school, we study about the six simple machines. This is like the seventh,” Menzer said. “The system of roots is incredibly powerful. They can move giant structures around and do damage. People don’t realize how massive they are, how big they’ll get and what the roots will do.”

The McNees’ tree was an Aptos Blue coastal redwood, said Mark Chamberlin, of Titan Tree Co., the one-man operation hired to remove the tree.

He said they consulted the city before cutting it down and were given the go-ahead. Since it was not native, a permit was not required, he added.

“It definitely is a sad thing,” said Chamberlin, who is also the track coach at Placer High School. “Tree trimmers, I think they get a bad wrap. They want things to work out for trees, too, but this was one of those instances where the tree was just taking over. … It was just starting to hit its stride, actually.

“It wasn’t anywhere near as tall as it could have gotten and the roots weren’t anywhere near as big as they could have gotten, so it would have just been worse and worse.”

Coast redwoods gain about 4 to 5 feet in height and 1 inch in diameter per year, Menzer said.

McNee said his home’s lower level floor had become uneven as the roots pushed up on the slab beneath, causing one side to be three inches higher than the other, and the upper level was being affected as well.

“House versus tree kind of thing,” he said of the battle waging between the two landmarks left behind by his grandfather.

He knew the time was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier.

“It’s been at least 5 to 10 years, it’s becoming obvious that the tree was getting too big out there, and in the last two or three years it was obvious that we were going to have to do something drastic,” McNee said. “After talking to people, the only option seemed to be to take it down. … Took us a year to talk ourselves into doing it.”

McNee had a cedar removed around the same time for a similar reason, but it didn’t harbor as much meaning as the redwood, it being by the front door and walking by it every day, he said.

“All along it has meant something to me,” McNee said. “It has kind of been a part of my life … kind of a companion – companion’s not the right word – just a presence out there.”

It’s still going to have a presence, albeit on a smaller scale, in new places.

Chamberlin has four 12-foot sections of the trunk he is taking to his Nevada City saw mill to cut into 2-foot wide boards, about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick.

He said he plans to use them to build a Victorian-style coffered ceiling in the building he owns on East Main Street in Grass Valley that he wants to turn into an antiques store.

The McNees have several pieces of the tree as keepsakes, but they’re still figuring out what to do with them.

Jim said they could be turned into “stepping stones.” Miccie said they might give them out to family members as “memory blocks.”

She said if there’s one thing to take from the experience, it’s that “things change.”

“So the lesson is to value life,” she said.


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews