Campus culture counted in the rings of El Palo Alto

Nov. 8, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Campus culture counted in the rings of El Palo Alto
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Between the Band’s synchronized instrumental swing and the Dollies’ dance routine at a football game, the Tree stands out. It looks like a toy Christmas tree, but has two eyes and a toothy grin attached to its leaves. Its trunk jumps and twirls as Michael Samuels ’12, the man inside, rocks out to tunes.

The Band’s Tree, a relatively recent invention, is famous for its appearance, irreverence and status as Stanford’s unofficial mascot and as an icon of Stanford culture. However, the source of this mascot goes back to the 18th century and a 110-foot redwood named El Palo Alto.

The redwood is located a little over four blocks northwest of the Palo Alto Caltrain station in El Palo Alto Park, which was built in 1971. It is so tall that an observer standing on the ground next to the tree cannot see its top.

Despite its size, the redwood is not as prominent as one might expect. Many trees surround the walkway around El Palo Alto Park. However, a plaque on a boulder next to the tree indicates its significance. The historical society Native Sons of the Golden West designated this plaque to commemorate the founding of the City of Palo Alto. The plaque reads, “Under this Giant Redwood, the Palo Alto, November 6 to 11, 1769, camped Portola and his band on the expedition that discovered San Francisco Bay.”

Gaspar de Portola was the first European explorer to discover the San Francisco Bay. El Palo Alto served as a reference point to his base camp because it could be seen from miles away.

“To the Spaniards, it was a clear landmark because all the other trees in the area were much smaller oaks,” said Steve Staiger, a Palo Alto historian.

As the site of their base camp, they named the tree “El Palo Alto,” Spanish for “the tall tree.” The region became known as Palo Alto, where the Stanford family would eventually settle on a farm.

After Leland Stanford Jr. died in 1884, his parents dedicated the rest of the decade to planning and building Stanford University on their farm. When the campus hosted its first students in 1891, six families lived in Palo Alto. That quickly changed. Palo Alto became a college town for the University, attracting campus workers, professors and investors from San Francisco. The Stanfords embedded a rendition of El Palo Alto in the Stanford crest, making it a symbol for the University. Stanford and El Palo Alto Park, then, serve to commemorate California’s oldest living landmark, according to a 1999 Palo Alto city manager’s report.

Addressing traditions regarding the tree, “It depends who you ask,” Staiger said. “A lot of people don’t know the tree even exists.”

In the past, students “held a yearly class contest to see who could place the class flag at the top of the tree,” the city manager’s report stated. However, in 1909, because a student became stuck in the tree, this annual tradition ended and the tree lost a significant part of its role in Stanford culture until the Band’s mascot emerged.

The Tree, inspired by El Palo Alto, debuted in a 1975 halftime show. The Tree gained popularity and made several appearances in other field shows. Eventually, it became a regular, and the Band adopted the Tree as its official mascot. It should not be confused, though, with Stanford University’s official mascot, Cardinal. But why are they different?

In 1930, the Indians became the University’s mascot, a mascot ultimately deemed offensive. In 1972, 55 Native American students and staff members petitioned to have it removed. The University complied, but needed to find a new mascot. In 1978, students voted for the Robber Barons as the new mascot, but the Department of Athletics rejected the idea. Finally, in 1981, the University permanently established Cardinal as its mascot.

Although the Tree is an unofficial mascot, it is inextricably tied to campus and Band culture.

“We think the idea of a mascot is absurd,” said Band manager Ben “Ditto” Lasley ’11. “You can’t see them, they can’t talk, you can’t even know who it is at a lot of schools. The Tree makes a mockery of everyone who takes themselves so seriously. It’s an extension of the spirit of the Band.”

The Band and the Tree pride themselves on their spirit of irreverence, and media sources lavish attention on the Tree. Last year, “Page 2” on rated the Tree the worst major college mascot.

Preforming at Band Run, Foster Field, Maples Pavilion and on College GameDay, among other things, the Tree is perpetually busy.

“Athletic events are about half of what I do,” Samuels said. “Anytime I’m not doing something else, I’m doing something for Tree. It’s going by so quickly. It’s taken over my life, in a good way.”

Samuels will remain the Stanford Tree until the end of winter quarter. Then he will pass his legacy on to the next Tree, which will be chosen during Stanford’s annual Tree Week.

The boisterous, iconic mascot found on campus starkly contrasts with the stoic landmark that inspired it. As the campus continues to evolve, El Palo Alto will continue to stand, marking the years that pass ring by ring.

Pepito Escarce is a senior. If you are interested in learning any other things about him, his advertised opinions, or even his unadvertised opinions, please shoot him an e-mail at [email protected].

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