Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
Why We Root for Small, Sad Trees
An ode to Stumpy, short king of the Cherry Blossoms
Stumpy stands alone.
It’s hard to miss, rising scraggily up from the soil on the southeast side of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. It picturesquely frames the Washington Monument with an outstretched limb, which also happens to be its only limb.
Stumpy is a Yoshino Cherry tree, a Prunus x yedoensis, one of the thousands that line the water of the Tidal Basin, and it’s been having a bit of a rough time lately. The nearby seawall, built 80-odd years ago, has slowly been settling into the mud and the muck, dropping about three feet in the time since it was built. High tide is also a foot higher now, and twice a day Stumpy’s roots are inundated with brackish water that’s saltier than the nearby Potomac River — a state of being that is no good for a tree. The trunk looks mostly hollow, like someone took a few large scoops out of it. All but one of the branches have rotted away and been trimmed by its caretakers at the National Park Service, leaving Stumpy with a windblown toupee of sticks, leaves, and buds.
Naturally, people are obsessed.
“This is my ninth cherry blossom season and I would be hard pressed to find another tree that’s gotten either a name or that sort of fame,” said Mike Litterst, Chief of Communications for the National Parks Service and Stumpy’s de facto spokesman. “People are literally lining up to take photos with it this year, and somebody’s even got Stumpy t-shirts now.”
Stumpy’s story began as a Reddit post in 2020, when a user said the tree was “as dead as my love life.” Stumpy is, of course, still kicking, and the Redditor met a girl, but for reasons unknown to everyone including the National Parks Service, the tree has been more popular this year than ever before. Perhaps D.C. was primed for Stumpy’s resurgence; back in December, residents of the Columbia Heights neighborhood became similarly obsessed with a diminutive Christmas tree they’d nicknamed Tiny Timber.
We like to tell stories about trees, and lately I’ve noticed them cropping up more often. Perhaps this is just frequency bias, the detritus of spending the early pandemic in a house with a maple tree in the backyard, where for the first time in my life I found myself paying attention to arboreal rhythms as the seasons changed. But we all, to some extent, became amateur naturalists in lockdown, and the trees (and the birds) are what remain.
Stumpy and Tiny Timber both belong to the Charlie Brown class of trees, the ones that, because of their smallness and sadness and apparent untree-ness, evoke a kind of empathy that allows us to give human emotions to them. Litterst thinks this is why Stumpy is so popular this year — it’s an underdog, and we like underdog stories.
Then there are the stories of magic and majesty, like The Giving Tree and the Kalaloch Tree of Life in Washington State and The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. These are the trees that make us feel small; we gape at their stoic enormity, the generosity with which they share their shade. I think these are the same reasons why tree planting is such a popular, if misguided, climate solution: We are so drawn to the idea of trees being older and wiser than us, we take such comfort in their leaves and branches, that we can’t help but hope they will fix our mistakes for us.
They won’t, of course, and perhaps we ought to reexamine our expectations of trees. Their effects on our planet are matters of circumstance rather than agency; trees, after all, may have accidentally killed off half the planet when they evolved roots a few hundred million years ago. They didn’t know what they were doing then, and they don’t now — an idea I find somewhat freeing, for it lets a tree simply be a tree.
Take Stumpy. Peak bloom was over by the time I made the pilgrimage to see Stumpy for myself: Its flowers and the crowds were both gone, although one couple briefly stopped on their walk to quickly chuckle at Stumpy before continuing.
There’s a sort of solemn quietude to Stumpy without the crowds. There were other, more conventionally beautiful cherry trees nearby, a few of them still hanging onto their pink and white flowers. But Stumpy, standing by the water on its own, with its one lone branch pointing towards the Washington Monument, bucked the trend, as if someone had dropped in a bonsai among the rest.
It reminded me a bit of another out-of-place plant I’d seen, back in 2019, when a tomato sprouted in a wooden piling in the East River, just off Brooklyn Bridge Park. That, too, was the kind of thing that made people stop and point and laugh, but with the kind of laugh one emits when they crawl to the edge of a cliff and look out at the sea yawning below. An errant seed or a stubborn tree: These are conduits for wonder, whispers of the ecosystems we inhabit.
They’re also reminders of our roles as stewards. Despite how it looks, the fact that Stumpy flowered means it’s in pretty good shape overall, Litterst told me, and the parts of the trunk that deliver nutrients to and from the remaining branch are still working as they should. Plans for a new, improved seawall — one that’s embedded in the bedrock unlike its predecessor, so it doesn’t sink — are in the works, with construction planned to begin next year. The National Parks Service doesn’t know how long Stumpy has left, but if it manages to hold out until the seawall is finished it’ll eventually be spared the rising tides and could live to see some of its brethren take their places alongside it.
I’m sure they’ll be pretty, in the way cherry blossoms always are. But I’ll still be going back for Stumpy.