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Legacy trees, Sacramento baseball celebrated

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New life is coming out of old trees in Sacramento.

A foothills woodcarver is finishing a prototype for a collectible wood baseball bat made from a tulip poplar loved by generations as it stood on state Capitol grounds for 129 years.

Two Mendocino brothers created a seven-foot-tall abstract tree sculpture from another part of the tree.

And a Sacramento sculptor is working on a free-form chair from a California black walnut that marked the site of an old wagon trail for at least 140 years.

The wood remains of these old trees are being turned into art, furniture and other new projects to benefit the Legacy Trees Project. Sponsored by nonprofit Sacramento Education Events for Art, the project is an artist-organized effort to stop special local trees from being turned into wood chips or firewood by distributing the wood to carvers instead.

These artisans want to preserve local icons and memories by recycling or repurposing wood from trees that once made up part of the city’s urban forest, said James Cooper, SEEART’s executive director.

"It’s to honor the life and legacy of historic trees that have contributed to the livability and the aesthetic of Sacramento," he said. "It just so happens some of it is art. Some of it is collectibles. Some of it is furniture — anything that creates a valuable continuing legacy of what once stood for more than 100 years as part of the community."

The project seeks historic, aged, socially significant or especially valuable hardwood and softwood trees that are dying or coming down for another reason. The woodcarvers work together to collect the wood once the tree is taken down by professional tree fallers.

The project was launched in 2007 to stop the state’s oldest tulip poplar tree, which was rotting, from going to a green-waste facility. Since then, the collective has saved the black walnut and another well-loved tree, a second-growth sequoia that grew near the old state fairgrounds.

"Our idea is to see that the legacy of these trees continues in an honorable way, instead of going to a wood chipper or mulch," said Cooper, who is making the black walnut chair.

Woodturner Frank Russell has nearly finished the first in a series of collectible vintage bats commemorating Sacramento’s place in baseball history.

The tulip poplar tree was planted in 1878, less than ten years after the Capitol was built, two years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and a few short years before the Peruvian Bitters became Sacramento’s first semi-professional baseball team. That was also 29 years after Alexander Joy Cartwright, considered the father of American baseball, reportedly brought the game to Sacramento when he came looking for gold in 1849.

Sacramento is believed to have been the first West Coast city to have an organized baseball team, according to some historians. The Peruvian Bitters were renamed the Altas, the Altas became the Solons, and the rest is history.

That’s a history artisans with the Legacy Trees Project would like to rekindle. Using wood from a locally loved tree, Russell will make bats to commemorate different segments of local baseball history. One is planned to honor the late Art Savage, who brought minor league baseball back to Sacramento in 2000 after buying the Vancouver Canadians and turning them into the Sacramento River Cats, Cooper said.

Other bats may commemorate Sacramento’s longtime team, the Solons, with signatures from surviving team members. Some bats also may celebrate Sacramento players who made it to the major leagues.

Russell, 66, has been "turning" wood for five years, since he and his wife moved to retired and moved from Southern California to Placerville. He’d worked in quality engineering and production control for 3M. But woodworking seemed to come naturally to Russell, who said his great-great-grandfather was a cabinetmaker in Scotland.

"I’ve actually had a fascination with wood all my life," Russell said.

Using an old Louisville Slugger as a model, he created a 31-inch bat — just a few inches short of professional league size — from a 35-inch slab or blank, a single piece of wood that was three inches square. Only the ends of the bat need to be finished, he said.

"The actual finish on the bat is completed. It’s all nice and pretty and shiny," Russell said.

The tree from which the bats are made had grown to a massive size near the Capitol’s north entrance. Huge flowers blossomed on leafy green branches that threw out substantial shade each summer.

Professional bats are made from a single piece of birch or ash, which are strong woods and hard, yet lightweight. Tulip poplar is a softer hardwood that is a little heavier and normally light yellow in color. Sacramento’s tree was diseased, which turned its wood ash-brown with yellow and purple-brown streaks.

"It is stunning," Cooper said. "The incredible thing is how old it looks — because it really is old."

Russell volunteered to make the bats to help raise funds for the project. He got involved with the organization after hearing the tulip poplar was coming down. His interest and experience was in making gavels for fellow Masons.

He’ll now make a gavel from the tulip poplar that will be presented this spring to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, in a black walnut presentation box made by his brother, James.

"He’s really an artist when it comes to making boxes," Frank Russell said.

Wood from the three trees is going into more projects, including tables and custom mantles. There is a limited amount of wood and a short waiting list, but the Legacy Trees Project is taking more requests for wood from artists, Cooper said.

Up to 12 baseball bats are expected to be completed in time for baseball spring training. With any luck, a dozen remnants of the tulip poplar will branch out into new resting places in Sacramento, he added.

"With wood that old, you’ve created an antique — a contemporary antique," Cooper said. "And to think this was going to end up as wood chips."


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