July 20, 2006
23 Questions for John Thompson
by HEIDI WALTERS
By now you've all heard about how the Trees of Mystery, our redwood redoubt up in Del Norte County, is included in the Department of Homeland Security's National Asset Database. The database, intended to be a list of critical infrastructure and key assets to aid the country's anti-terrorism efforts, took a turn for the Americana when the DHS asked states to contribute to the list. As of June 2006, among the 77,069 assets tallied were a petting zoo, a flea market, an Amish popcorn farm, an Apple and Pork Festival, an ice cream parlor and a muzzle shoot enterprise. News headlines echoed the revelation: "A Kernel of Sleuth" (Press & Sun-Bulletin); "Are Kangaroos a Terrorist Target?" (WXIA-TV, GA); and, our fave, "Another roadside terror attraction" (Berkshire Eagle, MA). It was, as the Denver Post said in its headline, a "Zany approach to terror list."
Unless, of course, you follow the George W. Bush line of thinking, which is that the terrorists really do hate our way of life — hate our culture, hate our amusements. Or, perhaps you might suspect that the chambers of commerce of the states in which the dubious targets reside had a hand in the list-making. What better way to hawk an attraction than to add a little patriotic danger or, dare we say, a tad more mystery to the package? Hey, life gives you lemons....
But that's way too cynical for us. We're banking on the Trees of Mystery being a potential real target. It frightens us. (For potential lines of attack, see the Buhne Tribune: buhnetribune.blogspot.com.)
We called John Thompson, manager of the T of M, to ask him about his plan of defense and to see if he could put our minds at ease. OK, actually we were just trying to hitch a free ride on the media merry-go-round, maybe play this Trees of Mystery man for a laugh. Thompson, though — smart man, BS in Physics from HSU — just played us right back.
Above: Paul and Babe stand tall at Trees of Mystery.
1. Were you surprised to hear that the Trees of Mystery is a potential terrorist target?
What's the probability of that?
2. Well, right. But were you surprised?
In that I didn't know they were making a list, yes. Nobody told us about it. But this is just a list of assets submitted by local, state and federal authorities. It includes everything from major assets ... on down to the little family-run business like ours.
3. How long has your family run the Trees of Mystery?
We're celebrating our 60th anniversary this year of our family owning it. It was started in 1931 by Carl Bruno.
4. Why do you suppose you made the list?
Heidi, have you ever been here?!
5. When I was a kid. But —
Heidi! You have to do something about that! Do you remember it?
6. Um, no. Mostly I just remember the "Trees of Mystery!" signs on the road. But why do you think you made the list?
We are the bigger tadpole in this mudpuddle. We have 200,000 visitors annually, and we don't have anything else like that in Del Norte County. But you know, an asset database can be useful, whether there's a hurricane, like Katrina in the South, or a tidal wave or a flood. Maybe the Sheriff's Department submitted our name, I don't know.
7. Why are the trees mysterious?
In this particular grove of trees, we have so many unusual trees. There are few normal ones.
That's the mystery. These things are hundreds if not thousands of years old. There are trees growing out and back into themselves. There's the family tree, with 12 trunks. The cathedral tree — the main trunk fell down years ago and nine trunks grew up from it in a half-circle. We have weddings there. Then, in 2001, we opened a new attraction, the Sky Trail. [That's a gondola that soars the visitor through the canopy.]
9. When was the last time these trees were threatened by something?
In the '80s there was the big forest fire to the east of us, and it was going west. The CDF flew over and said the ocean would stop it. We were between it and the ocean. But the firefighters stopped it. We've been logged all the way around us, but that's not a "threat." We're high enough that in the floods of '55, '56, '64 and '97 we were a refuge center. The tsunami, we were high enough not to be affected by that.
But have you heard of the Gorda Plate? It's our San Andreas Fault, out in the ocean. Chances are it could set off a 300-foot-high tsunami. That would be Eureka, Arcata, here. And the time between the earthquake and it hitting would be 10 minutes. And so having that database of assets, of contact numbers and such, they could be putting out all sorts of warnings. It's good for many more things than just a terrorist threat.
10. OK, but if terrorists do attack the Trees of Mystery, how do you think they will go about it?
Well. OK, there was just a terrorist attack in India — Bombay — several bombs in the train system. Killed 200 people. In my gift shop, every day there are 200 people. Except, their [the terrorists'] only problem is that it would take the media three days to get here, and a lot of this is done for publicity. If it happens in a vacuum, it doesn't do them any good.
11. Would this publicity, over the assets database, help you?
If you spell my name right, sure it does.
12. Huh? Um, how do you spell your name?
Trees of Mystery.
13. OK. And John — J-o-h-n...
You were supposed to catch the reference.
You asked if the publicity would help me, and I said, "If you spell my name right." Someone famous said it... I can't remember who.
15. Ah. It must stink to have to spell out a joke.
[Sighing] It's not a joke, it's a historical reference.
16. So, uh, just play along with me here. If terrorists do strike, what's your plan of defense?
The limit of 1 over N as N approaches infinity is called a non-zero improbability. What that means is, it's not absolutely impossible, because there are no absolutes in this universe. Anything can happen. Is that probability significant? No. And that's what I think of this issue. But I do think it's good they have a database, especially for natural disasters.
17. I was going to ask you a silly question, next, about that Paul Bunyan character, and Babe the Blue Ox, about how maybe they could be conscripted into a terrorist plot. I guess that's sorta silly.
It's pretty silly. Heidi! Don't you remember Paul? Didn't he talk to you?
18. No, I don't remember Paul. But see, that right there, that's a little creepy. He's inanimate, and yet he's talking to people.
He's not inanimate!
19. Yes, he is!
No, he's not. He waves and he winks, his mouth opens and he speaks.
20. Oh, OK. Wrong word. All right then. So, you've got one tree there called the Brotherhood Tree, which your website says was "named for the hope for the brotherhood of man." Kinda ironic, isn't it?
Well, we're not terrorists, so we do believe in the brotherhood of man.
21. But, in the context of the database — oh, never mind. Do you worry that being on the list might now ensure that the Trees of Mystery becomes a target?
22. How's business these days?
That's a good question. Despite the high price of gas, we're doing really well this year, a lot more people and dollars. So it's a very pleasant surprise. I have a hypothesis: that people are taking shorter trips and perhaps less expensive trips, which means people in our greater geographical area are staying within a short distance of home. And that means they will come visit us. You can spend the better part of a day here, see lots of beautiful and unexpected things. Ride the gondola. From our observation deck you can see the ocean, and looking east you can see this beautiful watershed, and the redwood forest.
I mean, so what? We're on the asset list. I bet the Carson Mansion and your mall are on it, too. And if they're not, they should be.
Comments? Write a letter!
© Copyright 2006, North Coast Journal, Inc.