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East Side Story: Charred tree becomes local shrine

Posted: February 7, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 7, 2012 2:00 a.m.
A decorated tree, which was charred in a 2007 brush fire, stands off Sierra Highway north of Davenport Road on Monday. A decorated tree, which was charred in a 2007 brush fire, stands off Sierra Highway north of Davenport Road on Monday.
A decorated tree, which was charred in a 2007 brush fire, stands off Sierra Highway north of Davenport Road on Monday.

A lone burned sycamore on an isolated stretch of Sierra Highway looks like no other.

Flowers of all colors — some real, most plastic — are left at the base of the aged white tree charred in 2007 by the Buckweed Fire that devastated much of the Santa Clarita Valley.

The Buckweed Fire torched at least 38,356 acres locally, injured five and destroyed 21 homes.

When it was extinguished, it left a charred husk in the tree’s main trunk that caused passing motorists to veer off the highway for a closer look.

More than one person stopped to see what others reported seeing — the image of the hooded Virgin Mary, head bent as if looking at the dusty shoulder of the road, on Sierra Highway about a mile north of Davenport Road.

The image has since inspired scores of people to nail their rosaries to the tree, set up a makeshift altar, hang lights and light candles as a show of respect and awe for the impression left and the image conveyed.

About noon Monday, three Southern California Edison utility trucks were parked around the tree.

The three workers had been  called to that stretch of road to install a power pole a stone’s throw from the tree.

The dusty earth around the tree has been packed hard from regular visits there by the devout and the curious, becoming an accessible place for any motorist to stop on the otherwise busy stretch of highway.

“It’s like that guy who sold a piece of bread on eBay because it looked like the Virgin Mary,” said one of the Edison workers who identified himself only as Craig.

“If you turn your head this way you can sort of see it,” he said, tilting his head. “There used to be a picture someone put there showing the image of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus. Then, you could make it out, but now, it’s gone.”

What remains with the tree are symbols of devotion: handmade crosses nailed to its trunk, Christmas bulbs and tinsel draped over its branches, candles burned down to quarter-sized puddles of wax.

A teddy bear wearing a burlap sweater sits in a flower vase at the base of the tree.

Also at the base is a bouquet of flowers containing a red Chinese “money pack” envelope traditionally presented to friends for the
Lunar New Year.

A locked chain hangs from a large errant branch stretching toward the highway.

“That chain used to hold a solar-powered light,” said Craig, who travels the highway regularly.

The solar light lit the tree up at night, he said.

Symbols of devotion

About two years ago, someone left a wicker chair by the tree, enabling visitors to sit with the tree for a while.

Someone laid down a carpet of artificial turf about the size of a beach blanket. Anchored with big, flat stones, it serves as a sort of viewing area.

Copies of the Watchtower magazine published by Jehovah’s Witnesses are also weighted with stones and arranged in a line leading to the tree.

Flowers remain the tree’s most prominent gift — a bouquet of a dozen white roses, now browning, sits among scores of vibrant plastic flowers including red roses, purple tulips, a pink flowering Gerbera bush and bright yellow daffodils.

And everywhere on the tree, people have written what they feel compelled to share with it — most of the messages in black felt-tip marker, and most of the names identifiably Hispanic.

Several references are made to the  Virgin of Guadalupe — the revered Roman Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary, officially recognized by the church as the Patroness of Americas, Empress of Latin America and Protectress of the Unborn Children.

Others left signs of hatred and intolerance.

Someone felt compelled to smash the heads of two ceramic statues of the Virgin Mary left by the tree, leaving just the headless torsos.

Someone else scooped up those shattered shards and placed them, too, by the base of the tree.


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