By Chris Mahr
Since the early 1970s, the Stanford Tree -- the Cardinal's unofficial mascot -- has been equally parts famous and infamous for its zany gameday antics like getting drunk on the job. Yet that pales in comparison to the gauntlet one has to go through to actually be selected as the next Tree.
Each year for as long as folks on The Farm can remember, a one- to two-week long “Tree Week” has been held around February to determine who the next Tree will be. Some of the things that aspirants have done to prove that they are Tree-worthy are still spoken about in urban-legend tones throughout the campus and the Stanford alumni community.
The stunts performed by students have just three rules: Don’t go to jail, don’t go to the hospital and don’t light yourself on fire.
Among those that past Tree wannabes have allegedly performed to impress the judges: Covering one's back with leeches, biting the head off a live snake, swallowing a live scorpion, sliding down a 10-meter diving platform while on fire (which counted because it was in a fireproof suit), getting zapped by a stun gun, making a Bloody Mary with one's own blood and drinking it, walking across hot coals and doing pushups with dry ice on one's back and even cutting off one’s pinky toe (the latter contestant, amazingly, did not become Tree.)
When asked about how the stories of Tree Week stunts are passed down, former Tree and aptly-named Jonathan Strange replied over email: "Much like the Native Americans, our history is rooted in an oral tradition."
Keep in mind that these aren't maniacs at a notorious party school who are doing this. These are some of the brightest minds in undergraduate academia in the country, ones who were admitted to a university that boasted a minuscule 5.69 percent acceptance rate for this year’s freshman class.
In speaking with both the current tree, Calvin Studebaker, and one of his predecessors in Strange, it's clear that for those who pass through said gauntlet and are honored with being selected as the next Tree, it’s all worth it.
There’s no Tree Week secret society who combs through the ranks of Stanford students to determine who is worthy of trying out. Anyone who feels up to the task can participate. Fliers are posted around campus, e-mails are sent out and promotional videos like the one Strange did for Tree Week 2010 (above) are posted to YouTube.
Alas, since the Tree is considered a long-running joke -- including by those who have actually been the Tree -- and because students at the famously, academically rigorous school have enough on their plates already, precious few people want to commit the time to Tree Week.
“Nine people in a Tree Week is on the big side,” Studebaker said over the phone. “When there’s three or so, that’s considered a small turnout.”
Because there are no formalities to speak of in the audition process -- i.e. no set places to be, no set routines to perform, etc. -- often times aspiring Trees are completely unaware of how many people they’re competing against. Or of how they’re doing compared to them.
“The way Tree is decided has nothing to do with school spirit or dancing or construction [of your costume], which are all relevant to the Tree job,” Studebaker said. “It’s ‘Do the old trees like you?’ ”
After one has committed to Tree Week, the game-planning for their stunts begins in earnest. They're advised not to break any of the three aforementioned rules and not to do anything that would get the Stanford Band in too much trouble. Aside from that, it’s all fair game.
“Every Tree Week is like a flower,” Strange said. “For instance, I’d consider mine to be a carnation: Elaborate and well-groomed, with the element of organized chaos. However, the Tree Week I was the primary judge for … was more like a zombie carnation with eyes glazed, hell-bent on destruction. Both are beautiful in their own way.”
For one of his stunts, Strange welded a giant steel cage bowling ball, strapped himself in and had friends roll him down Mayfield Avenue on Stanford's campus into a set of giant bowling pins. For another, he paid homage to the aforementioned "digit remover" by sewing a sixth toe made out of clay to his right foot.
One of Studebaker's stunts was, literally, a crowd-pleaser. With a sizable audience gathered on the steps of Meyer Library, Studebaker -- wearing a barbershop smock -- got someone to shave the outline of a tree into the side of his head. After his haircut was done, he removed the cape and revealed himself to be buck naked, after which he played an acoustic guitar song about being the Tree.
"And it was Parents Week,” Studebaker said. "So I brought my parents up to join me." (Thankfully, unlike Studebaker, they were fully clothed.)
Judging the festivities are the current Tree, past Trees and the Stanford Band. It only makes sense that whoever portrays this totem to Stanford’s overall weirdness should be selected by a collective of people who are also "out there."
"We are a pretty tight community with great stories that we like exchanging periodically after our most recent adventures,” Strange said. “Much like the immortals in the movie Highlander. Although we all appreciate one another, we always know that the current Tree’s life reigns superior, and that there can only be one.”
That's why ex-Trees from all around the country and world fly in for Tree Week every year to determine who will join them. They watch the tryouts with a discerning eye, submit the applicants to lengthy questionnaires and ambush them guerilla-style for surprise interviews.
It is highly encouraged of any aspiring Tree to bribe the judges into liking you. Sometimes bribes consist of typical college items (i.e. beer or food). Studebaker, however, went a more clever route, giving the two Trees immediately above him skydiving certificates -- which they all used together after Studebaker was selected on "Tree Night."
The Stanford Tree -- whose costume is created anew each year by the winner of Tree Week -- is as unconventional a mascot as you’ll find in college sports. There is one thing, however, that it shares with more traditionally-selected mascots such as USC's Tommy Trojan or Florida State’s Chief Osceola: A tight-knit community of former and current Trees.
"The UCLA game this year was my best experience at Stanford thus far," said Studebaker. "There were 12 Trees on the field. Some of them have children, and they’re just going nuts. It made me respect how cool a thing it could be."
Top Photo Credit: Robert Stanton/USA Today Sports
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