The Cake Forest

The 1990s produced some fantastic rock music, both mainstream and underground. The bands most people recognize focused on riff-heavy guitars and soaring vocal melodies, mixed with a healthy dose of distortion.

As with any era, some acts garner widespread success without adhering to the sound of the decade. For example, the Wikipedia entry for Sacramento’s Cake reads like this: “The band has been noted for…sarcastic lyrics and deadpan vocals, and their wide-ranging musical influences, including norteño, country music, mariachi, disco, rock, funk, folk music, and hip hop.” That equation does not necessarily point to commercial stardom, yet this band pumped out many songs that penetrated the ears of the United States.

Though I never dived deeply into the band’s catalog during their heyday, I always respected them. In an era of drum, bass, guitar, and vocals, Cake added a melodic line with a trumpet. Doing so is one way not to earn instant credibility in the rock world. Yet, Cake somehow managed to bridge the world of “lounge act” with “alternative rock” in a way no one else even attempted. From “The Distance” to “Never There” to “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” the group scored an unlikely string of chart hits.

Still, 27 years elapsed between the release of “The Distance” and the first time I truly interacted with the band. My wife is a big fan, so, when a tour stop near us lined up with the right time for a birthday celebration, I took her to an outdoor concert. I didn’t know what to expect, knowing nothing of their shows or their work since circa 2001.

The concert itself was entertaining and the group still seems to maintain a large following, based on the number of people belting out lyrics to singles and deep cuts, alike. The evening was enjoyable, the band was tight, and watching a loved one enjoy something she is truly into is always a great thrill. Based on the music and the show, the night was a big thumbs up.

Then came the tree.

Upon the stage sat a potted tree. One could easily have dismissed it as a stage prop.

However, the lead singer, John McCrae, kicked off the second half of the concert with a monologue about trees. He says he planted a plum tree in front of his apartment before his band was big because he was curious what it might be like to watch one grow.

Then his life changed, he flew all over the world, moved out of that apartment, and forgot about the tree.

Ten years into the future, he ambled around his old neighborhood and encountered the plum tree. It had shot up from two feet tall to 25! He was flabbergasted. In an interview, he noted, “It also challenged my sense of time a little bit; it shook me, and it was a good shake. I thought everybody should have this experience of this weird cooperation with nature.”

Reconnecting with the tree planted a non-literal seed in his mind. He could use his band’s clout to give others the joy of trees. The Cake Forest was born.

A screenshot of the Cake Forest's online map

At each show, the band doles out a baby tree. The winner of the tree must promise to plant it and tend to its long-term health, in addition to documenting their journey with the tree by sending photos to the band. To choose the recipient, sometimes the band has a dance-off in the audience and sometimes they ask people to identify the type of tree.

On their website, they have a map with a marker that denotes every tree they have given away. Many of the entries include the promised photographs that fans have sent in over the years.

A peach tree finds a new home in Newport, Kentucky - photo from Cake Instagram
A limequat tree from stage to ground in Redding, California - photo from Cake Instagram

Far from an on-stage gimmick, Cake take their tree conservation seriously.

Hailing from California, they know well the ravages of wildfires. In 2020, they partnered with One Tree Planted, a non-profit organization that seeks to sow trees around the world. The goal of the partnership was to raise money for seedlings to reforest some of the 10.2 million acres that burned in 2020, a staggering statistic. Each dollar donated became a new tree, a pretty good deal.

Even if you never happen to win the lottery at a Cake show, you can still contribute to the cause.

The Cake Forest is a rather lovely notion. The map creates a sense of community, showing how people all over the world can chip in to help nourish the lungs of our planet. Documenting their growth – and the aging of the planter – is a wonderful way to contemplate the passage of time. Many trees far outlive a single human generation. Some of the most long-lived trees watch as human history passes, ticking the millennia away.

Few things can help our planet more than planting trees. A slew of wonderful quotes touch on this subject:

“To exist as a nation, to prosper as a state, and to live as a people, we must have trees.” — Teddy Roosevelt

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” — Greek Proverb

“He that plants trees, loves others besides himself.” — Thomas Fuller

“He who plants a tree/Plants a hope.” — Lucy Larcom

If you have the space and the ability, plant a tree. If you don’t, help reforestation efforts with organizations such as One Tree Planted. Or, you could go to a Cake concert and hope to go home with a peach tree.

Further Reading and Exploration

Cake – Official Website

The Cake Forest – Official Map

PLANT A TREE IN THE CAKE FOREST – Cake/One Tree Planted Project

One Tree Planted – Official Website

John McCrea spreads roots with reforestation, talks 1st CAKE LP in a decade – Riff Magazine

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