Explorer Jo Jo Stiletto takes us on a treasure hunt through her neighborhood and rethinks her love of the National Treasure movies in light of our country’s political shifts.

Part 1: The Background, a.k.a. history is right in your front yard.

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There is a tree in my neighborhood with its own plaque that we simply refer to by its species: the Scarlet Oak. The Scarlett Oak, Quercus coccinea, is described as enormous by a local website. It’s marked as a Heritage Tree for its exceptional size, form, or rarity. It’s the kind of tree that inspires tall tales and of gathering together. At the Heritage Tree award ceremony, a local senator compared it to the meeting places for kings. I once watched am immense murder of crows take up residence in the tree for a few hours. It felt mystical, the air crackling and shifting with the cacophony of their maniacal caws. This tree is full of stories.

It isn’t known who planted the tree, a non-native species to the Pacific Northwest. Could it have been urban workers-turned-farmers Delmar and Mildred Hall, who bought property near the tree in 1920, because it reminded them of their home state of New York? Could it have been Nels and Hilda Thuesen, who joined the Halls in the neighborhood in 1925? They soon after started a nursery business called Lily of the Valley Garden and the remains of the foundation of their greenhouse rests nearby. These are only guesses provided by local historians, though. Its true origin will likely never be known.

Due to a large crack in the upper trunk, Seattle’s Urban Forestry has taken rare measures to preserve the tree, installing a cabling and bracing with portions of the system rated at 54,000 lbs. tensile strength. The re-bar in the tree is almost invisible until you start to hunt for it, further adding to the lore of the tree. A tree so special it’s being held together by the cleverness of engineers.

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I consider this tree often as I sit on my patio or walk past it on the way to work. It feels both dangerous and comforting. If I lived in a simpler time, I could imagine it’s where neighborhood children would gather before setting out on their daily adventures, where women would exchange eggs and other goods raised on their land, where you stop to gossip and tell stories. In the bareness of winter, it is almost ominous and terrifying and I imagine, like in the film Poltergeist, it’s waiting to swallow us up. Or perhaps pitch and fall in a windstorm, the bracing system snapping to send its enormous trunk smashing into whatever lies in its path. My bedroom is located perfectly to receive the brunt of its blow.

I can’t help but see the Scarlet Oak as an accidental metaphor in this review for my relationship with American history. It reminds of a quote from Sarah Vowell’s essay book Take the Cannoli: “When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife: Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance.”

 Part 2: The Adventure

My childhood was full of seeking adventure and treasure in my own neighborhood. Inspired by my favorite films like Goonies and Romancing the Stone, it wasn’t necessarily about what you found but the stories you found along the way. One could place the films National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets in that same treasure-hunting genre. Grand trees, undeveloped lots of land, and forests behind a local church became places for wild imagination where I played out my own mini-adventure films. I was the star of my mini-films, placing myself in the adventuring sneakers of boys. I don’t recall young girls getting the same treatment.

I took this re-watch as opportunity to dive into the nostalgia of childhood adventuring and force my housemates to participate in a treasure hunt. Turns out, the 20 minutes I spent crafting my own treasure map and snooping around the giant tree 30 feet from my front door was 300% more magical than re-watching this sequel. The fastest review I have is simply this: skip the film and follow these steps.

Make a map: Quickly draw out your map, dip it in milk, lightly toast it in the oven, and burn the edges away. Bam. Old map. I developed this method at age 10. Still works.

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 Wear the right outfit: I gave my housemates, the editor of this blog and his wife, five minutes to put on their best adventuring outfit. They nailed it.

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The Hunt: Attempt to follow your map, perhaps have wine on hand, and hopefully it will lead you somewhere special. In this case, our destination was the Scarlet Oak itself. Would we find trinkets left in its knotholes by a neighborhood Boo Radley type? Maybe items lost by settlers? Native treasure (foreshadowing)?

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The Loot: Huzzah! Indeed, we did discover amazing treasures under the storied branches of the Scarlet Oak. I screamed, “It’s like the priceless statue they found under Mother’s Milk in Romancing the Stone.” Was I finally Joan Wilder? (note: the Scarlet Oak is the neighborhood dumping spot for items residents are “giving away,” thus our booty was a collection of knickknacks and a few walking sticks).

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Part 3: The Re-watch

The IMDb basic film summary:

 When a missing page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth surfaces, Bens great-great grandfather is suddenly implicated as a key conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s death. Determined to prove his ancestor’s innocence, Ben follows an international chain of clues that takes him on a chase from Paris to London and ultimately back to America. This journey leads Ben and his crew not only to surprising revelations but to the trail of the world’s most treasured secrets.

Here is my general emotional state at the time of the re watch: White men ruin everything. I’m so sorry if you hurt your feelings. Baby, I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).

Real talk about my mindset during the re-watch: I’m a very politically liberal woman trying to survive another day of the Trump presidency while examining my memories and relationship with my own racist and abusive father. If I sound really angry below it’s because I am. All the time. I’m angry.

I’m also trying to take time and care to unpack my own privilege and harm to others. It’s a #MeToo and #Resist and #ThisIsNotNormal kinda year. Marinating in my own special bath of guilt and rage makes re-watching this playful action adventure film quite a chore. It’s not fun anymore. And, yes, it once was. Perhaps I too was complicit in its potential to harm. Yes, I pre-funked this film with a wacky and potentially tone-deaf neighborhood adventure. I won’t apologize for that, though. It’s so rare to just stop in the middle of all your anger and find reasons to be silly.

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Here are observations written during the re-watch:

  • While focusing on the assassination of Lincoln and the Civil War, it’s interesting that the word “slavery” is uttered only maybe once.
  • This is the kind of movie in which the phrase “great great grandfather” is said about 100 times. Right now, I’m not very fond of my great great great fathers. I hope they don’t take it personally.
  • This film is the embodiment of white colonialism.
  • Women are all vamps and shrews in this movie. Sure, they are highly educated experts in their fields, but also the main contribution of the female lead is arching her back to present her tits in the Oval Office. Which, right now, with all the political sexual harassment scandals, reads as it should: Ew.
  • Bechdel fail. DuVernay fail.
  • So, if all the treasures of a lost city of Native American gold is under Mount Rushmore, how did it get there? How many people died?
  • I’m struck by how little they seem to care about protocol of preservation.
  • I just keep writing: plunder and pillage.
  • IMAGINE IF TRUMP GOT HIS HANDS ON THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
  • There is never going to be an appropriate sequel titled National Treasure: Reparations.
  • These characters are searching for only the bright and shiny parts of American History. It’s truly the Disney Park tour of the white man’s version of our shared story.

White men can do anything they want: steal the Declaration of Independence, B&E Buckingham Palace, fly mini-helicopters around the Eiffel Tower, and kidnap the president. Replace Nicolas Cage with Kumail Nanjiani and imagine how controversial those same scenes would read to a good portion of America. But, damn it, I want an action adventure starring Kumail RIGHT NOW.

 Part 4: The Reckoning

In grade school, my tiny hands plucked a rock out of a river because its color was different than all the other rocks around it. It was in a popular park full of many families hiking and enjoying the water, oblivious to my seeking hands. What a thrill, in the moment, of realizing it wasn’t a simple rock. It was an arrowhead. A real arrowhead.

I felt a rush like the kind I’d only felt watching movies, sun glimmering on the water and my back straightening to show the world my discovery. That thrill quickly subsided when my father told me to quickly tuck away the object. Hide it. It’s ours. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t share it with other people in the park. I didn’t yet see how his whole life had told him that history was his to keep and own instead of share.

A Native American arrowhead, the Bears Ears and Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, or mythical Native American city of gold Cíbola, these the playthings to rich white men seeking their own fortune and glory. I’m not a child anymore but I’m left with the necessary task of undoing centuries of what my great great great great granddaddies have taken, hidden, and rewritten. Down by the water, huddled near sacred trees, buried under historical monuments are stories we need to take back from our forefathers. Do you need a map?

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