The music world has been buzzing today with news that a Joshua tree—the Joshua tree, for music fans—has been vandalized. Someone’s hacked a limb off of the tree made iconic by Anton Corbijn’s photography for U2’s classic 1987 album The Joshua Tree, apparently to claim an inch-thick slice as a souvenir. That’s a sad, simple story—but there’s a more complicated (still sad, but maybe slightly less so) story behind it.
The tree is located in the Mojave Desert, near Darwin, California. When U2 first encountered the tree, they hadn’t yet decided on a name for their album; working titles included The Desert Songs and The Two Americas. Since the songs had been inspired by the idea of a desert (which Bono saw as, among other things, a metaphor for the spiritual drought of the Reagan-era United States), to shoot the cover images the band took to the desert in a bus with photographer Corbijn.
Corbijn suggested finding a lone Joshua tree to feature on the sleeve, and when Bono learned more about the religious significance of the tree’s nickname—Mormons say it was inspired by the tree’s resemblance to a man with his arms lifted in prayer—he decided that The Joshua Tree would be an apt album title. The band eventually found the tree that they appear with on the album’s back cover, though it was a shot of the band sans tree that ended up on the front cover.
Over the years, the tree became a pilgrimage site for U2 fans, who left mementos, signs, and even a plaque. Joshua trees are amazingly long-lived, some surviving for as long as a thousand years—but U2’s Joshua tree fell over in the millennial year of 2000. This fan-made video from 2009 shows the site as it was then.
So what’s happened now is that a limb has been chopped from a fallen, deceased tree. Still a shame—but the music, and Corbijn’s incredible photos, live on.