“The calm deposition of the rings… has gone on millimeter by millimeter for millennium after millennium — advancing ripples in the tide of time.”
“A tree is a little bit of the future,” Wangari Maathai reflected as she set out to plant the million trees that won her the Nobel Peace Prize. But a tree is also an enchanted portal to the past — a fractal reach beyond living memory, beyond our human histories, into the “saeculum” of time.
A tree can be described as both an eternal death and a practically unstoppable being in scientific terms. Out of the beautiful paradox, this ever-dying immortality, arises something beyond scientific fact: Some great poetic truth quickens within you as you stand beneath one of the world’s oldest trees — older than your most distant known ancestor, older than your country, older than your country’s religion.
Something awakens in us then — the magnified understanding of our own souls that Whitman saw in trees, the magnified understanding of the kinship between souls that Ursula K. Le Guin saw, the broadened portal to aliveness that Anna Botsford Comstock saw. We see, too, that this majestic and mysterious something is made of the selfsame stardust that makes us, and in that knowledge — in that splendid fact of science, which is the native poetry of reality — we find the plainly hidden treasure of the miraculous.
It is exactly what the poet botanist does Donald Culross Peattie (June 21, 1898–November 16, 1964) — who did for trees what Rachel Carson did for the sea — explores in his mid-century masterpieces on the natural and cultural history of trees, which began (like Carson’s prose poetry of science) on the pages of The Atlantic MonthlyThe book grew into smaller books and was eventually collected as separate volumes. Finally, the entire collection of tree-rings were collected in A Natural History of North American Trees (public librarian), which is illustrated with beautiful woodcuts by Paul Landacre. Landacre was a descendant of many scientists who was born in late nineteenth century.
Crowning the Giant Sequoia — Sequoiadendron giganteum, also known as Mammoth-tree and California Bigtree Sierra Redwood — king in the kingdom of plants, Peattie captures its temporal majesty in his lyrical prose:
The calm deposition of the rings (rosy pink spring wood ending in the sudden dark band of summer wood) has gone on millimeter by millimeter for millennium after millennium — advancing ripples in the tide of time.
He says that in the wonderful way that wonder and wonderment can give rise to awe, he also adds:
What is the reason these trees are amongst the longest-living in a tree world? A Cottonwood is decrepit after seventy five years. The Oak lives three hundred and fifty summers. Why can it live for a thousand? The Giant Sequoia continues to grow, seemingly without any signs of senility. It is literally being blasted out of the ground by lightning, a consuming flame, or a charge dynamite.
A possible answer could lie in the sap itself, as the Bigtrees contain tannic Acid, a chemical that is used in many fire extinguishers. Although fire can destroy young Sequoias with thin bark, it will not kill the older ones. However, the bark that has formed over time may look a lot like asbestos and be at least a foot thick. It is only possible for fire to reach it if inflammable materials are piled on the base. This material, when fanned by the mountain wind to a blowtorch, will sear its way into the wood. Fire seems to never consume any great-old specimen no matter what it does. High tannin levels in the sap have the same healing properties as when we rub it on a burn. A Bigtree can repair fire damage almost like magic. The process begins immediately, even though the injury is large enough to take 1,000 years to heal, but the brave vegetable continues to do the job as if it were never happening.
One could argue that Bigtree has a long life span because parasites and fire rarely manage to storm its fortress. We might say all this and more, yet there remains some quantum of the inexplicable, and in the end we are forced to admit that Sequoias come of a long-lived race — whatever that means — and so outlast the very races of man.
Peattie ponders the humble origins and incomprehensible enormity of space-time.
This flaky seed is the source of all semieternal life. It takes 3000 of these seeds to create 1 ounce. This kernel measures just 14 inches and contains the embryonic monarch. The cones contain 96-304 seeds per cone. They are also small, almost inconceivably tiny for such a large tree. The cones do not reach maturity until the last season. Only at the beginning of the third season do they shed their seeds in dry weather. They are unable to transport the seeds by any other method. Perhaps only half the seeds will survive and sprout. Then, long before the seeds can sprout, untold numbers of jays and squirrels attack them. Many do not fall upon suitable ground — mineral soil laid bare — but are lost in the duff of the forest floor. There are a few thousand seeds that fall onto a tree each autumn. But only one will germinate when snow-water or the sun of the late mountains spring touches it.
From the outset, this tiny sprouting seed must overcome myriad possible destructions — must “oppose the Worm” and “elude the Wind,” to borrow from Emily Dickinson’s timeless ode to the resilience of living things — in order to stake its tender root into the ground, to comb out the gossamer root hairs that draw water from the soil so that it may eventually shoot up its fragile, fierce sprout into the sky. From then on, the gauntlet of survival continues — cutworms below and wood ants above, finches and chipmunks and ever-greedy squirrels by the legion. Peattie writes with a quiet big heart.
Seedlings that survive their first year can face centuries of uncertainty.
The princeling is born into the air and light. The tender leaves of the young are light and bright blue, with little red in their bark. The stocky shape of childhood gives way to a conical outline, and the young tree stands clothed to the base in boughs that droop gracefully at the tip, of wood strong yet supple… In the second century of life, the trees begin to assume a “pole form” — that is, with strong central trunk clear of branches for a long way, and a high peaked crown. No more are those drooping, limber young boughs. Great arms appear and leave the trunk in right angles. Then, bent up at elbows, they lift their leafy hands as if to hosanna. Silvery green is now replacing the delicate blue-green leaves. It is now covered in a smooth, gray cortex that gives way to mature bark. At last it is furrowed thicker than the brow of Zeus, and in the gales its voice begins, these years (and hundreds of years), to take on the deepest tone in the world’s sylva.
The Giant Sequoia’s grandeur is not only one of scale but also one of astonishing fertility. In the centuries-wide prime of its life, a single tree bears hundreds of thousands of cones, each blazing with hundreds of seeds — hundreds of potential majesties, most of which will perish in the gauntlet, giving life to colonies of ants and flocks of birds, giving testament to the elemental fact that all we know of life and all that remains of it are shoreless seeds and stardust.
Complement with Katherine May on how the science of trees illuminates the psychology of self-renewal, Hermann Hesse’s century-old love letter to trees, and Italian artist Bruno Munari’s mid-century existentialist tree-drawing exercise, then revisit the poetic science of chlorophyll.
Giving = Being Loving
Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.