“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.
I recently flew from Philadelphia to Seattle. At one point in the journey I gazed down at the Cascade Mountains from the miraculous perch of technology that is an airliner, staring silently at countless trees in countless valleys.
There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory. Every event has its saeculum, and then its sunset when the last person who fought in the Spanish Civil War or the last person who saw the last passenger pigeon is gone. To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemerality the way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.
Trees are simply magical. Carl Sagan made a point in the original Cosmos series that everything uses the same basic machinery to read, and write using the same four “letters” of DNA. In a very real sense, trees are us with some different initial inputs. (Setting aside the more ephemeral, yet critical ways where we differ starkly from trees, like degree of consciousness, self-awareness, spirit, soul?) Stand next to an old enough tree and one is invariably transported to a higher level of thinking about being.
It’s true that such adaptations are now anachronistic; they have lost their relevance. But the trees have been slow to catch on; a natural consequence of the pace of evolution. For a tree that lives, say, 250 years, 13,000 years represents only 52 generations. In an evolutionary sense, the trees don’t yet realize that the megafauna are gone.
There’s an effect in film making which you’ve seen but may not have realized exactly what you were seeing: The dolly zoom shot. “The dolly zoom is a famous technique invented by Alfred Hitchcock for his 1958 film Vertigo. The shot is achieved by simultaneously tracking backwards or forwards while zooming in or out.”
But among all of nature’s beauties, nothing inspired him more than trees — those eternal muses of scientists, artists, philosophers, and poets alike — and what Margaret Fuller so unforgettably called “that best fact, the Moon.”
I hesitated to share this. …because the book she’s writing about is out of print and only rather-expensive copies seem obtainable. But obviously I came down on the side of, “it’s trees, I have to share this.”
I was once in random conversation with a professional arborist. I cannot recall for certain even who or where or what we were discussing. (But I’m certain is wasn’t something as obvious as they were at my house trimming a tree. It had to be some social encounter.) He dropped a phrase which has stuck with me ever since. He mentioned, “caring for The Big Plants.” I feel that, somehow, he said it in capitals, just like that.
I’ve seen a couple of trees in my day; in Muir Woods, off the beaten paths in Japan, the Rockies. There are some singularly towering specimens in my neighborhood. I like to snap random photos of trees too. I don’t have a point coming, either.
Way back in “the day,” Carl Sagan made a comment in one of the original Cosmos episodes about DNA. As I recall, he was standing near a Big Plant, as that arborist would say, and he pointed out that we, and the tree, contain identical machinery for processing identically functioning DNA. There’s just a relatively small amount of encoded information making a “me” instead of a tree.
Imagine you’re walking through a forest. I’m guessing you’re thinking of a collections of trees — what we foresters call a “stand” — with their rugged stems and their beautiful crowns. Yes, trees are the foundation of forestes, but a forest is much more than what you see.