Five Trees

By Marc Gilson

Photo courtesy of Christine Hames

Trees. They’re big, woodsy, leafy, and don’t get around much. But if you had to choose an iconic symbol for our planet Earth, it would be hard to find a better one than a tree.

Heading west out on highway 18 from Portland toward the Oregon coast, drivers pass through the Van Duzer corridor, a 12 mile stretch of highway cutting a winding path through old growth forest in the northern coast range.  Oregon natives know this route for being notoriously dangerous to traverse in the winter; no sane person drives through the corridor in the snow. But in the milder seasons the Van Duzer corridor is something of pleasure cruise and is dominated by the color green, or, well, greens. You know those car commercials with the BMW or Cadillac speeding tightly around tree-lined hilly curves on some remote lushly-forested highway? Many of them are filmed in the Van Duzer corridor.

The more poetic among the locals will tell you that for their money, there are more varieties of the color green found in the corridor than anywhere else on the planet. Having taken this route dozens of times myself, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were right. Mile by gorgeous mile, sunlight flickers through the canopy of cedars, oaks, firs, pines, and spruce, while the highway carves its way up toward sunlit mossy bluffs and then plunges into the deep, cool emerald and sage greens of thick old growth.

During one of my family’s many summer beach trips in the 1970s when I was little, we stopped at a rest area in the Van Duzer corridor to let the dogs out to pee and the adults stretch their legs a bit. I went running into the forested area surrounding the parking lot, my mom calling after me, “Stay within sight!”  I did, and yet almost immediately felt lost in an enchanted forest of sky-high trees, moss, ferns, and a chittering birds darting in and out of the branches above.

Wandering a bit further into this verdant landscape I found myself facing a single old Sitka Spruce; a massive thing, likely hundreds of years old. Even at a young age I was overcome with a sense of awestruck reverence for this elder of the woods. It had – what should I call it – a presence, like something that knew more, sensed more, felt more, than I ever would no matter how long my comparatively puny and fragile human body survived on this planet. This giant had been there before the founding of America, probably much longer. It was a brush with ancient greatness.

Recently, I stopped again at the same rest area and located that old tree. Thirty-plus years later it’s still there, looking just like I remember it. How many snowy winters has it seen? I’m certain it will still be there long after you and I are gone. I patted its rutted bark and said, “Hello there, old friend.” I’d like to think it remembered me.

  •  Trees have been on the planet for at least 370 million years, which means they’ve been around about 365 million years longer than the earliest human beings.
  • Everyone knows that trees are an important part of Earth’s ecosystem. But did you know that there are over 23 thousand different kinds of trees, many of which are harvested for food or construction materials?
  • No tree dies of old age. They die of infestation, erosion, floods, fires or wind damage, and many have evolved natural defenses against these threats. As such, trees may be the singularly best-adapted living things on the planet.
  • And did you know that according to some arborists, in order to be considered a tree you have to be at least six feet tall? Otherwise, you’re considered a shrub. Nobody wants to be a shrub.
  • About a third of the US is covered in forest. But the chances you live in a forest are 1 in 670.
  • There’s a reason the Lorax spoke for the trees. Generally, the more trees in the area, the cleaner the air and water – trees serving as natural pollutant filters for both.
  • Tree are good for the economy too. Without trees, annual world heating and cooling costs would increase by over two billion dollars.
  • It’s impossible to know precisely how many trees there are in the world, but most estimates are between five hundred billion and two trillion. Putting that in perspective, there are about seven billion people on the planet. But while the human population is on the rise, trees are declining in number due mainly to human influence. Currently, some of the ancient sequoias in Northern California are showing signs of oxygen depletion due to the thinning ozone layer and acid rain. (Update! According to this article, there are 3 TRILLION trees.)

Getting tired of tree trivia? Me too. Let’s take a look at five famous trees and some of their lofty, leafy brethren.

“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” — Alice Walker

HYPERION – The Tallest Living Tree

At a staggering 380 feet, Hyperion, a coastal redwood in Northern California, is considered the world’s tallest living tree. Imagine a tree that, if laid down, would barely fit between home plate and the center field fence in most baseball parks, and over the length of a football field, including the end zones.

The exact location of Hyperion has never been revealed, for fear of tourist wear and tear. Hyperion is around 800 years old, which means it was a sapling when the Magna Carta was signed and Kublai Khan was a just a little baby murderous conqueror.

As tall as Hyperion is, we know that taller trees once grew in the relatively recent past. In 1889, an Australian Mountain Ash tree called “The Robinson Tree” was felled in Victoria, Australia. That tree measured 470 feet in height. In a stroke of stunning stupidity, somebody cut it down in order to confirm the height. Some dendrologists (tree scientists) believe that trees of over 800 feet once towered in Earth’s forests, long before man showed up with axes, chainsaws and a hankering for a decent toothpick. Find a building in your hometown with 80+ floors and you have some sense of what kind of unbelievable monsters those trees were – almost the same height of Manhattan’s Chrysler Building!

PROMETHEUS – The Oldest Known Tree

The oldest known tree was called Prometheus. I say “was” because it was accidentally cut down in 1964 by a then graduate student and US Forest Service worker named Don Curry. Curry, assigned to take core samples using tree borers, happened upon the massive Bristlecone Pine on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada.  After breaking off two borers in the process of sampling (tree borers are expensive, and don’t grow on trees, ya know), he ended up asking the local Forest Service office for permission to cut the tree down for more thorough examination purposes. The Forest Service, seeing no particular value to the old tree in question, authorized Curry to take the tree down.

Nobody knew at the time that this ill-thought-out action would ultimately make Curry and Forest Service officials notorious, and in some tree-loving circles reviled, for having effectively killed the oldest known living tree ever discovered. In the words of that renown poet and philosopher, Homer Simpson, “DOH!”

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools. — John Muir

Although Curry in particular endured a lot of criticism for his actions (he and his family even received death threats), he couldn’t have known at the time that he was ending the life of a tree that had lived for well-over 4,900 years. That means it was around before the invention of tea as a beverage, before the Great Pyramid at Giza was completed, all the way back to the birth of the biblical Elijah. I’m talking Old Testament, here. And because Prometheus’s rings were counted on the cut sample, (the remaining base root being broader and therefore containing more ring information than the sample itself), some believe the tree to have been even older, perhaps over 5,200 years old.

Poor Don Curry lived with the burden of knowing he’d inadvertently killed the oldest single living thing on the planet. And the guilt of the act was like a curse that pursued him the rest of his life (he passed away in 2004). He screwed up big time and he knew it. He couldn’t shake the “tree-killer” reputation. It was estimated that fewer than 50 people had ever laid eyes on Prometheus before that fateful visitation by Curry. With all of this in mind, Curry, sick and tired of explaining himself, spent the rest of his life studying salt flats – nice, barren, tree-less salt flats.

It can be argued that Curry was careless. But in truth, nobody can accuse him of deliberately destroying something as remarkable as Prometheus for personal gain. He was, in fact, simply doing his job. Still, the story of Prometheus – a living thing that survived through almost every documented event in the course of human history, until Don Curry came along – should give us pause. I don’t know exactly what the lesson is – maybe, think before you chop down an ancient tree so you don’t end up studying salt flats and ducking media attention for the rest of your life.

With Prometheus gone, the current title of “World’s Oldest Single-Stem Tree” belongs to Methuselah, another Bristlecone Pine estimated to be over 4,800 years old. Located somewhere in California’s Inyo National Forest, this tree’s precise location is also a guarded secret, perhaps with lessons learned from Prometheus’s demise. I’m rooting (forgive the pun) for old Methuselah to make it another five thousand years.

A single old tree can capture the imagination. But technically speaking, clonal trees are the great granddaddies of the tree world. One of the oldest clonal trees (tree root systems that continue to produce individual trees or groups of trees over time), currently belongs to a Norwegian Spruce tree in Sweden called “Old Tjikko,” said to possess a root system which is – ready for this? – over 9,500 years old. That’s about 4, 000 years before the invention of the written word.You’d expect such a truly ancient thing to be rather majestic. But if you paid a visit to the old spruce, it might be anticlimactic; the tree that grows from the ancient root system is barely 13 feet tall and rather scraggly looking. But while modest in size, it’s just the most recent by-product of a root system alive and kicking since the end of the last Ice Age.

What? Still not old enough for you? You’re kind of hard to impress, you know that? Okay, fine. How about the clonal colony of Quaking Aspen roots living near Fish Lake in Central Utah named “Pando?” There’s a lot of speculation as to the actual age of Pando. And studying a living root system buried deep underground without actually killing it is tricky. But based on estimates, Pando spreads over 106 acres, with a root system believed by some experts to be over 80,000 years old.

ARBRE DU TENERE – The Most Solitary Tree

Imagine this. You’re driving through the Saharan Desert for hours. It’s barren, featureless. No mesas, no cacti, no nothing. You’re not even on a paved road. Then, in the distance, you see something…a mirage? A Starbucks? No. A tree! It’s standing alone, maybe 20 feet in height. It’s the only tree – the only THING – visible other than sand for 250 miles all around.

Once, many decades, maybe centuries earlier, this single acacia was part of a grove of trees thriving in the desert. But as heat and lack of moisture annually conspired  to reduce the grove’s population, the legacy of this little arid forest was left to one lone tree persistently living in the desert – a last surviving member of a once-proud acacia family.

To generations of Saharan denizens, few as they were, this remarkable tree was a beacon, a marker – like a lonely lighthouse visible from miles away in the sandy ocean. Looking at an old map, you’d see a featureless field of beige representing desert, with one little tiny dot in the middle: that’s Arbre du Tenere.

It offered no fruit and only a little shade. Yet there it was, only a few feet tall, but with roots stretching almost 120 feet beneath the surface of the parched expanse to reach the moist, rich soil deep below.

As with Prometheus, a single reckless human action resulted in its demise – a drunken Libyan truck driver managed to accidentally run into the tree one dark night in 1973, damaging it severely enough to cause it to die shortly thereafter. I realize the tragedy here, but there’s also an element of sick comic irony. This has to be one of the unluckiest moments in driving history. You’re in the SAHARAN DESERT, for Pete’s sake! There’s nothing for miles around you could possibly run into, except maybe some camel bones and a couple of tumbleweeds. There are no street signs because there are no streets. No falling rocks, orange cones, children playing, railroad crossings, or anything else to watch out for. But in your beer-soaked haze you somehow manage to hit the ONLY tree in an area roughly the size of Wyoming. I don’t know what happened to that idiot, but I hope somebody revoked his license.

Today, the original spot of Arbre du Tenere is marked by a stark and towering metal sculpture – perhaps a more durable monument in remembrance of the loneliest tree in the world.

“We take trees for granted. We don’t believe they are as much alive as we are.” — Ziggy Marley

GENERAL SHERMAN – The World’s Biggest Tree

If you’re a football or basketball player, being the biggest makes you one of the baddest and you’re on cereal boxes and ESPN every night. But being the world’s biggest tree barely gets you a Wikipedia entry. It’s not the tallest, nor the oldest. But by sheer volume, General Sherman – a giant sequoia in Tulare County, California – is the largest single stem tree on the planet. It’s 274 feet in height, about 2,400 years old, and 102.5 feet in circumference. It’s estimated to contain over 52,000 cubic feet of wood. I tried to find out how to convey that in terms one could understand. Roughly speaking, a cubic foot of wood is about 65 pounds. So if old General Sherman were harvested for buildable wood, it would yield almost 3.4 million pounds of usable wood. That’s a heck of a lot of toothpicks.

In January of 2006, one of General Sherman’s branches fell off. Nobody witnessed this, therefore it made no sound (Zen joke). But this one branch, with a diameter of over 7 feet and over 100 feet in length, is by itself larger than many of General Sherman’s woodsy neighbors. Wisely, the National Forest Service left that branch right where it fell (try moving it), even though it crushed a fence along a walking trail. They rebuilt the trail around the branch, so today you can walk around the lost limb and marvel at the fact that you’re standing next to the most massive living tree on the planet.

THE CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS TREE

The history of the Christmas tree goes back to early 16th century Germany when naturally-growing fir trees were decorated with sweets like apples, nuts, and dates which local children would pick from the trees like fruit and consume as part of their Christmas celebrations. Even before that, evergreen trees, symbolic of everlasting life, were considered sacred in some cultures, and were believed to ward-off illness and evil spirits during the long, dark winters.

Later, Martha Stewart types would adorn Christmas trees with paper decorations, hand-made trinkets, and small gifts. Legend has it that Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to come up with the idea of adding lit candles. The story goes that he noticed the twinkling of the bright winter stars through the branches of a pine tree one night and, not shy about fire hazards, sought to recreate the scene.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the practice of cutting down trees and bringing them into the warm indoors to be decorated caught on, first into guild halls and churches, and later into individual homes. I can imagine how that happened. Two guys standing around the Christmas tree in the forest: “Ansel, it’s like a thousand below zero out here. The tree looks nice and all, but I can’t feel my toes.” “Okay, Dagobert, well what if we took the tree inside?” “Inside? That’s Brilliant!”

For centuries, the Christmas tree was a uniquely German tradition. But eventually the Christmas tree craze would catch on throughout Europe and Britain, and then make its way to North America, appearing first in Canada in 1781. America was rather late to the adopt the Christmas tree, many Americans considering the tree a pagan symbol. But eventually the evergreen would find its place in America’s Christmas celebrations as well. The first Christmas tree in the US is claimed to have been erected in Easton, Pennsylvania by German settlers in 1816. Since then, the Christmas tree has been a beloved symbol and central focus of holiday celebrations for generations.

In the US, nearly 35 million Christmas trees are produced each year and Americans spend over $1.5 billion on them. Most Christmas trees sold are between 5 and 8 feet in height.

The Christmas Tree has a long and fascinating history worldwide. But I wanted to narrow my focus to one tree in particular: The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

Yes, I know, it’s not a real tree. But it represents something about the spirit of Christmas, faith, and seeing beauty in trees that speaks to me and to many others.

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on CBS, December 9th 1965 and has aired every December since. While the show is a staple of holiday programming, it took a lot of hard negotiation to get the show aired. Network executives had a long list of concerns about the show when Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez first introduced it, including its strong Christian theme, technical and sound problems, the exclusive use of child voice actors, the supposedly “inaccessible” jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi (now one of the most successful holiday recordings ever made, and my personal favorite holiday album), and perhaps most concerning, the message of the show itself, which is that the spirit of Christmas was being displaced by rampant consumerism. Think about it for a moment: network TV executives depend on advertising dollars. How do you sell advertising for a show that basically criticizes advertising?

Despite all of this, Coca-Cola agreed to sponsor the show. You know the scene where the Peanuts kids are trying to knock a can off the fence with snowballs? In the original version of the show it was a Coca-Cola can – an early version of effective product placement, and perhaps a compromise where the anti-consumerism message was concerned.

Where the tree itself is concerned, you know the story but let’s set the scene:

Charlie Brown is depressed. He can’t seem to get into the “Christmas spirit.” He tells his friend Linus, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Lucy recommends “involvement” and invites Charlie Brown to serve as the director for the upcoming Christmas play at school. Charlie is ecstatic, “ME? You want ME to be the director in the Christmas play??” and enthusiastically takes over the reins as director. His enthusiasm is rather short-lived, though, as most of the cast are unhappy with their roles and are more interested in goofing off and dancing (in this case to a terrific and unforgettable upbeat piece by Guaraldi). Sensing Charlie Brown’s distress, and perhaps wanting him out of her hair, Lucy suggests that he and Linus go out and pick up a Christmas tree for the play.

Arriving at the tree lot, Linus – ever the keen social commentator – knocks on one of the metallic artificial trees and says sarcastically, “This really brings Christmas close to a person.” (Interestingly, this scene with Linus was blamed for a noticeable drop in artificial tree sales in 1965 and for a few subsequent Christmases).

The two bundled up boys wander through the lot until Charlie spots something that stands out. It’s a little tree. A tiny tree. More of a branch nailed to a little wooden stand. It has to be the least impressive, wimpiest, sorriest excuse for a tree there is. But Charlie Brown sees something else. He immediately decides that the little tree would be perfect for the Christmas play. Linus appears dubious and reminds Charlie Brown that Lucy told them to pick out a “good” tree. But Charlie Brown is adamant, “I don’t care. We’ll decorate it and it’ll be just right for our play. Besides, I think it needs me.” Charlie Brown: the quintessential optimist.

When Charlie and Linus bring the tree back to the school, the others make it immediately known what they think of the tree. Charlie Brown is ridiculed, insulted, and defeated. “You’ve been dumb before, Charlie Brown, but this time, you really did it,” says the acerbic Lucy. Even his own dog, Snoopy, is reduced to laughter at his owner’s expense. “I shouldn’t have picked this little tree,” Charlie Brown tells Linus as the crowd disperses, “Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.”

Linus responds by taking the stage and explaining the true spirit of Christmas by reciting the biblical Christmas story in which simple shepherds are paid an angelic visit and encouraged to seek out a newborn. “A savior is born to you. He is Christ the Lord.”  That, says Linus, is what Christmas is all about. Mustering a moment of hope, Charlie places a single decoration on the little tree. In response, the tree bends to the ground under the weight. “I’ve killed it. Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined.” Charlie Brown exclaims, running away in frustration.

The tree, such as it is, is taken from the school by the kids, walked through the snow, and placed next to Snoopy’s doghouse, a doghouse, coincidentally, having just won the local lights and display contest. The children raid the lights and decorations from Snoopy’s house to lovingly decorate their little tree. Upon completion, the tree is transformed from a scrawny little twig to a lovely little Christmas tree.

At this point in the show, the adult inner cynic in me always says the same thing. “Oh yeah, right. A few lights and shiny decorations and now it’s suddenly a beautiful Christmas tree? Gimme a break.”

Okay, inner cynic, here’s your break: The message Charles Schulz wanted to convey is clear: sometimes we all feel a little like that emaciated, wimpy little tree. We feel like a waste. Maybe we’re weak, inept, unattractive. Maybe nobody wants us. Maybe nobody cares. But what happens when someone takes a chance on us? What happens when someone loves us? Shows us some attention? Believes in us? How is it that compassion, love, and attention can so transform a little tree, or, for that matter, a person?

As Charlie Brown arrives to see what all the hubbub is about, the kids step back, Charlie sees not only his tree, but his faith restored and made beautiful. “MERRY CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN!!” Cue the singing: Hark, The Herald Angels Sing!

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. – Martin Luther

I wonder what would happen if we managed to show all trees – and all people –  the kind of love and care Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree received. There are risks involved, yes. But perhaps if we risked a little more to show one another that we really do care, really do want the best for one another, and have faith in ourselves and each other… well I don’t know. Cheesy maybe. But maybe things would be a little brighter and more colorful, not just at Christmas time, but year round. Isn’t that a big part of the Christmas message anyway?

______________________________________________

It’s not to hard to learn from trees, if you pay attention. I’ve learned about quiet persistence. I’ve learned to withstand high winds that blow hard, but blow through. I’ve learned that rains come and rains go. I’ve learned that age does have to rob you of your dignity. I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is stand in one place and wait. I’ve also learned to respect the diversity of trees. Some trees inspire awe and respect. Some are ancient, tall, and beautiful. Others are gnarled and arthritic-looking . Some are gorgeous, and some are scraggly. Some tower toward the heavens, and some aren’t much more than shrubs. But they all have their place, and most will thrive when given a chance.

Photo courtesy of Christine Hames

And the beauty of trees extends beyond the forest. We have trees to thank for baseball bats, ships, violins, houses, fire, dining tables, surf boards, paper, pianos, drums, pencils, and paper towels, and that’s not counting the myriad of fruits and nuts trees produce. Our lives, simply put, would be impossible without trees.

There’s that old cliché phrased in the form of a question: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” The truth is that I see trees in people all the time. Trees that have stood the test of time. Others cut down in their prime. Some are old, tough, and others are lithe and delicate. Some live in cities and are seen each day by thousands. Others exist in the wildest and most remote corners of the globe. Some trees are lovely to look at, while others appear unkempt. Some are valued for their apples or figs, while others provide a just little shade.

Maybe I’ve stretched that metaphor a little thin. But in the end, I think we could do far worse than to compare ourselves to trees. They’re natural, beautiful, powerful, quiet, and constant reminders of all that we, as human beings, could and should aspire to be.

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. – e. e. cummings.
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2 thoughts on “Five Trees

  1. I have seen the General Sherman (and hugged it) and it is a mighty tree. In many cultures, trees are considered deeply sacred and even magical beings. The Druids, for example revered trees, and even had an alphabet, called the Ogham, based on trees. Their word for oak, “duir” is from the same etymological root as the word “door.” Personally, I find that trees give off an energy that is incredibly soothing and (pardon if this seems punny) grounding.

    I usually like to go to the beach in late October or November, and there is nothing like driving through the forest with the windows open; the smell of damp, mulching leaves and needles filling the air. I can smell it now.

    This November, however, I’ll be in Chennai, where they have one of the world’s largest Banyan trees. It is over 450 years old, and it is a majestic sight.

    Thanks, Marc, for this sweet piece. I always enjoy your writings on any subject.

  2. Thank you! I liked your description of the damp, mulching leaves. Be sure and take pictures of that old Banyan!

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