There are in my garden two trees: one pear, the other apple. Along the southern border of my garden, but outside the fence, stand four Norway maples. It is a curious thing, but when I work with them, harvesting fruit in summer, raking leaves in autumn, and pruning branches in winter, I am often struck with awe when I consider what each tree represents in time and space as it stands rooted in the soil through the decades while reaching daily for the sky.
Trees represent for me the flow and ebb of events as they stretch from the present into the distant past. For example, about 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, is the Valley of Fire, a vivid land of bold cliffs amidst the grandeur of the Mojave Desert, where 150 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs, a forest of primitive evergreen trees called Araucarian pines grew a few miles outside the valley along the edge of a great sea. (The monkey puzzle tree or Chile pine of the western slopes of the Chilean Andes in South America; the Norfolk Island pine of Norfolk Island, east of Australia; and the bunya-bunya of Queensland, Australia, are the best-known living species of the genus Araucaria.)
Storms and floods carried branches and whole trunks of these trees into the ancient sea. As trees became waterlogged, they sank to the floor of the sea, where they were buried under hundreds to thousands of feet of mud and sand. Here, in secret, the woody materials were slowly altered molecule by molecule and replaced by silica, quartz, and other minerals until the trees were turned to stone in an almost exact replica of their original design.
Beginning about 140 million years ago, the sea retreated and mud and sand took over and reigned for nearly 75 million years, during which time the valley’s limestone was covered to a depth of about 4,500 feet. Carried by winds from the erosion of distant highlands, masses of lofty, shifting dunes—sometimes thousands of feet high—piled up in the valley. Over time, the grains of sand became cemented together with iron to form “fossil” dunes almost a half-mile thick.
Then, about 100 million years ago, as the seafloor plate that lay beneath the Pacific Ocean to the west of the North American continent moved directly against the continent, the heavy oceanic plate was forced below North America. It created titanic forces as it crashed against North America in its resistance to being pushed under the continent. As the seafloor plate moved beneath the continental plate, it melted and injected its lighter weight components upward into the continent.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California thus began to form as gigantic intrusions of molten rock forced their way up into the Earth’s crust, shoving aside the existing continental rock. The rise of the Sierra Nevada Mountains not only began to trap moisture on the mountains’ western slopes, which caused the region east of the mountains to become increasingly arid, but also closed southern Nevada’s outlet to the sea some 25 million years ago. Since then, erosion has been the dominant geological activity in the valley.1
Today, the grains of sand released from their millennial bondage once again blow across the desert. And here and there scattered about the desert is the multicolored petrified wood, including whole trunks, of the Araucarian pines whose inner spaces have been formed over the millennia into little troves of minute crystals that now dazzle the eye as they lie sparkling in the sun, where they rest among other rocks whose rough gray bodies guard fossil seashells, corals, sponges, and sea lilies from the time when the valley was a warm and watery world teeming with life.
Not all ancient trees are fossils, however. In August of 1994, David Noble, the Parks and Wildlife Service officer in Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, walked into a damp, protected gorge in the park. As he did so, he stepped into a tiny one-acre grove of Jurassic-age pines thought to have been extinct these last 150 million years. Although the Wollemi Pines, as they have been dubbed, once covered vast areas of the world, they were thought to have succumbed to changing climate—that is, all but the 39 individuals now known to be still living. The grove consists of 23 adult trees and sixteen juveniles, making the Wollemi pine one of the rarest plants in the world.
Its foliage is dense and waxy, and its knobby brown bark gives it the appearance of being coated in bubbly chocolate. The largest tree towers 130 feet into the air and has a ten-foot girth, indicating that it may be at least 150 years old.
Ironically, “wollemi” is an Australian aboriginal word meaning “look around you,” which points to the notion that we do not know our own planet very well when such a large tree can go undiscovered for so long in, of all places, an established national park. As such, “wollemi” has encompassed within its symbolism the wonder of these trees that for so long have been enshrouded in the Eternal Mystery. Think for just a moment of the Wollemi pine’s incredible journey through the all but trackless sands of time, over 150 million years, the last two centuries or so under the very nose of learned society.
Unfortunately, many people define the things in their environment by their ability to convert them into money, and that includes the newly discovered Wollemi pine. Of the forty seeds that were taken from the grove, one has germinated. Now the Mount Annan Botanic Garden is hoping to become rich by propagating them. “Let’s face it,” says Mark Savio, curator of the gardens, “everyone is going to want one of these plants from the age of the dinosaurs.”2
How can something so ancient in lineage, so venerated in age, so magnificent in structure and function, and so awesome in stature as a mature Wollemi pine, or any number of other trees, be reduced solely to an intellectual definition or a quantifiable monetary value? To me, no tree can be so treated, for trees connect the generations of life not only in time as the oldest beings on Earth but also in space as they travel around the oceans of the world.
Drifting trees, either individually or as wood islands, ferry communities of plants and animals from one geographical location to another, as they are carried hither and yon by ocean currents and trade winds. In the North Pacific, for example, drifting trees that escape the inshore oscillations of the tidal currents enter the open ocean, where they may eventually contact the westward transport of the North Pacific gyre, a great circular vortex.
Some drifting trees become waterlogged and sink once they become entrained in the North Pacific vortex. Such trees become islands of food for deep-sea wood-dependent organisms on the floor of the ocean. Other large drifting trees, however, remain afloat for long periods and great distances to come ashore in such exotic places as the Hawaiian Islands, where in fact trees from the Pacific Northwest account for most of the large driftwood on the beaches. Other drifted trees on the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands are indigenous to the Philippines, Japan, or Malaysia.
Anthropological records show that the beached Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and coast redwood were even integrated into the customs and rituals of oceanic cultures. Ancient Hawaiians prized these huge trees washed up on their shores because local chiefs preferred them for construction of their large double canoes, a symbol of wealth and power.3
Iceland provides another example of traveling trees. According to geologist Sir Charles Lyell, Iceland’s ancient forests had already been “improvidently exhausted” by the mid-1800s:
. . .although the Icelander can obtain no timber from the land, he is supplied with it abundantly by the ocean. An immense quantity of thick trunks of pines, firs, and other trees . . . is thrown upon the northern coast of the island . . . [sufficient] . . . for fuel and for constructing boats. The timber is also carried to the shores of Labrador [the mainland part of Newfoundland, Canada] and Greenland; and Crantz assures us that the masses of floating wood thrown by the waves upon the island of John de Mayen often equal the whole of that island in extent. [John de Mayen is now called 'Jan Mayen' and is a fairly large island of Norwegian ownership lying north northeast of Iceland and east of Greenland.]
In a similar manner the bays of Spitzbergen [a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean between Greenland and Franz Josef Land] are filled with drift-wood . . . consisting of larch trees, pines, Siberian cedars, firs, and Pernambuco and Campeachy [sic] woods [trees from Pernambuco, a state in northeastern Brazil, and the Campeache or longwood tree, a species indigenous to tropical America and the West Indies].4
Considering trees in time and space makes it impossible for me to reduce a tree to a mere intellectual abstraction. I shall therefore endeavor to paint for you a word portrait of a tree in but a few of its myriad forms. To paint such a portrait, it is necessary to examine the leaves, flowers and fruits, branches, trunk, and roots.
Although I discuss the parts of a tree as separate components, remember that a tree is a living being, an integrated living system in constant motion, and as such is surrounded by and infused in a large system called the biosphere, which includes you and me. This being the case, I shall discuss the tree within the context of itself, beginning with the leaves and progressing to the roots, so that you may gain a small measure of how trees as species enrich the world.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.