The Roots of Splendour

I am not usually disposed to religious experiences, so the few fleeting moments of spirituality that I recently experienced came as quite a surprise. Although it is hard to convey exactly what I felt, it will suffice to state that my experiences involved sensations of awe and deep reverence. The circumstances that triggered the emotions in all instances – the roots of my splendour – was my close proximity to magnificent trees.

Pic 1: Growing in the harshest of environments, this gnarly old Bristlecone Pine gets his picture taken by Ed February.
Pic 1: Growing in the harshest of environments, this gnarly old Bristlecone Pine gets his picture taken by Ed February.

The first experience occurred when I was walking along the Methuselah Trail in the White Mountains in California. The White Mountains are home to some incredibly old, incredibly gnarly trees: the Bristlecone pines[1]. And the Methuselah trail is where the oldest of the Bristlecone pines grow (although to suggest that these individuals “grow” might be an exaggeration: perhaps it is better to say the Bristlecone pines persevere).

Pic. 2: This individual is so old and grows so slowly that the prevailing wind results in "horizontal stratification": an indication of the vast passage of time in it's lifetime.
Pic. 2: This individual is so old and grows so slowly that the prevailing wind results in “horizontal stratification”: an indication of the vast passage of time in it’s lifetime.

The oldest Bristlecone pine, Methuselah, has been dated as 4800 years old. It was alive before the pyramids were built and the mammoth was extinct. It was a seedling at a time when humans were domesticating the horse and using papyrus for paper. Jesus was not yet a twinkle in God’s eye. Just imagine what incredible scenes Methuselah, sitting atop its rocky perch, must have witnessed in its lifetime: exploration by the first people of America, the building of railways, the first planes flying overhead and people taking selfies with their iPhones. If knowledge comes with age, what incredible wisdom they must have.

Pic. 3: Gratuitous selfies with ancient trees. From left to right: Adam West, Rob Skelton, Ed February. Photo credit: Dr. Adam West, August 2014.
Pic. 3: Gratuitous selfies with ancient trees. From left to right: Adam West, Rob Skelton, Ed February. Photo credit: Dr. Adam West, August 2014.

The second sensation of reverence occurred whilst I walked the Massey Track in the Hunua Falls National Park in New Zealand. Situated close to Auckland, one of New Zealand’s biggest cities, this magnificent nature reserve is home to Kauri trees (Agathis australis). Although the Kauri trees are not the oldest (in terms of individuals: the genus is relatively old), they have incredible stature.

Pic. 4: Hunua Falls Reserve near Auckland, New Zealand.
Pic. 4: Hunua Falls Reserve near Auckland, New Zealand.

I have also visited giant Redwoods (Sequioadendron giganteum) in Yosemite National Park in California and they are equally as impressive (if not more so; although it is hard to pick between the two without becoming sizeist). The sun-worshiping crown of the trees in Hunua Falls was more than 40m above where I sat[2]. Their height, stature and perpetual focus on the heavens combined to make me feel almost completely irrelevant. I was merely an interested bystander. In one sense this is what links the Kauris to the Bristlecone Pines, to which my lifespan is a mere blink of an eye in its life[3]: I am a pedestrian along their long illuminated paths.

Pic. 5: Kauri (Agathis australis) trees in Hunua Falls Reserve close to Auckland, North Island.
Pic. 5: Kauri (Agathis australis) trees in Hunua Falls Reserve close to Auckland, North Island.

I can only flounder at explanations for the sense of approximate spirituality I felt. People have been worshiping natural deities for centuries. Trees are frequently symbols of life, fertility and natural purity. Trees are providers of shade, bearers of fruit and playgrounds. Evergreen trees symbolise undying life, while deciduous trees often symbolize renewal, rejuvenation or even immortality. To me, all of these are true and certainly add to my sense of respect. But I also think that my most recent personal experiences with some of these trees came with the sense of irrelevance. The trees that I observed would happily go on living without me. And the rest of humanity too.

Yet, unfortunately we are making ourselves ever more relevant to these magnificent trees. Climate change is threatening many different species and ecosystems: California is in the grips of a severe drought, threatening both the Redwoods and possibly the Bristlecone Pines. The Kauris are falling to drought as well, even in the moist forests of New Zealand. Part of the problem there is the presence of Phytophthora, a type of fungus that attacks the roots, prohibiting access to moisture and nutrients and rendering the individuals susceptible to drought.

The good news is that I suspect trees will outlive humanity. In the meantime (and in the words of Desiderata), we would do well to tread quietly and remember what peace there may be in silence.

 

Notes

[1] Bristlecone pines, Pinus longaeva, are genuine pines, of the family Pinaceae. They produce resin.

[2] The tallest tree in the world is a Coastal Redwood, Sequioa sempervirens, measured at 115.6m.

[3] A wonderful story from Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man involves the Counting Pines, trees which are so old that they do not register events on a human time scale. For example, logging is not something that they register and so they keep wondering why their neighbours keep disappearing. Thanks to Linda-Liisa Veromann for bringing this brilliant story to my attention.

2 thoughts on “The Roots of Splendour

  1. Although Phytophthora is not, in fact, a fungus…I’m still trying to work out what it is. Apparently it’s a species of the chromalveolates…which are fungus-like molds. I won’t venture any further, but will for the moment stick to writing about plants. Thanks to Linda-Liisa for pointing this factual error out to me.

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