trees in the desert in front of a cloudy sky

What we can learn from trees

They inspire us, comfort us, and remind us how life moves on.

BRISTLECONE PINES | INYO NATIONAL FOREST, CALIFORNIA

Convinced that tree rings could reveal Earth’s climate history, scientist Edmund Schulman spent summers out West hunting the oldest living specimens. He found them in the gnarled, diminutive bristlecone pines. In 1957 Schulman discovered Methuselah, a bristlecone with 4,789 rings. (The ancient tree still stands, its location a guarded secret.) In 1964 another researcher was coring a spectacular specimen in Nevada to determine its age, when the drill bit broke. After the tree was cut down for study and its rings were found to total 4,862, scientists realized that they had unwittingly felled what was then the oldest tree known.

Every tree tells a story, but some are beyond eloquent, holding memories, embodying belief, marking sorrow. We hold trees in our imagination, where they grow in strange, wonderful ways in forests inhabited by fantasy and also by our fears. In fable and legend, a forest shelters spirits, witches, and once upon a time, a big bad wolf.

Also white harts that leap just ahead of the hunter’s arrow, and a hermit who may emerge just in time to nudge along a tale that ends happily ever after, but sometimes not.

We incorporate the rich metaphors that trees provide: We turn over a new leaf and branch out; ideas blossom and bear fruit. Though our momentum is sapped, our resolve remains deep-rooted, and yet there are times when we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Trees inspire, not just through language, but through ideas. Surely the most notable coordinates in the atlas of inspiration converge in front of a tree—an apple tree, surrounded by a wicket fence, in an orchard in Lincolnshire, England. There, reputedly, in 1666, an apple fell and prompted a young man named Isaac Newton to wonder: Why would that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground?

The spidery script of an 18th-century account in the archives of the Royal Society in London relates that Newton was home from Cambridge (plague had closed the university) when he stepped into the garden and into a reverie. Wrote his friend and biographer William Stukeley: “The notion of gravitation came into his mind … occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.”

It was not the first eureka moment associated with a tree. Hadn’t Buddha reached enlightenment while meditating under the bodhi tree? Trees invite dreaminess. A tale told in many cultures recounts how a monk, listening to a bird sing in the woods, discovered that in a blink of time, hundreds of years had flown by. And after dipping his madeleine in tea made from the flowers of a linden, Marcel Proust’s narrator fell into a “remembrance of things past” in the novel of the same name.

<p>After the conflagration of 9/11 reduced the 110-story World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan to metal carcasses, after a day of black smoke and ghostly ash, after the horror of 2,753 dead, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage was a Callery pear tree. It became an exemplar of the botany of grief, but also of resiliency. The tree was scarred on one side (at left, above)—the side chosen to face the main walkway used by visitors. “So they could see the moment when the world changed,” said Ronaldo Vega, the memorial’s former senior director of design.</p>

After the conflagration of 9/11 reduced the 110-story World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan to metal carcasses, after a day of black smoke and ghostly ash, after the horror of 2,753 dead, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage was a Callery pear tree. It became an exemplar of the botany of grief, but also of resiliency. The tree was scarred on one side (at left, above)—the side chosen to face the main walkway used by visitors. “So they could see the moment when the world changed,” said Ronaldo Vega, the memorial’s former senior director of design.

Trees are nature’s memory stick, even at the molecular level. “Each growth layer that they put on every year contains a bit of the air from that year, transformed into carbon, and so the tree physically holds the years and years of the life of the city,” Benjamin Swett, author of New York City of Trees, said in a radio interview.

Some memories sicken the heart, like those summoned by the chestnut that stood outside the house at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, where young Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. From an attic window, the only one not blacked out, Anne could watch a tree mark the seasons before the Gestapo dragged her and her family away on August 4, 1944.

“How could I have known how much it meant to Anne to see a patch of blue sky … and how important the chestnut tree was for her,” her father said years later, after reading her diary. Anne Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1945. She was 15 years old. The tree—weakened by disease—was felled during a violent rainstorm in 2010.

Some memories are collective, like those of innocence and loss embodied in another tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. It bore an apple of temptation, and there was hell to pay for its consumption.

If the dark side of the human condition can be said to originate under a tree, then it is fitting that its green shade offers consolation, like that provided by an American elm embraced by a low granite wall in Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, a blast planned and carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a disaffected veteran, destroyed the nine-floor Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the center of the city, incinerating cars and claiming 168 lives.

It also scorched the trunk, sheared off the leaves, and embedded debris in a nearly 35-foot-tall elm growing in a nearby parking lot. Today the “survivor tree” is a feature of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and it provides solace to those like Doris Jones, whose 26-year-old daughter, Carrie Ann Lenz, pregnant at the time, perished in the explosion. “It comforts me to look at it,” Jones said. “Something good survived something so bad.”

Today the elm is more than 40 feet high, with a 60-foot-wide crown. By November, most of its gilded leaves have fallen. In January it is skeletal and bare. April brings the tender green of renewal, and in June it is fully dressed for summer. And so the celestial clock reverberates in the seasonal cycle of a tree whose branches bear the fruit of hope.

“It’s as if that tree had a will to survive,” said Mark Bays, an urban forester for the state who helped it recover. “It understood, when none of us understood, that it needed to be around.”

Your National Geographic Society membership helped fund this photo project. Find out how you can help support the Society's mission here.

Diane Cook and Len Jenshel's “Wise Trees” project appears in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic. A book will be published by Abrams in October 2017.

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