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At Nautilus: The Ancient Wisdom Stored in Trees

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What very old trees can teach us about life, death, and time.

Jared Farmer writes:

What’s the oldest known living thing, and how do we know? Why should we even want to know? The explanation is a history of curiosity and care. It’s about our long-term relationships—spiritual and scientific—with long-lived plants, as long as long can be. It’s all about trees.

A tree is a plant that people call a tree—a term of dignity, not botany.

Although people construct the meaning of “trees” and assign age value to the vascular plants they call “ancient trees,” people cannot themselves create life that grows in place for centuries. Exclusively, solar-powered organisms enact that miracle. Among plants, there are ephemerals, annuals, biennials, perennials—and, beyond them all, perdurables, thousand-year woody life-forms.

INTO ETERNITY: Individual bristlecone pines, such as this one photographed in Utah, can live for close to 5,000 years. By sectioning off dying parts of themselves, they’re able to outlast the rise and fall of human empires. Photo by Anthony Heflin / Shutterstock.

As a rule, gymnosperms (flowerless plants with naked seeds) grow slower and live longer than angiosperms (flowering plants with fruits). Gymnosperms include ginkgo (a genus of one), cycads, and every kind of conifer—including yews, pines, firs, spruces, cedars, redwoods, cypresses, podocarps, and araucarias. All these lineages began hundreds of millions of years before the divergence of angiosperms. In effect, the newer, faster competition forced slow growers to retreat to exposed sites and poor soils, adverse niches conducive to oldness. Five thousand years is the approximate limit for nonclonal living under adversity. In plants, the potential for extreme longevity seems to be an evolutionary holdover from the deep past. Only about 25 plant species can, without human assistance, produce organisms that live beyond one millennium, and they are mainly conifers of primeval lineage. The cypress family contains the most perdurables, followed by the pine family. Many relict conifers hang on in limited, vulnerable habitats. The ice ages didn’t help their cause. In general, neither did humans, with their technologies of fire, domestication, and metalworking. Of some 600 conifer species, roughly one-third are endangered, with many genera reduced to a single species.

A gymnosperm doesn’t so much live long as die longer—or, live longer through dying. The interior dead wood—the heartwood—performs vital functions, mechanically and structurally. In comparison, the thin living outer layer is open to the elements. If damaged by an extrinsic event such as fire or lightning, this periderm doesn’t heal or scar like animal skin. Instead, new cambium covers the injury, absorbing it as one more historical record alongside its growth rings. Thus, an ancient conifer is neither timeless nor deathless, but timeful and deathful. A few special conifers such as bristlecone pine can live through sequential, sectorial deaths—compartmentalizing their external afflictions, shutting down, section by section, producing fertile cones for an extra millennium with the sustenance of a solitary strip of bark. The final cambium has vitality like the first. Longevity doesn’t suppress fecundity. Unlike animals, plants don’t accumulate proteins that lead to degenerative diseases.

The strongest correlation with long life (elongated death) is chemical. Longevous conifers produce copious resins—volatile, aromatic hydrocarbons like terpenes—that inhibit fungal rot and insect predation. Chemically, bristlecone is off the charts. Its high-elevation habitat offers additional protection from enemies, competitors, and fire, given that they tolerate dryness and cold. In habitats with chronic stress, conifers grow slower and stockier. Slow woody growth generates more lignin, another organic polymer with defensive properties. Stress-tolerant plants prioritize stability over size. Their stuntedness is equal parts adaptation and tribulation.

Regrowth is another pathway to oldness, an adaptation that appears in both gymnosperms and angiosperms. Certain single-boughed woody species—notably ginkgo, redwood, yew, olive—can recover from catastrophic damage, even the death of the bole. These trees never lose their ability to resprout and regenerate. At the organismal level, they do not senesce, meaning they don’t lose vitality with age. In theory, such a plant is internally capable of immortality, though some external force inevitably ends its life. With particular species and cultivars, humans can force rejuvenation through grafting, pollarding, or coppicing. Plants that normally die young may live long under horticultural care.

The price of longevity is immobility. At the organismal level, a plant cannot migrate like an animal. Its localism is total. Trees take what comes until something indomitable comes along. Extrinsic mortality may result from a distinct catastrophe, such as fire or gale, or multiple, cumulative stressors. There are limits beyond which even the most deeply rooted organisms can no longer function. Thresholds of water, salinity, and temperature are absolute thresholds.

Does a naturally occurring tree of great age have value in itself? Foresters and forest ecologists have long debated this question. A century ago, technicians used words like “overage,” “overmature,” and “decadent” to describe standing timber past its prime. Commercial managers saw tree life as individual and rotational, and considered postmerchantable growth to be a biological waste of time. Their business—international markets for wood products—encouraged uniformity in age and size. By contrast, forest ecologists studied the communities in, on, and under each tree—each a world in itself—and saw forest life as processual. The cycle of life required dead and dying trees. Today, foresters meet ecologists halfway: Old trees provide nutrient cycling, carbon storage, and other “ecosystem services.”

Perdurables are so much more than service providers. They are gift givers. They invite us to be fully human—truly sapient—by engaging our deepest faculties: to venerate, to analyze, to meditate. They expand our moral and temporal imaginations.

In mythical form, trees appear in creation stories, present at time’s beginning. In graphical form, they represent seasons, cycles, genealogies, algorithms, and systems of knowledge. An olden bough is a bridge between temporalities we feel and those we can only think. This is why Darwin imagined millions of years of evolutionary history as a wide-spreading Tree of Life. Most profoundly, select living conifers—ancient organisms of ancient ancestry—are incarnations of geohistory. Volcanic eruptions, magnetic field reversals, and solar proton events leave signatures in their wood. Through tree-ring science, we see how woody plants register cyclical time and linear time, Chronos (durations) and Kairos (moments), climate and weather, the cosmogenic and the planetary. As multitemporal beings—short, long, and deep time together, in living form—perdurables allow us to think about the Anthropocene without anthropocentrism. They grant emotional access to timefulness. 

Full article available at Nautilus.

The “adaptations” that contribute to trees’ longevity have the hallmarks of design, to enable the organism to weather various threats to its existence. The persistence of these living things is remarkable. The author’s description of some trees reminds me of Tolkien’s description of elves: immortal, but still subject to death by violence. Stewarding Earth’s resources by appreciating the value of these longest-lived keepers of history is commended to us by wisdom.

Note: At least in this TED talk, the presenter admits that we have absolutely no idea about what selection advantage is conferred by the plant's behavior. Other websites speculate that plant movement MUSTA have a deterrent effect on herbivores and insects. Also, the presenter continues with some interesting information about venus flytrap triggering design involving electrical signal timing. -Q Querius
Here's some sample behavior of Mimosa pudicea from a TED talk: https://youtu.be/pvBlSFVmoaw?t=204 -Q Querius
Autumn Leafs Laughter Oh please do tell us of your secret you majestic autumn leaves, of regal red, and shimmering golden yellow, Brilliantly coloring the landscapes of trees . Do you dare pass away in a rush of beauty while you are slowly dying? Pay ye no heed to all the other deaths so solemnly attended with tears and crying? or Does the essence in you somehow yearn jealously for a glorious life to come? And you somehow know a secret, a secret that death should not be sad but fun? For I truly wish I could die like you and that I knew the secret of your story, so that my countenance should too light up and glow as my soul is delivered to behold God’s glory. So please autumn leaves which mock death with such defiant belly laughter, Do teach us your secret so that we too may properly enter the hereafter.
2 Corinthians 12:2-4 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows.And I know that this man—whether in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to Paradise. The things he heard were too sacred for words, things that man is not permitted to tell.
Q, RIP, Stanley. There is a really big mimosa tree in my neighbor's yard that drops thousands of seeds in my yard every year, and I find little mimosa tree seedlings here and there all the time. I had a couple working in pots last year and when I would go look at them in the morning, it looked like they were dead. Their leaves were all folded into the stem. Little did I know about turgor! The wonders of plant life! Andrew asauber
Andrew, Gosh, I'd forgotten about my wanting to replace my Mimosa pudicea, often called "sensitive plant" (https://www.thegardenstyle.com/outdoor/mimosa-pudica-care-ultimate-guide/). I named it "Stanley" because I thought the name sounded really sensitive to me for some reason. My wife "murdered" Stanley by lack of water because she hated the way it cringed (rapid temporary loss of turgor) every time she touched or tried watering it. LOL I also love how Darwinists try to rationalize ("musta") the evolution of it's unusual movement capabilities. -Q Querius
So the tree on my radar is Asimina triloba, the American pawpaw. I asked Santa for one, but alas... It's allegedly native to the eastern USA, but I do not remember ever seeing a pawpaw tree or tasting any of its fruit. I planted a black tulip magnolia last year and it seemed to do pretty well, as I watered it regularly. Hope to see some flowers this spring. This year its pawpaw or bust! Andrew asauber
Great poem! Reminds me of a wonderful book, Field Days, by biologist Roger B. Swain. https://www.amazon.com/Field-Days-Journal-Itinerant-Biologist/dp/068417989X?ref_=ast_sto_dp What intrigued me was the "economic wisdom" of plants: They allocate a percentage of energy to growth of leaves (optimistic) versus storage if carbohydrates in their roots (pessimistic). They also allocate energy in their leaves such that deciduous plants create cheap, throw away leaves, while evergreens invest a lot more energy into creating long-lasting leaves that have waxy coatings and insecticides. The all-in investment in height for plants that are shaded is another interesting example, in the common mustard plant (Sinapis nigra), which starts as ground cover but might grow up to nearly 4 meters in height depending on environmental circumstances. This dynamic also leads to comparisons in competition such as Marston Bates' classic, The Forest and the Sea. https://www.amazon.com/Forest-Sea-Economy-Nature-Ecology/dp/1558210091 -Q Querius
"I talk to the trees, That's why they put me away ..." -- Eccles, The Goon Show (played by well-known typing-error Spike Milligna) Seversky
"There is unrest in the forest There is trouble with the trees For the maples want more sunlight And the oaks ignore their pleas The trouble with the maples And they're quite convinced they're right They say the oaks are just too lofty And they grab up all the light But the oaks can't help their feelings If they like the way they're made And they wonder why the maples Can't be happy in their shade There is trouble in the forest And the creatures all have fled As the maples scream "Oppression" And the oaks just shake their heads So the maples formed a union And demanded equal rights "The oaks are just too greedy We will make them give us light" Now there's no more oak oppression For they passed a noble law And the trees are all kept equal By hatchet, axe, and saw" -Rush, The Trees asauber

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