Perspective often determines reality. Among those animals that can potentially live what seems to us a long time, humans measure centuries and millennia, looking for evidence of progress. An article reviewing Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World, on a recent New York Times page, suggests reassessment might be helpful. When it comes to longevity, plants tend to have the advantage over animals. Although the Times article is only a sampling, here we find fungi and plants that have survived for thousands of years. Sometimes as collectives, sometimes as individuals, trees especially have proven themselves to be particularly vital. I was reminded of this as we recently went through the annual ritual of taking down the Christmas tree. We have, since returning to the United States after my doctoral program, visited tree farms where we select a still-living tree each December. Although they are grown to die, the Christmas tree becomes very poignant as it stands naked, ready to be dragged outside and dumped on the curb. The anticipation, the joy involved in welcoming it as a new member of the household, seems lost in the grayness of January. We have killed and now we abandon.
The Christmas tree is, of course, symbolic. Predating Christian solstice remembrances, the evergreen ironically reminds us that life has not ceased, despite the cold and snow. This particular tree has paid the ultimate price to bring another species joy for a few weeks. Can we so heartlessly throw it away? Of course, the community mulches the trees to give new growth to future generations, so there is a kind of sad resurrection here. Life dwells deeply with trees. Some of those highlighted by Sussman have survived since the Sumerians first learned to write on clay, to this very day. Some have survived even 8,000 years.
Life is tenacious. Our tree by the curb still looks green and healthy to me. It has given life to a holiday season that always seems too brief, with its carefree days and sense of togetherness. We now have another year to survive until we might take a few days and ponder if there is indeed more to life than work. Without moving from its spot, simply being grounded in the earth that brought it forth, a tree can survive millennia as human civilization emerges with its frenetic madness and insistence that there is so much more to do and earn. I do wonder, however, if perhaps our long-lived forest dwelling companions might have some deeper wisdom for us. We can be born, grow old, and die in the shadow of a tree that was planted by generations past, or simply found its own way into the world. And after we’re gone there will be some who will look to trees and find an answer.