What We Can Learn from Trees


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.



Tradition holds that this tree, which stands in the courtyard of the Zoshigaya Kishimojin Temple in Tokyo, brings fertility to worshippers. Though the goddess Kishimojin is a guardian deity of children, her backstory paints a darker picture. She fed her own offspring—possibly thousands—by devouring the children of others. To teach her a lesson, Buddha hid one of her children in an alms bowl. A distraught Kishimojin appealed to him, and he admonished her for the suffering she had caused. Suitably chastened, she vowed henceforth to protect all children.



The apple that fell from the tree in front of Sir Isaac Newton’s childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, did not, as myth suggests, smack the great man on the head. It landed, as apples do, on terra firma. But as an account published in 1752 said, it prompted a reverie that in time crystallized into the law of gravity. A storm felled the original “gravity” tree around 1820, but it remained rooted and regrew into the tree pictured above.

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.

Source: National Geographic

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