Thursday, November 17, 2011
photo by Kris H. Macomber
As I walk Mount Auburn Cemetery, there are things everywhere that grab me. Trees, vistas, stones, tombs, birds, shrubs...I love almost all of it. (There are a few bad stones here and there, hence the qualifier). Here, I'm photographing a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). This incredible tree is literally a living fossil; it is the sole living representative of its genus (three are known only from fossils).
Though the species was thought long extinct by 1944, a small stand of trees was discovered growing at a shrine in Sichuan Province, and all Metasequoias now alive are propagules of that one population. A sobering thought, but also kind of a beautiful one. I was told as an undergrad at Harvard that the first dawn redwoods were brought from China by a 1948 expedition launched by Harvard's Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. And that these two here at Mt. Auburn Cemetery were the very first to be planted anywhere outside that shrine in China. The plaques on their mighty trunks say they were planted in 1951, only seven years after the "living fossil's" rediscovery.
Knowing that makes my awe at their beauty all the deeper.
An evergreen with the perfect audacity to color into flame, then drop every needle in one swell foop.
They light up Spectacle Pond with celestial fire.
Hodge says that the window of beauty is very narrow; that when they drop their needles that's it, and it's very sudden. How blessed we are to be here when they're in full flame! and how blessed to have the sun peek out just as I am seeing them with brand new eyes.
I move to their bases to appreciate their weathered trunks and glowing needles. A neighbor of mine down the street in Richmond, Virginia made the mistake of planting one quite close to his house. It grew fast and dominated his yard, looking something like a feathered telephone pole, towering impossibly over his dwarf crabapples and his cowering split-level house. It reminded me of this lovely verse by Jane Hirshfield, titled simply "Tree."
It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.
Even in this
you will have to choose.
That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—
Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
Long may they grow and light this pond with their ancient fire.
Since the species' rediscovery, several natural populations have been found in Hubei's Lichuan County in China. The largest numbers around 5,400 trees. Yay and sigh.