Welcome to My Prehistoric Fantasy Life
Longing for an ancient form of shade
Once upon a time, there was a great red maple in front of my house. It was taller than the house itself and its branches veiled our windows from the street. It’s not the only reason that we settled in the house. But it was clearly a guardian and protector, and it gave us the sense that the home was safe.
Not long after we moved in, we noticed something amiss on the maple’s bark, not far from the place where its roots pushed into the soil. Something had been eating away at the bark, leaving behind a network of pock marks. An arborist came to visit and told us that the tree had been infected by a fungus. The tree had apparently been weakened, years ago, when it was topped; the canopy had been chopped off, presumably with the aim of minimizing the tree growth. He pointed to several of its formidable boughs and explained that some of them were already functionally dead. They had been hollowed out, and the whole system was vulnerable. Some boughs still hosted small, struggling forms of new growth. But we were left shocked and unsettled by this sudden knowledge of the skeletal fragility of our guardian tree.
The arborists did what they could. For years they would visit, to feed the tree an antifungal treatment. And we also tended to it. The previous tenants on the land had surrounded the tree with hundreds of pounds of river stones. Perhaps this was their attempt to hide the spreading fungal infection. We shoveled away wheelbarrows of stones until all that was left were the stones buried in the dirt. For months we picked away at the dry soil, trying to root out hundreds of small stones, so that we could feed the soil with compost and other new life.
Finally, when the roots could breathe again, we began to plant new life around it. My mother would visit, with pots full of giant ferns and hostas from her own shade garden, and we started to cultivate a new little garden in the shade. Nothing gave me the kind of peace I found in that shade garden. Hidden from the harsh glare of the sun, I would listen to the sound of birds singing around my little home. I would pull away the crab grass creeping into the garden. My daughter would build fairy houses in the crevices between the roots. And I would think about my mother’s shade gardens, with massive ferns, and the shade garden of my grandmother, where you could sometimes find the skull bones of animals that she’d discovered in the woods and honored with a resting place. The shade is a space for memory.
But then one day, during a terrible summer thunderstorm, I was working in the house when I heard a deep and booming crack. We ran outside to find one of the maple’s largest boughs on the ground. It looked as if a giant had peeled the tree open, thinking it was a banana. What remained of the great red maple was teetering, unwieldy, to the left.
The arborists pronounced that there was nothing left to do but to take the tree down. It took a full day, and several men with a crane. I watched from the second floor window as the tree shrunk in halting stages. Days later, another couple of men came to grind the stump down. Little bits of wood flew everywhere, hitting our house like bullets.
Every feeling I had about my home changed when that tree came down. From the street, my house looked naked, small, exposed, and unsafe. But the worst thing of all was that the shade garden I’d built was now exposed to the raw force of the sun. Within a matter of days, those light sensitive beings began to yellow, and shrivel, and die. I no longer had a space of refuge, in the outer ring that enclosed my house. That raw light of the sun cultivates spaces of erasure.
I asked the arborist what we could plant that would grow quickly. I was desperate to create more shade. I wanted my garden to stop dying. I wanted shade—I wanted protection. He told me that, if it were his house, he would plant a dawn redwood: a metasequoia. He said that it could grow as much as five feet in a year. And when it got very tall, the branches would remain close to the trunk. “You would never need to call me to prune it,” he said. “Those trees are powerful, stable, and strong.”
I became obsessed with the dawn redwood. I hunted down the few that grew in our city and stood underneath them when I could, to feel out what sort of shade they made. The dawn redwood is an old tree, so ancient that it seems to come from a time before the split between deciduous and coniferous trees. It has cones, but it also has bright soft needles that it sheds, in the fall, like leaves. The trunk is often rippled, like waves of water. It feels both gentle and strong.
A couple of people, when I told them that we were going to plant a dawn redwood, asked me—with a little condescension—if it was a native species. I told them that perhaps it was, millions of years ago and in another climate. There is evidence that dawn redwoods used to grow in North America, although I don’t know if they grew where I live (in Kentucky). They may have lost official “native status” anywhere from 5 to 20 million years ago. For a long time, foresters believed that the tree was extinct.
In 1944, a Chinese forester named Zhan Wang collected specimens from dawn redwoods in the Hubei Province of China (in an area then known as Sichuan). The local people called the tree a water fir, mostly because it grew so easily in the water logged areas near rice fields. There were votive shrines planted at the bottom of some of the dawn redwoods—signs that the trees were revered.
Four years later, in 1948, a shipment of dawn redwood seeds arrived at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. These may have been sent by Hsen Hsu Hu, a Harvard alum and director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology, in Beijing. He had helped to classify the seed specimens, verifying that they were indeed a living version of a tree thought to be long extinct. The Harvard Arboretum (which now uses an image of the dawn redwood in its logo) repackaged the seeds, and sent them around the country.
Later that same year a group of American botanists decided to seek the tree out, to study it in its living context. An excursion, led by a paleobotanist named Ralph Chaney from the University of California, Berkeley, traveled to the Sichuan Province, hoping to gain access to the forest alongside an invasion staged by communist troops. The American travelers apparently hired twelve local people to carry them, in sedan chairs, through the mountains. This was how the metasequoia seeds, and knowledge about them, spread west.
This past weekend, I saw a small (but mighty) stand of dawn redwood trees on the grounds of Pendle Hill—a Quaker-run retreat center where I attended a conference. The stand was planted in 1966, as a memorial for a former board member. In all likelihood, the seeds (or seedlings) came from that 1948 shipment from China. Today the trees in the stand are massive, with trunks grooved like gently rolling hills. Standing below them, I thought about the little dawn redwood in front of my house that’s been growing there for only a year. It feels like a tiny baby, though it’s grown at least two feet over the course of the spring and summer.
Feeling happy to have found these friends, I went for a walk in the surrounding forest and found my eyes drawn, gratefully, to the ferns along my path. I realized, as I stood staring down at the ferns, how they tap into a dimension of my psyche that only the dawn redwood seems able to reach. It’s a deeply soothing, pacifying, form of comfort and assurance. What was it, I wondered, that these plants do for (or to) me? What do they do, that nothing else can?
Some people call the dawn redwood a “living fossil”. Ferns have been on the planet even longer, perhaps more than 150 million years longer. So they, like dawn redwoods, are living fossils too. Both of them predate the era of flowering plants. An earth that old, aim a time before flowering plants, opens into a deep time that’s so unthinkable to me, I get lost in awe just trying to imagine it. If the most reliable metaphor we’ve had to make sex abstract is to speak about the birds and the bees, these plants are from a time before sex.
When I can stand in the shade that a dawn redwood offers to me, or when I find myself in a form of shade that’s gentle enough to cultivate fern life, perhaps I feel as if I’ve caught a brief and momentary glimpse of this deep time. As the planet burns, I find a refuge in this ancient form of shade—this shade from a time before flowering plants. I try to convince myself that it will come again, this ancient shade. That, in deep time, all things are roughly cyclical. These beings are like icons of a deeper time, and its cycles. Perhaps their ancient shade will protect us from something new, unprecedented, and terrible that’s on the horizon. Or perhaps, at the very least, they will keep shading us as we fold into it.
Is this a prelapsarian fantasy? Am I imagining myself into a time beyond the Anthropocene? A time before the human? A time before the fall that is capitalism? Is this fantasy of another kind of time what I feel, in this ancient form of shade?
This sort of dream—of a time before history, before the trauma that is history—is certainly part of what operates in the idea of prehistory. Those who seek out the living fossils of prehistory—like Upper Paleolithic cave art—are seeking to connect with something that’s older than the terror that is industrial civilization. The idea of prehistory, itself, is the product of an Enlightenment form of thought that was becoming more aware of itself, of its own history, and more terrified of what it saw there.
I feel a bit deluded, when I think about my longing for an ancient form of shade in this way. I feel like I’m grasping at straws. I feel as if my prehistoric fantasy life has been laid bare, and found lacking.
But I’m not so sure that we can talk about scales of time that are that deep without conjuring up dreams of a saving of some form, if not a salvation. Reaching back into time is, in itself, a gesture or an act of saving. It’s part of the dream of holding onto something, and of being held, or rescued, or recognized by what you’ve saved. It helps if the form of time you’re reaching into is spectacular, like deep time. But this can also happen when you reach back into historical time.
Perhaps it’s only inevitable that my dawn redwood, and the ferns that I believe will someday grow beneath it, feed a kind of salvation dream for me. They feed a kind of hope: that maybe they will stay with us here, these trees, these ferns, these ancient green beings who soothe me in their shade, even while the world is burning. When the sun cooks us as if it were a woods witch who has captured us in her oven, wouldn’t it be wonderful—wouldn’t we be lucky—if they stayed? Maybe they will still protect us, with their shade from a time before flowering plants.
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