Monuments don't need to be man-made to be meaningful
// Gerald Jacobs

WINNIPEG (CUP) – This year, one of the oldest living organisms in the world caught fire and burned to death. “The Senator” was the nickname given to a cypress tree that had been living in a Florida swamp for the last 3,500 years. It was 38.1 metres tall, and had a girth as wide as two men’s full armspan. Until that day, it had been considered the fifth-oldest tree in the world, and the largest tree of its kind in North America.

Reactions to the event seem to have ranged from, “That’s a little sad,” to, “It’s just a damn tree,” to “Worse things happen every day. Why is this in the news?”

What I find a sad is just how little attention this story received. I understand that indifferent reactions might be attributed to a lack of reflection on how long 3,500 years is, but the apathy permeating our culture really gets to me – and historical apathy is particularly galling.

Three thousand five hundred years ago, the Greeks were just starting construction on the Parthenon, and the pyramids at Giza were still a relatively new sight. The Egyptians were thanking Anuket for the fertile Nile floodplain and praising Horus for making them the most innovative kingdom on Earth. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, a little sprout took root in the middle of a swamp and decided to stick around for a while.

Fast forward 700 years, and that little sprout was probably around 16.8 metres tall and something like middle-aged in cypress-years. Back on the other side of the planet, industrious Romans had started building a city. Another 300 years later, the first public law – the foundation for the later Roman Constitution – was introduced to the Roman Republic in the form of the Twelve Tables, around the time when Socrates was a young man in Athens. Our cypress had reached its average life expectancy of 1,000 years.

Another 1,000 years later, the ancient Greek civilization had long been swallowed by the Roman Empire, which had only recently collapsed itself. Our tree was now twice as old as it could have ever expected to be, much larger, and frequently utilized by local Indigenous groups as a landmark for navigation.

Yet another 1,000 years passed. Our tree had survived three millennia of fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. It had witnessed untold generations of American First Nations people, and seen the European colonization of America and everything that followed, bad and good – from the impact of colonialism on the First Nations, to humans walking on the Moon.

The Senator had been there for nearly every major moment of recorded human history, living out its life in quiet solitude. As old empires died and new ones reshaped the face of the Earth, this tree grew without interruption for three times as long as it ought to have.

Had we awoken that Monday to find that the Washington Monument, a national symbol of American achievement, had spontaneously caught fire and collapsed, much of the world would have been in shock. Had one of the Great Pyramids – international symbols of human achievement – suddenly collapsed, we would have collectively wept for the loss. But a 3,500 year-old tree transcends human achievement. It is a natural monument to life itself, a symbol of all the aeons – of a time before man could throw a spear, or hammer stone, or attach symbolic meaning to the things he or she produced.

This giant passed with just a whisper.

I’m not saying people need to start worshiping trees as gods or change their lives in any appreciable way. I just wish that if all you had to say about this event was, “It’s not news; it’s only a damn tree,” you’d take a very brief moment to understand what it meant, both in terms of nature and history.

A monument need not be man-made to be meaningful.

//Gerald Jacobs, The Manitoban (University of Manitoba)
//Graphics by Marco Ferriera

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