“But I don’t really understand how we get here.”
“I’ve told you before, sweetheart, a seed is planted, it grows and it becomes you.”
“But how do they know which seed to plant so it becomes exactly me?” The cheeky little cedar’s curiosity always got the better of it. When an answer to a question it had asked didn’t feel quite satisfactory, it simply asked another…and another…and another. All of the older cedars around it were used to the constant barrage of enquiries now. They had plenty of time on their hands and so they quite enjoyed the way the little cedar would test their knowledge.
“Now that is a good question,” the older cedar replied. Being located so close to the younger tree, it had taken on the role of care-giver and nurturer. In the tree world, there are no real biological parents so older trees take on the responsibility of raising any younger ones around them. This ensures that the wisdom of trees is passed on from generation to generation. “In fact, that one’s really got me thinking.”
The younger tree always felt happy when any of the older trees praised it for anything. It had always felt it was destined for a bit more than just standing in the same spot for centuries. It couldn’t exactly do much about its very stationary life, so it felt that learning new things and discovering all it could about the world and how it worked helped to provide the variety and novelty it so sought.
“I’m not sure that a seed can be chosen so that it becomes exactly anyone,” the older cedar finally stated, after much consideration. “It might be known what type of tree we’re going to be, but no-one can know with any accuracy which unique and individual tree we’ll grow up to be. That depends on a lot of things.”
“It does?” This was news to the young cedar. But it was news that it found fascinating. What things did who it was growing up to be depend upon?
“Yes. Our environment, the conditions around us, and even the quality of the seed we sprung from all determine who we’ll eventually be.”
“Wow!” The young cedar was overcome. This was a lot of information to take in.
“Shall I break it down for you a little. So that what I’m saying is maybe a bit clearer?”
“OK. Then let’s start at the beginning, right back at when you started out as a little seed…,” the older cedar suggested. “Yes, that would be a very sensible place to commence.”
The landscape surrounding the two cedars was awash with lush green grass and small clumps of daisies. They both lived rather close to an old castle, and their home was right on the border of the castle grounds, where it met the open countryside that extended around it as far as a tree could see. Fortunately, the castle grounds in particular were very well tended, and a small area of newly planted camperdown elms was being cultivated very close to where the cedars stood. The older cedar was grateful to have something visual to help support what it was about to share with its younger charge.
“Well firstly, a seed is transported to the place it ends up calling home – usually by wind, water, by animals hiding it for food, or even through an animal doing its droppings!” The younger cedar giggled at this. It found it very amusing to think that it might be in the geographical location it was in now because a badger or an owl had decided to relieve itself on exactly this spot. “I know. It is kind of funny. Nature’s landscape planning is rather random.”
“But what about that group of young trees over there?” the young cedar suddenly thought to ask. “Did the animals all do what they needed to in lines?”
Now it was the older cedar’s turn to laugh. “What an amusing thought!” it said with a chuckle. “But no, those trees have been placed in those lines very purposefully by the owners of the castle. So it’s not quite the same thing. All trees’ locations are very well thought out, whether by nature or humans. It’s just that humans tend to want to plant trees in a slightly more organised fashion.”
“Why’s that?” the younger cedar asked, not quite understanding this need for planning and structure.
“Well sometimes it can be for very practical reasons, like space constraints. Or perhaps because certain trees will look attractive together once they grow up. But that’s really a conversation for another time.” The older cedar felt it was important to keep its younger neighbour on track, knowing it had a tendency to let its inquisitive mind steer it down many a detour when involved in any line of questioning. “So, to get back to our story of how trees come to be where and who they are, it is the seed which initially ends up somewhere and begins the whole tale.”
The younger cedar, who was a lover of stories, forgot in an instant about its previous question and focused its mind once again on the matter in hand. “OK. And what happens next?”
“Well after that, it’s to be hoped the seed is in a location with appropriate conditions. That basically means that it has good quality, moist soil all around it, so that it has plenty of nutrients. If it is, then it becomes a sprout. This is when its first root breaks through and it is anchored into the ground. Through this root it is able to take in water to help it develop into a plant.”
The young cedar was listening so intently that it didn’t even think to ask any questions about what it had just heard. The older cedar took advantage of this and quickly continued. “The next stage in sprouting – which is also known as germination – is when an embryonic shoot emerges. This shoot pushes up through the soil and begins to grow. The shoot leaves either poke up above the ground as well, or they rot underneath the earth.”
“If they rot, doesn’t that make the shoot go bad?” the young cedar suddenly interjected. Its curiosity appeared to once again be back in working order.
“No. In fact, when they decompose the leaves provide more nutrients to help the shoot grow. So it’s actually a good thing.” The little cedar found it interesting that in this circumstance rotting could be something positive, and it resolved to find out more about rotting at another time. For now, this explanation had sated its appetite for a little extra knowledge.
“So, a shoot actually becomes a seedling once it is above the ground. And at this point in its life is when a tree is at most risk from things like disease or damage from animals like deer grazing.”
“Ah yes, well that’s just another word for eating really. But it’s when animals roam around munching on a little bit of food here and a little bit there. And sometimes they eat seedlings because they don’t really know what they are and they confuse them with grass.”
“What happens after that?” The young cedar was eager to hear more and as a result didn’t want to slow things down by asking any more questions about seedlings.
“After that? Oh after that comes the really exciting part. Because when a tree grows that bit taller – perhaps about the height of a young deer – then it becomes a sapling. And that is a very special phase of life indeed. The sapling’s height depends on the species of the tree, but all saplings have some things in common.”
“They do?” The younger tree was surprised to find this out but keen to discover more.
“Yes, saplings usually have flexible trunks and smooth bark, and they aren’t able to produce fruit or flowers. That is something that comes later on.“
The young cedar considered its own trunk and bark for a moment. “So I’m not a sapling then?” it wondered out loud, sounding a little disappointed.
“Oh yes, yes. You are still very much a sapling. Trees like us cedars, who live for centuries, are saplings for much longer than a species such as the silver birch, which lives a much shorter life.”
“I’m a sapling! I’m a sapling!” The young cedar couldn’t contain its delight. There was something about the word and this stage of a tree’s life that had appealed to it greatly, and it was excited to hear that it would continue to be a sapling for quite some time to come.
“Indeed you are. And you’ll only become what we call a mature tree once you start producing fruit or flowers.”
“When I get some of those dark little berries that you have?” the young cedar checked. It wasn’t sure whether they were what its teacher was talking about.
“Yes. When your berries first flourish, that is when you will become an adult tree. And you may continue to produce them for many, many years.”
“Why will I make berries?” The young cedar’s question made the older tree realise how much knowledge it took for granted. Of course, the younger tree couldn’t yet be expected to know why it would produce fruit.
“So that you can feed the wildlife that visit us, like squirrels and all the different kinds of birds. The berries help to keep them alive and well.”
The younger tree was amazed to learn this fact. Imagine! I’ll be responsible for helping to keep my animal friends well fed and active. It felt incredible pride at knowing that it would be contributing to the wellbeing of the wonderful little creatures that flew among and scampered along its branches.
“And will I produce berries forever?” There was a note of hope in the young cedar’s voice.
“I’m afraid not.” Its older friend had to be entirely honest because this was where the next part of the young tree’s life came to pass. “Assuming the soil you are planted in has been rich enough to sustain you for many years, and the weather hasn’t been too hot or cold or wet or dry – so you have been able to remain healthy and unharmed – then eventually, you will become an ancient tree.”
“Ancient? You mean like really, really old? Like those trees over there?” The younger tree was referring to an extremely old yew and oak which stood not all that far from where the two cedar trees were standing. Its tone was one of fascination mixed with concern. “I might end up like them one day?”
The older cedar could tell that this particular section of the story about who the younger tree may become hadn’t been received with quite the enthusiasm of the previous details. Quite unsurprising really, it thought to itself. Do any of us ever really relish ageing?
“Yes, like them.”
“And how old will I be when I become ancient?” Fortunately, the young tree’s inquisitiveness still prevailed over any preoccupation it might have about its future.
“Well that is extremely hard to say,” the older cedar admitted. “It depends on our species and how long we typically live for. So a black willow may be called ancient when it is but a few decades old, whereas we become ancient after hundreds of years.”
The young cedar found this quite reassuring, as it was definitely not anywhere near even a hundred years old yet. But it felt sorry for the black willow at the same time. How sad that it became ancient so soon. The young cedar supposed it should be very grateful that however its original seed had come to be planted in the ground where it was now stood, it was very fortunate that it had been a cedar seed. If everything went well then it would be around for a very prolonged period to come.
“If all trees become ancient at different ages, then how does anyone know which trees are ancient and which aren’t simply by their age?” the young cedar thought to ask.
How astute! thought the older cedar. I can see that my young friend is keen to acquire a vast quantity of knowledge. It in turn will be able to spread that knowledge among the younger trees around it one day. This concept – the idea of the continual passing on of learning from generation to generation – made the older tree feel very comforted and content. Aren’t we all simply here to pass on what we learn to those who come after us, so that they may put it to good use by using it to improve their own life and then passing it on to others?
“It is indeed hard to tell if a tree is ancient simply by its age. There are other identifiers to look for which help, however. A wide trunk, which is often hollow, and a smaller canopy are good signs that a tree may have reached this stage of its life.”
The younger cedar felt a little strange upon realising that over time its beautiful, juvenile, strong-feeling trunk may become empty. In fact, it made it feel somewhat apprehensive.
“But what would it feel like to be empty inside?” it blurted out, before it could gather its thoughts.
“I can’t say I honestly know,” the older tree confessed. “I haven’t quite reached that stage yet. But I suppose it may be nice to feel a little lighter. Then again, it could be dispiriting too. I’m sure there are many ancient trees who miss the density of their youth.” The younger tree contemplated this answer for a few moments. It couldn’t conceive of a time when it would miss feeling how it felt now, because obviously, it was still now, and it only knew how it was feeling here, in this moment. “And once you get ancient, and empty, then what happens after that?” It wasn’t quite sure why it was asking this question, but something made it sense that this perhaps wasn’t the quite the end of the story.
“I’m glad you’ve asked,” the older cedar said calmly, impressed that its young friend still wanted to find out about even things that didn’t entirely appeal to it. “In the final stages of life, a tree becomes a snag. Although the tree may seem to be losing its value, it is actually at this time that its use to the wildlife that visit it becomes greatest of all.”
“Really?” The younger tree had not been expecting this piece of uplifting news. “But how?”
“Well, a tree that has died or is decaying is an essential part of the biodiversity cycle. It provides homes for insects and fungi. Creatures such as birds and bats and little mammals use these insects as food and use the holes in trees as a shelter, and they also become food for larger mammals and birds of prey.”
“Wow!” The younger cedar was surprised once again. “So when I die, I’ll still be helping all the wildlife around me?”
“You certainly will.”
“So dying isn’t really something to be scared of if you like helping?”
“No,” the older tree confirmed, happy to hear such a positive take on what was inevitable for any tree.
“And does everything happen just as you’ve said, to every tree?” the younger cedar wanted to know. “You told me that when a seed is planted its impossible to be sure exactly what and who that tree is going to turn into.”
“I did,” the older tree responded, glad that its younger friend hadn’t forgotten the reason behind the tale it was telling. “And no, not all trees will go through everything I’ve talked about. Do you remember I mentioned needing good soil, and not getting too hot or cold?”
“Or wet or dry? Yes.”
“If certain things befall a tree, and its environment and conditions aren’t just as they need to be, then a tree may not make it through all of the stages of life. It could, for example, go straight from being a sapling to being a snag owing to disease, or a sudden and long-term spell of hot, dry weather.”
The young cedar was crestfallen at this idea. So I might not make it past being a sapling at all! It could hardly believe this, as it felt so strong and full of vigour, almost as if there was no way it could ever do anything other than keep on living and growing.
“Yes, sadly that is the case. That is why I began by pointing out that no-one can predict the individual path of a tree over its lifetime. We are all unique, and our environment and the conditions we develop in both affect us greatly. No two trees are ever completely the same, as similar as they may be.”
The younger tree took this information in, and it realised that somehow what it had learned had made it feel very special, something of a one-off. It was now so appreciative of all the things that were contributing to its still continuing to grow each day. “Do you think it would be a good thing to know who will be and who exactly we will become?” it decided to ask its older, wiser friend.
“I’m not sure it would,” the older cedar replied, unaware until it had spoken these words about its own feelings on this subject. “Isn’t some of life about enjoying its unpredictability and wondering what each new day will bring?”
“Yes,” the young cedar agreed. “And the unexpected can help educate us. Because if we knew exactly how everything was going to turn out, then how would we learn so much?”
“Exactly.” The old cedar’s voice softened as it came to the end of its tale. “And that is the story of us, the trees, and how we are all so very different. And yet there is much likeness between us.”
“I think I am looking forward to seeing who I turn into.” The younger tree resolved to make this its resolution even if it did have to stand here in the same place for many hundreds of years to come. “And perhaps in time I will be able to explain to other young trees what makes us us, who we might become, and how much we can help all of those around us.”
“I think that would be marvellous,” the older tree agreed. “Because if we are to become anything over time, no matter our individuality, then perhaps it should be a tree who wants to help other trees. One who wants to help them understand who they are, who they can become and what things may affect them on their journey. By supporting each other in this way, we can surely all become the very best version of our own tree possible.”