The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Remarkable Story of the Dawn Redwood: How a Living Fossil Brought Humanity Together in the Middle of a World War

How an ancient survivor of the unsurvivable became a triumph of the human spirit in a divided world.

Sixty million years ago, when tropical climes covered the Arctic, a small redwood species developed an unusual adaptation that shaped its destiny: Despite being a conifer — needle-leaved trees that are usually evergreen — it became deciduous, losing all of its needles during the months-long lightless winter to conserve energy, then growing vigorously in the bright summer months — the fastest-growing of the redwoods. With this uncommon competitive edge, it conquered large swaths of the globe, spreading the seeds of its handsome cones across North America and Eurasia. But when the global climate plunged into the Ice Age, its victory march came to an abrupt halt.

We know this because, at the peak of WWII, Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki discovered fossils of this small, mighty redwood species. Nothing like it had ever been described in the botanical literature, so he deemed it extinct, naming it Metasequoia after its kinship to Earth’s most majestic tree.

Metasequoia in winter. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

The World War was still raging when a Chinese forester traveling through Central China in the winter of 1941 came upon a majestic old tree of a kind he had never seen before. There was a small shrine at its foot, where locals had been lighting votives and leaving offerings for decades. They called it, he learned, shui-sa, or “water fir,” for its love of moist soil — a name he had never heard before. Because the tree was already denuded of needles for its seasonal hibernation, he was unable to collect a proper specimen for identification — but he told other foresters and botanists of it, until word reached Zhan Wang, director of China’s Central Bureau of Forest Research.

Intrigued by this unheard of species, Wang set out to see it for himself and to collect specimens, which he shared with colleagues. One of them was Hsen Hsu Hu. A diligent paleobotanist, he had read of Miki’s fossil discovery five years earlier. As soon as he saw the peculiar needle pattern, Hu recognized the “water fir” as a Metasequoia.

Metasequoia needles and bark. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

Here was a living fossil — a lovely ghost of evolution that had somehow survived the unsurvivable.

Across the flaming divide that placed China and Japan on opposite sides of the World War, a small group of scientists had transcended the deadly artifice of borders and the ugliness of weapons to remind the world that the human longing for truth and beauty is greater than our foibles.

The first Chinese person to be awarded a Ph.D. in botany from Harvard University, Hu still maintained a relationship with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum — one of the world’s largest living museums of trees. As news of this ancient tree began making international headlines, lauded by journalists as a “living vestige of younger world,” “as remarkable as discovering a living dinosaur,” the director of the Harvard arboretum cobbled together funds for a collecting expedition in China across the ashen world — one of the last collaborations between Chinese and Western scientists before the Chinese Revolution dropped its leaden wall for decades.

Metasequoia cones. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

As soon as the samples arrived at Harvard, the arborists planted several trees on Massachusetts soil — the first to grow in North America in more than two million years — and began distributing a kilogram of precious seeds to universities and botanical gardens across the globe. Hundreds of human hands from different nations and different creeds pressed them into moist soil, until this global effort to reanimate a ghost of evolution populated parks all over the world with Metasequoia.

Perhaps due to the rich orange color its feathery needles turn before falling, perhaps in homage to its improbable chance at a new day in the epochal calendar of existence, it became known as dawn redwood.

Metasequoia needles in autumn. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

In the 1950s, a retired forester planted eight in Oregon; the fire chief of a California county planted one at the fire department headquarters; eventually, many more were seeded across California and the Pacific Northwest. In the 1970s, New York City community garden patron saint Liz Christy planted one at the iconic Bowery community farm-garden now bearing her name. Today, dawn redwoods rise from the heart of London and thrive in Istanbul’s arboretum. Three stand sentinel over Strawberry Fields — the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. In the final years of the twentieth century, it was declared “the tree of the century.”

The year of the living fossil’s discovery, Einstein’s voice unspooled from the British radio waves, passionate and accented, to make a case for “the common language of science” as the only impartial understanding that can save humanity from itself. Each dawn redwood rising from a patch of spacetime somewhere on this divided and indivisible world is a living monument to what is truest and most beautiful in the human spirit.


The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.”

The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote as he reflected on how to stop limiting your happiness. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

A century and a half before him, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) — father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — examined the building blocks of the good life in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the book he began writing when his wife, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with the daughter whose birth would kill her.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

In a sentiment David Foster Wallace would echo in his own radical reflection on the true value of education, Godwin writes:

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.

A century and a half before Martin Luther King, Jr. incited us to see our “inescapable network of mutuality,” Godwin insists:

In society the interests of individuals are intertwisted with each other, and cannot be separated. Men should be taught to assist each other. The first object should be to train a man* to be happy; the second to train him to be useful, that is, to be virtuous.

But he also acknowledges the inescapable contradictions of human nature and considers the soundest strategy for their reconciliation:

All virtue is a compromise between opposite motives and inducements. The man of genuine virtue, is a man of vigorous comprehension and long views. He who would be eminently useful, must be eminently instructed. He must be endowed with a sagacious judgement, and an ardent zeal.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In Bible Stories — a series for children he wrote under a pseudonym when his radical philosophy rendered him a pariah — Godwin considered the common variable beneath the twin pillars of the good life, central to both morality and love:

Imagination is the ground-plot upon which the edifice of a sound morality must be erected. Without imagination we may have a certain cold and arid circle of principles, but we cannot have sentiments: we may learn by rote a catalogue of rules, and repeat our lessons with the exactness of a parrot, or play over our tricks with the docility of a monkey; but we can neither ourselves love, nor be fitted to excite the love of others.

Pair with Nietzsche on how to find yourself and the true value of education, then revisit Godwin on how to raise an intelligent child and his advice to activists.


Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

Living into the risk and responsibility of the multiple identities we carry.

Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” the young poet Nikki Giovanni told the elder James Baldwin in their historic intergenerational conversation. Perhaps it is because we are such strangers to ourselves — so opaque in our own motives and vulnerabilities, so haunted by confusion and self-contradiction — that we so bruisingly misunderstand and mistreat others, so readily seize on their otherness, lashing our confusions at them, so readily forget that diversity and difference are the reason life exists.

The antidote to that reflex is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) considers in an interview found in Black Women Writers at Work (public library) — the superb collection that also gave us Maya Angelou on writing and our responsibility to our creative gifts.

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

A generation after Hannah Arendt’s insight into the power and opportunity of the outsider position, and an epoch before the term intersectionality existed, Lorde considers the challenge of the multiple identities we each inhabit, which further alienate us from each other for as long as they remain unreconciled and unintegrated within us:

When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain. In other words, when people of a group share an oppression, there are certain strengths that they build together. But there are also certain vulnerabilities. For instance, talking about racism to the women’s movement results in “Huh, don’t bother us with that. Look, we’re all sisters, please don’t rock the boat.” Talking to the black community about sexism results in pretty much the same thing. You get a “Wait, wait… wait a minute: we’re all black together. Don’t rock the boat.” In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.

Considering her own responsibility to that recognition and that reconciliation, she adds:

My responsibility is to speak the truth as I feel it, and to attempt to speak it with as much precision and beauty as possible.

Complement with Lorde on kinship across difference, feeling as an antidote to fearing, and turning fear into creative fire, then revisit Bear and Wolf — a tender illustrated fable about walking side by side in otherness.


The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

“The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.”

The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

It is a gladness to be able to call one’s daily work a labor of love, and to have that labor put food on the table the way any work does, dishwashing or dentistry. And yet such labors of diligence and devotion — the kind William Blake called “eternal work” — are somehow different, different and more vulnerable, for they enter the world in a singular spirit and are recompensed in a singular spirit, distinct from dentistry or dishwashing.

That spirit is the spirit of a gift — not the transaction of two commodities but the interchange of two mutual generosities, passing between people who share in the project of a life worth living.

A year before I was born, the poet Lewis Hyde taxonomized that vital and delicate distinction between work and labor in his eternally giving book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (public library) — a timeless inquiry into what it takes to harmonize “the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture.”

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Hyde writes:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. “Getting the program” in AA is a labor. It is likewise apt to speak of “mourning labor”: when a loved one dies, the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor.

At the heart of the distinction is the recognition that those fruits are offered to the world not as a service or a transaction but as a gift — “the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.” The challenge arises when we try to reconcile the spiritual ecosystem of gifts with the material market economy within which they dwell — the economy of sustenance and solvency of which every modern person partakes just in the course of staying alive.

An epoch before Patreon and Kickstarter and Substack, Hyde issues a clarion call for honoring the gifts we receive:

If we really valued these gift labors, couldn’t we pay them well? Couldn’t we pay social workers as we pay doctors, pay poets as we do bankers, pay the cellist in the orchestra as we pay the advertising executive in the box seat? Yes, we could. We could — we should — reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we shall have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been “made” the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group. The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot.

Art by William Blake for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that gladdens those of us who offer the fruits of our labors freely and are sustained by what is given freely in return, he adds:

The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation… The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.

The Gift remains a vitalizing read, all the more nourishing and necessary in our present culture that so commodifies creative labor and our market economy that so devalues those works of thought and tenderness that most help us live our lives: music, poetry, philosophy, art. Complement these fragments from it with some Hyde-fomented thoughts on music and the price of what we cherish, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his gift that revolutionized art and how Jeanne Villepreux-Power turned her gift into a breakthrough of science.


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