All Fossils Have A Story

A first visit to the John Day Fossil Beds, in the dried-out hills in eastern Oregon, is a surprise, the hills of banded red and yellow and black, pulp science fiction book covers made real. But another surprise awaits in these hills. The area is heavy with fossils and a common one is a tree, a redwood. Here in California we are familiar with the coast redwood (just called “redwood”) and the giant sequoia (just called “sequoia”). This fossil species is the dawn redwood.

All fossils have a story but the story of the dawn redwood–Metasequoia–is special.

Up until 1941 there was no Metasequoia in the fossil record but its fossil remains were abundant across the northern hemisphere, with an especially strong concentration in eastern Oregon. There was no Metasequoia because these fossils were thought to be three other species of tree. In 1941 Metasequoia as its own genus appeared when a Japanese botanist, Shigeru Miki, realized that it was all the same plant.

The big discovery, though, happened three years later. Zhan Wang, a professor of forestry, investigating reports of an unusual tree in a remote valley in China, collected samples of what he thought at the time was a water pine, but he wasn’t so sure. The locals thought the tree special and had built a shrine beneath it. Academic researchers thought it special, too, when they saw Zhan Wang’s cuttings and cones and sent for more samples.

It was Metasequoia, alive somehow after being extinct for millions of years. The news was a sort of biological bombshell in the botany world and it caught the attention of the public, the New York Times of February 1, 1948 sharing the news that the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University had successfully obtained seeds and cuttings of the few trees that had been found, hoping to stave off a real extinction of tree, soon to be called a dawn redwood.

And stave off the extinction they did. The tree is widespread now, planted here and there, a nice landscape tree that grows quickly.

I’ve never seen a dawn redwood, at least I wasn’t aware of seeing it when I did. I decided I wanted to see one and found a specimen near me in an abandoned quarry, now a park, in El Granada, California.

On my first visit to the park, looking for Metasequoia and having a rough set of directions to the tree, I walked right past it. I was looking for a tree roughly triangular in shape like in the pictures online. The tree I walked by on my first visit but found on the second is a gangly thing, two trunks rising from the ground, the stumps of sawed-off limbs decorating each trunk. Looking at the needles they are the same as the online photos, a perfect match to the fossils, my hand holding a living thing essentially identical to those that provided shade, cover, perhaps even food for dinosaurs.

I have little interest in botany but when I was a child I had a serious interest in dinosaurs, wanting desperately to be a paleontologist, only turning away from the field at ten or twelve years of age for a two-year foray into Egyptology, only turning away from academia altogether when I realized most of my time in such a career would be spent in an office.

I found my second Metasequoia–my second, third and fourth actually, on the campus of Stanford University, just behind the campus bookstore. There’s a taller one with two smaller specimens flanking it like protective pawns. From a short distance they blend together into a single tree with three vertical trunks.

The dawn redwood, as I noted before, is a deciduous tree, meaning it loses its needles during winter, unlike the coast redwood or the giant sequoia. These Stanford specimens were well on their way to their dormant state, their needles already turning a golden red.

Just down the road at the Palo Alto post office is another dawn redwood, a wooden sign in front of it proudly proclaiming that this example was planted in 1949, which is to say it is one of the oldest specimens in the United States. I’m guessing it was collected directly from the original discovery tree by the Arnold Arboretum’s efforts. It’s a historic tree. Only the post office didn’t water it. Their irrigation system broke at some point and the tree was left to face the endless California drought on its own, the layers of concrete sidewalks and asphalt roads surrounding it a sort of rock coffin. The top of the tree has died. Many branches have dead tips. It is a sad, battered tree, waiting to wither away.

Facing fewer budget constraints is a private residence a few blocks away. The neighborhood is well kept and the houses lovely. In other cities these would be the homes for the town’s upper class, successful but by no means wealthy. Here, in Palo Alto, awash with money from the revolution in Silicon Valley, this house would go for six million dollars or more if it were listed. The whole street is the same, five hundred million in real estate viewable on a short stroll. But the big money–the money gets astonishingly big in the Bay Area–lives elsewhere.

In the yard of this residence is a dawn redwood. It is beautiful, full of life, a large tree, said to have been planted in the late 1940s. The Palo Alto city council staff report granting its heritage status noted in 1999 that it was second only to the specimen at the post office. Now, with the damage done to the Metasequoia at the post office, this tree reigns supreme.

Leave a Reply