If a tree burns in the swamp, does anyone care?

Early in the morning last Monday, Jan. 16th, 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 had grown to be 38.1 metres tall, and two men’s full arm’s lengths in girth at its trunk. 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; a luxury liner sank. Why is this in the news?”

Personally, what I find a sad here is just how little attention this story actually 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 at times. It especially gets to me at times like this, when you throw in some historical apathy to boot.

So if you’re one of those folk who took time away from your “omg”ing and “lololol”ing on the iPhone to express resentment at The Senator’s appearance in the news, I’d like to take a moment to explain to you why this is a legitimate tragedy.

Three-thousand-five-hundred-years ago the Classical 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 swamp and decided to stick around for a while.

Fast forward 700 years and that little sprout was an all-grown-up cypress tree, 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, and the foundation for the later Roman Constitution, was introduced to the Roman Republic in the form of the Twelve Tables, around when Socrates was a young man in Athens, and 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 Native American groups as a landmark for navigation.

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

That’s a life of 3.5 millennia — 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 the world would have been caught 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 — before man could throw a spear or hammer stone or attach symbolic meaning to the things he or she produced — that went into producing both the quick-paced vigour of our lives, and the sagely patience of a tree’s life.

It passed with just a whisper.

I’m not saying people need to start worshiping trees as gods, or really 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,” that you’d take a very brief moment to really understand what it meant, both in terms of nature and history.

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


Gerald Jacobs wonders what stories he would tell if he could make it to the year 5487.


illustration by s. arden hill