Behind my brother’s suburban home just outside of Columbus, Ohio city limits is a stand of evergreens, mostly spruce and fir, some pines and even junipers. I looked out upon them this morning and thought of the diversity among them. Different conifers, different adaptations and appearances. Unlike deciduous trees, they have adapted to keep green throughout the winter months instead of dropping their leaves and going dormant.
“All different but the same” I thought to myself, musing about that one mother tree that all conifers evolved from. “I wonder how far back that might have been, 70 million years to the Late Jurassic? Who knows?” Well someone probably has it figured out, but certainly not me, not a paleobotanist, nor a botanist at all. I would guess that conifers were around far, far longer. Maybe longer than deciduous trees. Maybe even to the Carboniferous period, before even the dinosaurs.
I thought back to the three whitetail does that almost jumped in front of the car I was driving one night a few days before. Warm blooded mammals. Same as me but different. I remembered reading how counterintuitively, mushrooms and other fungi are closer to animals genetically than they are to plants.
All different, yet all the same stuff.
I contemplated the closest tree to me, just across the wooden fence separating my brother’s property line from the stand of conifers. It was a tall juniper. The stand belonged to a larger property, a Christmas tree farm that had been there for many years, before the suburbs grew around it. The property was already marked for development, and apparently had even been sold, though the sellers were still tenants until the developers were ready. In the meantime they were able to continue operating their business.
These trees, at the far end of their property were all far too mature to be household Christmas trees; most well over 15 feet tall. The originally German tradition, adopted by North Americans in the US and Canada, of harvesting an evergreen as a ritual Tannenbaum or Christmas Tree has largely died out, with the urbanization of populations. A few people still buy real Christmas trees from urban lots that set up in November and disappear the day after Christmas, but most, if they set up a tree at all, do so with an artificial, plastic totem, sometimes bearing only the vaguest resemblance to any plant found in nature.
I sat there looking at the tall juniper, wondering how long it had been there, when it was planted? It was almost certainly more than a decade old, meaning it had sprouted from a seed before I left my home city, a decade before. Columbus gets more rain in December than snow, but this year, my first back for winter in quite a few years, was very much a “white Christmas.” Today was sunny, and the temperature was well above freezing. The snow was melting but there was still plenty on the ground.
“That tree and I, if we go back far enough, have a common ancestor,” I reminded myself. I looked down at the snow-covered lawn. The only footprints were that of my wife. Coming from the tropical Andes, this trip was her first time experiencing snow, and she had earlier trekked around the house recording the experience to share with her friends via her smartphone.
I thought about the earth under the snow. I have often said of Ohio, my home state, “This is the soil I am made from.” At this moment I remembered that it is also quite literally, the soil that the juniper, and the firs and the spruce are all made from, and the dormant oaks, maple and beech trees. The walnut and buckeye trees. The winter wheat we passed in a field a few days before. We are all the same stuff.
I couldn’t help but think about idiotic human squabbles and divisions over illusions like race, the passports we hold, and religion. I looked out over the serenity of the pines, the spruce, the fir, there in peace and stillness. Different but together, different but also the same.
I thought about careless, unnecessary pollution, and on an individual level, simple litter. We poison ourselves. We are everything around us. The idea that we live apart from nature is as fictional as a pantheon of Greek gods living atop Mount Olympus. We throw things out, into rivers that flow elsewhere or winds that blow away, but the Earth is round. There really is no elsewhere. It is a matter of perception, and a matter of time.
Under the seas, the continents are all connected. The same water flows in all ocean and the same sky rains upon all of us.
We are all the same stuff. Every lichen, every mushroom, every protozoan, cedar, crocodile, moose and salmon. Every Samoan, Swiss and Senegalese.
We are all the same stuff.
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