Monday, February 6, 2012

The seed

The photo you see above is the seed of a redwood tree. Sequoia Sempervirens. It's nothing short of a miracle. A minuscule, hard, unassuming package that contains - not the potential - (such a tired word, bland promise, assumption that weighs the recipient down with a vague sense of having to do something grand, but what?) but the ingredients (affirmative, inarguable, scientific, like chemistry) - needed to become one of the most majestic forms of life on the planet.

Have you ever visited a redwood tree grove? It's a religious experience, vast and peaceful, a thousand times more powerful than the most impressive man-made cathedral (with my respectful apologies to St. Peter’s Basilica.) 

Redwoods are the largest organism the world has ever sustained. They are so big that when you stand up against one, hug it (do it) and look up, it blocks out the sky.

The seed of a redwood tree does not sprout easily. It needs a combination of very specific conditions. All of what you would expect: nutrient-rich soil, and water, and humidity. But here is the astonishing thing: a redwood seed cannot germinate without fire.

It works more or less like this: nature makes certain that sooner or later, fire sweeps through a forest. Redwood trees tend to survive it because their thick, moist, textured bark is rich in tannins, which are burn resistant and protect the redwood. The fire clears the space (by burning everything around the redwood), allowing sunlight to reach the seed. Everything the fire burned turns to an ashy mulch, which provides nutrients to the soil. And, now, for the Pièce de résistance: The very life of the fire, its heat, cracks open the otherwise impenetrable shell of the seed.

And there you have it: previously dormant, this seed is free to become what it was meant to.

Despite their remarkable resistance to fire, redwoods can be fragile. They're often covered in (burn) scars (which I suppose add character). They hate the cold. But, a redwood can survive in places too dark for any other tree. In deep shade, it doesn’t die. It waits. Once hit by light, a primal command tells it what to do. It sprints for the sun, growing up to two feet per year.

A redwood tree is so much more than what you see, even if what you see is nearly overwhelming in its splendor and dignity. It's actually a vertical universe (Richard Preston, in his magical book The Wild Trees, calls it a vertical Eden.) These trees, that predate most human monuments, have a kingdom of plants and animals living in their branches, lichens and ferns and salamanders that cannot be found in any other ecosystem. In Preston’s words “Their mysterious canopies are rich with hanging gardens, blackened chambers hollowed by fire, and vast, aerial trunk systems fused into bridges and towers”.

The purpose implicit in the seed of the redwood is not just a redwood tree, but a glistening green planet teaming with life in its endless combinations.

What is my point here? My point is that we each have a similar kernel of divinity, indestructible and perfect, within each of us. That its magic branches out into everything we set out to build: our lives, our relationships and families and careers. This force inside all of us could be dormant, waiting for the right conditions to unfurl into something so extraordinary that it would be impossible to grasp or even begin to understand.

But it’s there. In you. In me. You just wait and see.