Shared dendrochronologies: Andrew Schelling on poetry, translation, & the aliveness of wor(l)ds

Giant sequoia cross-section, Arizona State Museum | University of Arizona
Giant sequoia cross-section, Arizona State Museum | University of Arizona

 A few summers ago, I took a walk one evening to find a California redwood 5,600 miles from home. Sequoia sempervirens, the sign said, Latin for ever green or everlasting, which is to say such trees are both non-deciduous and among the oldest living things on Earth. Located in the Jardin des Prébendes, a few blocks from the French city center of Tours, this particular sequoia was a mere 150 years old, but had I seen it towering somewhere north along my own Pacific coast, it couldn't have been more wondrous.


A poet's job is to show us a tree, before our mind tells us what a tree is, said treasured poet and translator Yves Bonnefoy, who lived, if not as long as a sequoia, into his nineties, and whose more than 100 books have been translated into over 30 languages, which might be to call them everlasting.


I read this sentence of his in English: At its most intense, reading is empathy, shared existence.


Q. How to read the existence of a tree?

A. What if we were to enter the rings?


In 1931, the cross-section of a giant sequoia traveled by train from California to Arizona under the care of Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an astronomer who pioneered the modern science of tree-ring study and named it dendrochronology.

We are measuring the lapse of time by means of a slow-geared clock within the trees. For this study the name ‘dendro-chronology’ has been suggested, or ‘tree-time’. This expression covers all the dating and historic problems . . . as well as the study of cyclic variations and the distribution of climatic conditions.

Dendrochronology is how we know it's possible for coast redwoods like the one in the Jardin des Prébends to live as long as 2,500 years. Fossils show the species' existence dates back more than 200 million years — to the Jurassic period, when the first birds are thought to have appeared.

A tree becomes a nest the moment a great dreamer hides in it writes a scientist who remains a friend to poets long after his death, Gaston Bachelard. I read his sentence in yellowed pages of The Poetics of Space fifty years after it is translated into English.


Bachelard quotes from Thoreau's journal of March 17, 1858 in the chapter, "Nests."


Born forty years after Bachelard, Yves Bonnefoy grew up Tours, and I imagine him walking through the Jardin des Prébends as a boy, gazing at the sequoia, and maybe at the golden-leaved ginkgos planted a few yards away. Twenty years later, as a young man living in Paris, did he think back on their brilliant autumn foliage, wonder how a tree endures a nuclear blast?

Hibakujumoku (from Japanese: 被爆樹木 – "survivor tree," also known as "A-bombed tree" in English) is a Japanese name for a tree that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August, 1945.

Almost exactly a century before the Manhattan Project detonated an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, Henry David Thoreau set out to live deliberately, building himself a small house with the timber of tall, arrowy white pines, cut with a borrowed ax.


The original title page of Walden, illustrated by Thoreau's sister, Sophia. Ticknor and Fields, 1854.


In 1854, Thoreau publishes his account of living at Walden Pond, and 20 years later, two brothers named Bühler design the Jardin des Prébendes as part of a national effort to recover from a war.

Postcard photograph of the Jardin des Prébendes, 1918.


Over a century after the people of Tours enter their new garden, a boy in Iran hears a fragment of Walden on a $1.00 pocket radio and imagines the day he will translate Thoreau's life in the woods into the language he grew up reading.


In the summer of 2015, the man who was a boy travels from Iran to the U.S. for the first time. He gathers with visitors on the grounds of Walden Pond, answers a question with a 750-year-old poem known as the Bani Adam:

Human beings are all the limbs of a single body

Created of the same essence

When there is a pain in any of the limbs

All the other limbs get restless

One who shows indifference to the sufferings of others

Is undeserving of the name, human being

Sa‘adi is that part of my country and culture that is a window, explains translator Alireza Taghdarreh of the enduring poem's author. He is one of our history's greatest poets.


As a young man, Sa‘adi left home to pursue an education, and he spent the next thirty years displaced by foreign invasion. It's said he dug trenches as a prisoner, embarked on pilgrimages, and talked late into the night with all manner of people: merchants, farmers, wayfarers, thieves and mendicants. The Bani Adam is included in Gulistan, a work known in English as The Rose Garden and completed about 1259, after Sa‘adi's return to his native city of Shiraz.


Manuscript copy of Gulistan, 1585. University Library of Bratislava, Slovakia. Image: World Digital Library.


Q. How to read an existence marked by indifference?

A. What if the rings were to enter us?

In 1935, a long-lived poet named Léopold Sédar Senghor began his first teaching post at the Lycée Descartes in Tours, the same school Yves Bonnefoy attended as a boy.


Léopold Sédar Senghor pictured with his sixth grade class at the Lycée Descartes, Tours. Photo courtesy of the Lycée Descartes.


I do not know if the two poets are pictured here together, but in the fall of 1935, Bonnefoy would have been 12 years old, roughly the same age as Senghor's students. I do know that the young instructor who became a celebrated humanitarian leader spent many hours walking the paths of the Jardin des Prébendes. I know this because in the summer of 2013, I saw his presence still there:


Bronze portrait of Léopold Sédar Senghor in the Jardin des Prébendes. Michel Audiard, 2007. Photo: Guillame Cingal.


In 1960, Senghor returned to the Senegal of his birth to serve as its first president during the first two decades of its independence, but in the years from 1940 to 1942, the former sixth grade teacher was a prisoner of war, during which it's said, he spent most of his time writing poems:

Jardin des Prébendes

Tu m’as touché l’épaule

Comme je passais le long de tes grilles vertes,

Indifférent . . .

C'est aujourd'hui que tu m'es ami

En cet après-midi d'octobre

Garden of Prébendes

You have touched my shoulder

As I passed along your green latticework,

Indifferent . . .

It is today that you are my friend

Inside this October afternoon

Q. What if an existence were ringed with injury? How would we read it then?

A. What if we looked to the sky?


In December of 1929, the astronomer who became a dendrochronologist published an article in National Geographic titled "Secrets of the Southwest Solved by Talkative Tree Rings." The article detailed A.E. Douglass's work using tree-ring dating to determine the age of ancient cliff dwelling ruins, including those at Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde. Among the mysteries revealed: a log whose ring count showed that it was cut in 1073.


Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. National Geographic Magazine, 1929. Photo: Charles Martin.


In 1937, Douglass established the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, sheltered under the University of Arizona's football stadium until 2013, when it finally settled into to its permanent home, a building designed like a tree. On the ground floor, ten feet in diameter, you can see the cross-section of the 2,000-year-old giant sequoia transported from California all those years ago. Of the scientist who read sun spot cycles in its rings, it's said Craters on the moon and on Mars are named in his honor.


A.E. Douglass pictured in Room 230 of the West Stadium, University of Arizona, 1946.


In the centuries after the cliff dwellings were built, and sometime after Sa‘adi's death in 1291, medieval physicians were known to have made their rounds with small, folded books suspended from their belts. Such a book — called a vade mecum, Latin for goes with me — contained a compressed store of medical, calendrical, and astrological information used to diagnose and treat human maladies in accordance with the cosmos and natural elements.


 Zodiac Man, from a late 14th century physician's folding almanac. Wellcome Library.

Diagrams such as the Zodiac Man, for example, linked a specific region of the body with the astrological sign believed to govern its health. Working in concert with a rotating calendar called a volvelle, a physician might decide if the time was favorable to bleed a patient, operate, or administer a tincture.

Astronomical Table with volvelle, late 14th century. J. Paul Getty Museum.


Those long-ago doctors may or may not have seen a tree ringed inside the volvelle's concentric circles, but such practices rested on a medieval understanding of the human body as a microcosm (or little world) reflected in the macrocosm of a Ptolemaic universe.


Influenced by classical conceptions, medieval thinkers believed that just as the sun, moon, and planets were made of four elements (fire, water, earth, air), so too was the human body composed of four humours (yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, blood), and the temperament aligned with four conditions (melancholic, choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic). Also considered were the four seasons and four cardinal points of the compass.


Within such an interconnected cosmology, sound health hinged on the equilibrium of multiple bodies — human and heavenly, physiological and astronomical, elemental and celestial. It's little wonder healers traveled with books attached to their waists — not only did they need to read carefully, they needed to interpret wisely a cross-section of shared existences and restore balance accordingly.


Human beings are all the limbs of a single body . . .


In the first decades of the seventeenth century, an English physician adapted classical and medieval principles to illustrate his notions of the universe in a masterwork translated as The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of the Two Worlds, Namely the Greater and the Lesser. Robert Fludd was not a dendrochronologist, but his renderings of the macrocosm and microcosm might be said to resemble the rings of two cross-sectioned trees.



     De utriusque cosmi, maioris scilicet et minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica historia (Oppenheim, 1617). Deutsche Fotothek.

And on the title page etching, we might see a dreamer inside a tree ringed by sky.


 Image: Wellcome Library.


From the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research:

What Do Tree Rings Tell Us?


Dendrochronology is an interdisciplinary science, and its theory and techniques can be applied to many research interests. These have in common the following objectives:


1. to put the present in proper historical context

2. to better understand current environmental processes and condition

3. to improve understanding of possible future environmental issues

Q. What if the rings were to collide in space?

A. What if they were to combust on earth?


On April 23, 1923, the dendrochronologist who was an astronomer waited until a war was over to dedicate a long-awaited telescope at the newly-completed Steward Observatory. Today it is telling us facts, forever wonderful, about the size of our universe, Douglass noted of the science that reads the sky. Perhaps tomorrow it will give us practical help in showing us how to predict climatic conditions in the future.


Nearly a century later, science is examining not only the stars for answers to an ailing climate, but another long-lived tree species indigenous to California — the bristlecone pine.


 Bristlecone Pine, detail #0906-3030. © Rachel Sussman, The Oldest Living Things in the World.


Located just over the border from where atomic bomb tests were conducted from 1951-1992, one specimen of Pinus longaeva has been registered as 5,056 years old, the oldest known individual tree in the world. Using cross-dating techniques to compare millennia-old bristle cones with long-preserved dead trees, scientists have established a tree-ring chronology that records climate signals for over 9,000 years into the past.


How the present signals a future ring, maybe only the stars can tell.


The Sequoia sempervirens like the one found in the Jardin des Prébendes may not be the most long-lived tree on the planet, but it's the tallest. And while the tallest ever measured hasn't yet reached celestial spheres, its correspondence of macrocosm to microcosm is no less wondrous: The species is known to have reached as high as 379 feet — taller than a 30-story building — from seeds scarcely four millimeters long.


Coast redwood, cones and seeds, Jardin des Plantes, Museum of Toulouse, France. Photo: Roger Culos.


As for a redwood's elements: earth, water, and air are essential to all trees, but to live for so long at such great heights, the Sequoia sempervirens must endure fire.


Rich in insect-repellent tannins, the bark of the coast redwood contains no flammable resin, and this protective layer can measure a foot in diameter at the base of the trunk. Further defense resides in the positioning of the tree's 1.12 billion needles, which begin their evergreen foliage high above ground, safe from flames.


In a crowded natural environment, fire also creates room for redwood seedlings to sprout and flourish, ridding the forest floor of sun-blocking underbrush and competing nutrients. Recent experiments by California scientists working to protect coast redwoods indicate fire as a key element in restoring old-growth forests to health.


The most massive tree in the world doesn't just endure fire, however; it survives because of it.


The seeds of the Sequoiadendron giganteum, Latin for giant sequoia, are released from small, hard cones with the intense heat of fire. To germinate and thrive, these tiny seeds must then be nourished with the full sun and bare mineral soil provided by fire's thinning of rival (and more combustible) vegetation. In this way, blaze transforms to birth. Such is the alchemical nature of earthly elements.


A poet's job is to show us a tree, before our mind tells us what a tree is.


Montgomery Woods State National Reserve, Mendocino County, California, 2016. Photo: Peter Vogel.


Those medieval healers who looked to classical models of the universe wrote of an other, unearthly, element — Above the air, in true Sky — a mysterious substance C.S. Lewis describes as a Fifth Element or Quintessence, the aether . . . found only above the moon, and we mortals have no experience it.


The Sequoia sempervirens like the one now living at the Jardin des Prébendes regenerates from seed, but young trees can also sprout from the base of an older trunk, growing up to 7½ feet a year in a circle called a fairy ring.


Q. What if we were to enter it? Would we find magic there?

A. What if a tree inscribed a poem?


The word ink comes from the Latin encaustum, meaning burnt in. This is because the elements comprising early inks — like those of the Bani Adam manuscript or the vade medum — caused the pigment to etch into the writing surface. Such inks were colored with the addition of lamp-black, a substance made from soot. In traditional Japanese calligraphy, a particularly prized black ink called shoen-boku is made from the soot of pine trees. Its carbon brush strokes are said to impart a magnificent brightness.


Pine Tree and Calligraphy, Ike Taiga, artist; Minagawa Kien, calligrapher. Edo period, Japan. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Another work inscribed with an ink made of burning is the world's oldest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra —


Made by Wang Jie in May 868 on behalf of his parents and for the merit of all sentient beings in the world.


A millennia after its creation, this intricate woodblock-printed scroll was unearthed from an abandoned desert cave, along with some 40,000 other manuscripts and treasures. A century after its discovery in the Library Cave of the Mogao Grottoes, the Sutra travels to Los Angeles, where I see it under glass with my friend, poet and translator Andrew Schelling.