The Sycamore

by Dustin Joy


Bare branches of an old sycamoreThere is a reason that mankind will never completely do away with wild things, hard as we might consciously or unconsciously try to do so. The reason lies in the limited scope of man’s perceptions and in the simple dogged persistence of nature.

There is little doubt that humans have the capacity, with bulldozers, end loaders, excavators, and trucks, to undo nature’s patient workings of a thousand years. They have done it and they will continue to do it until the last trumpet blows, if you believe in that sort of thing. But they will not, ultimately, eradicate nature.

Along the Mississippi River, behind my father’s house, grows a 100 foot tall sycamore tree. It is magnificent in its scale and its bearing. I have stood at its base many times and looked up, slack-jawed, and just said “WOW!” How old it is I do not know. I could imagine it’s slow, relentless growth as the native Americans paddled by in dugout canoes. I could imagine Abe Lincoln stopping briefly at this pond to water his horse as he made his way to New Boston to do his none too impressive surveying job there. I can picture generations of little boys growing up and growing old on this farm, fishing in the pond, helping their dads chop fire wood in this forest, and ultimately chopping their own firewood and planting their own corn. The sycamore grew patiently next to the pond; a hundred years, two hundred, it is hard to know.

The sycamore, or one like it, will continue to grow behind my Dad’s house. As the generations of humans in this little town are born and live and go to their graves it will persist. It will grow patiently and each year it will scatter its little seed balls on the mud below. Someday, when the river is neither too high nor too low, one will put down roots in a forsaken spot no other plant has been able to exploit (for a thousand unknowable reasons) and it will begin to grow. The generations of humans will live some more lives, and drive bulldozers even. And it might be, after the sapling has pushed up six inches into the sky, that a careless hunter will visit the pond and step on it and push it down into the mud. It will be bent and may never recover its straight, proud bearing. But it will persist and start its crooked path toward the sun again. And perhaps, when it is six feet high, a buck deer will wander past with its velvety new antlers and rub some of the itchy stuff away on the little sycamore and in the process give it a deep wound that will be visible on its trunk for a hundred years. Or perhaps the corps of engineers, in their wisdom, will determine that this little pond, good for nothing else, would be the perfect place to pump two cubic acres of sand dredged up from the bottom of the navigation channel. In that moment our little striving sapling will be buried alive and will perish. If the big tree still lives its environment will be so altered that it, too, will not recover. Or perhaps the corps will simply cut it down to provide a road to their new sand pile.

These local tragedies will only be a setback for nature, ultimately.
There have been so many such tragedies it would be impossible to catalog them. Maybe sycamores, altogether, will succumb to these thousand little insults and become extinct. In that day we will have hurt ourselves and we will have destroyed the sycamore family, but nature will simply move on. If you don’t believe in the persistence of nature go to Hawaii and look at a volcano erupting and try to picture in your mind’s eye how this devastation could turn into a verdant paradise brimming with life.

Even here, along the muddy Mississippi, some little cell of life will persist when the last sycamore is chopped into kindling. Maybe a cottonwood can tolerate the sand better. Maybe it will take the old sycamore’s place and become the dominant life force in this vicinity. Maybe it won’t be a tree. Maybe the deep sand will preclude any sapling from making another start here. Instead maybe the prickly pear that grows on the hills above will spread down into the new “desert” and use its special skills to translate a little sun and a little moisture into green paddles and pointy spikes. Or maybe only some sort of algae or bacteria can make a beachhead here. But rest assured that it will grow, and given enough time, it will evolve, and maybe its generations, after millions of years, will make something like a sycamore again. And maybe not. Maybe it will evolve a sentient creature with dextrous hands and a big brain capable of building and driving a bulldozer.

Bill Nye has said “We do not need to save the world, we need to save the world for us.” This is the point of conservation. The value of a sycamore tree, ultimately, is not to nature. Nature could not care less whether she exploits her resources with 100 foot sycamores or single celled algae. It is we, with the giant brains and the ability for aesthetic appreciation who need a 100 foot sycamore if for no other reason than to look up, slack-jawed and say “WOW!”

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