The Memories of Centuries Ago

Solar activity does more than steer climate cycles on earth – it alters the very make-up of the atmosphere. Solar storms, and the resulting cosmic radiation that strikes our planet, changes the ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere. These specific isotopes are absorbed and locked away within the growth ring formed the year that a major storm took place. These carbon “markers” exist in other organic materials as well, and early artifacts – basketry, papyrus – that demonstrate the presence of these isotopes can now be dated precisely, all because of the exacting timescale laid down in ancient tree rings.

Trees are the scribes of nature, “remembering” events in the physical sense: A tree takes again the effect of what has been – a warm rain, a glowing auroral display, even our own breath – and writes these things as “members” of its own tangible substance, cell by cell, ring by ring. If this sounds excessively metaphysical or farfetched, I invite you to contemplate the wood grain in the nearest piece of antique furniture. Maybe you’re fortunate enough to own a chair or chest that was made by hand in pre-industrial times, fashioned from boards cut from trees that never breathed polluted air or drank groundwater tainted with toxins. As you look across the years of growth, you are seeing everything that happened in that tree’s environment as it grew – encountering in tangible form the memories of centuries ago.

Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Scribes of Nature: Dendrochronology & the Deeper Story of Wooden Objects” in Issue Nine


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