He was the King of Trees
Keeper of the glades
The way he enchanted my life
Makes me so amazed
We used to meet by him
Many years ago
I love you
Now they’ve come to lay the road
Don’t lay the road
– Cat Stevens, “King of the Trees”
As my father grew older and began his retirement, he rediscovered his love of nature, and would go wandering alone out in the backwoods Florida wilderness for an entire day at a time. It worried us, of course, because he didn’t take a phone with him (although I doubt any coverage existed out where he was going), and he didn’t carry any first aid kit or weapons of any kind, and he never told us exactly where he was planning to be.
I went with him many times, since I enjoy nature and hiking a great deal myself, but one time I suggested we take a drive up into the interior of the state to one of the state parks, and on our way back I wanted to see a tree. A very special tree.
This tree took some effort to go see, which is why I’d never seen it. It was growing in the small town of Longwood, which is sort of near Orlando, but isn’t really close to anything which is why it took a special trip to go out of the way to see it. Have you ever really wanted to do something but never did it because it was a bit trivial and took some effort? Seeing this tree was like that. It’s hard to make a special trip just to see a tree. Really. Even if you love nature like I do.
This tree had a name: The Senator. An imposing kind of name, but appropriate. The Latin root of “senator” is “senex” which means “old one.” He was old all right; estimated to be around 3,500 years in age, the Senator was the oldest living pond cypress on planet Earth, and one of a handful of the world’s oldest trees overall.
Now think about this: When this tree first sprouted, the Rig Veda was being written in India, and the Mayan civilization was beginning to emerge in Mesoamerica. This tree was already over 1,000 years old when Alexander the Great conquered the world. So here I am, finally, 3,500 years later, looking up at this massively tall tree, to which no photo can do any kind of justice, and I’m so in awe that I wish I could just talk to the Senator about anything on his mind, because I’m sure it would be profound.
Florida was logged heavily in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Probably a lot of really old trees were around then, but they all got cut down in the frenzy for lumber. Cypress was a particularly good wood for building since it was straight and insect-resistant. The Senator survived the tree holocaust only because he was so tall and was growing in such a particularly good spot, that he was used as a landmark by folks all around and they didn’t want to cut him down. Only a short walk away from the Senator is another cypress who was lucky enough to survive the logging era. The other tree is called Lady Liberty, and is around 2,000 years old. Together, the two old trees were something like the mythological grandparents or elder gods of Florida.
These two old cypress were situated near a high ridge of elevated land the runs through central Florida like a spine. It seemed appropriate to me that the monarchs of the state should have a natural throne, and it fit well with a modern mythology of Florida that I was compiling at the time, which incorporates the natural history of the state with the cultural mythos.
That was in November. In January, my mother showed me a newspaper article that stated that the Senator had mysteriously burned down. I was thoroughly shocked. That tree had stood for 3,500 years, and I had only just visited it for the first time not even two months before. But it was true. We found out later a meth addict had set the old tree on fire. The news depressed me a great deal, but I was so thankful that I had gone to see the tree when I did.
The Senator had me thinking about Time. He had been around longer than I could imagine, and was killed in our modern age by someone with a very modern problem. It reminded me of the myth of Kronos, the old Titan god of time, murdered by his children the Olympian gods who would go one to create a new world that moved through time, rather than sitting in some sort of primal eternal now like it was in the eon of the Titans. The Senator must have perceived Time as standing still; the meth addict lived in a world of whirling, fast and furious Time.
And I also thought, is it possible that the Senator caused some precognition in me? What made me feel such a compulsion to go see this tree that had stood for 3,500 years just a couple of months before its unforeseen destruction? Maybe thinking about this tree gave me some connection to it, and somehow, the Senator just knew so much more about Time than I did, it drew me to come see it, knowing what was coming up in the near future. And maybe that’s not as mystical as it sounds, since the tree has a certain metaphorical relationship in my mind to my own father. I’d spent a lot more time with my father these past few years, out of a similar subconscious sense of time running out.
So, even though I’d originally thought this would make a good Earth Day post, I changed my mind and decided it was better for New Year’s Eve, the holiday of Kronos as Old Father Time. This year, make the effort to see that someone you’ve been thinking about.