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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Lazarus species 2: "Dawn" Redwood

A swarm of redwood species blanketed the Northern Hemisphere from 100 to 20 million years ago. In 1948, most were known and studied only as fossils, the leading authority being Professor Ralph Chaney of Berkeley. He was particularly interested in extinct members of the genus Metasequoia, the last of which had disappeared 30 million years ago. The San Francisco Chronicle’s science writer, Milton Silverman, was in Chaney’s office in January of 1948 when Chaney opened a bulky package covered with Chinese stamps from the day’s mail. Out tumbled a recently-living branch with green needle-leaves, the opposite arrangement of needles identifying it as—Metasequoia! Chaney promptly fainted onto his desk.

The recently-living branch had taken a circuitous route to arrive under the fainted Chaney’s jaw on his desk at Berkeley. In 1941 the Chinese forester Tsang Wang came across a tree deep in the remote interior province of Hubei that he couldn’t identify. He forwarded it through wartime China to the National Central University in Nanking, where Dr. Wan-chun Cheng was also mystified by it. Dr. Cheng sent it to China’s leading paleo-botanist, Dr. Hsen-hsu Hu in Beijing. By this time it was after the end of the Second World War, but the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists was raging. Dr. Hu had no more luck identifying the tree sample than did his colleagues, so he sent it to the American expert on redwoods—Dr. Ralph Chaney of Berkeley, under whom Hu had studied in California.

Chaney had himself unearthed one of the last known fossils of Metasequoia from the John Day Basin in Oregon, a 33-million-year-old specimen. Other fossils, stretching back well into the Cretaceous dinosaur-days 100 million years ago, had previously been found in Europe, Siberia, Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Yet here a recently-living specimen had tumbled onto his desk at Berkeley.

Once Chaney had regained consciousness, he and Silverman determined to track down the living trees, civil war or no civil war in China. A month later they flew to Shanghai, then Chunking in Szechuan province, and boarded a steamer down the Yangtze to Wanxian in Hubei province. Then they hiked for three days through bandit-infested forests (their Chinese military guard shot and killed a bandit en route). Arriving at Tsang Wang’s site of Modaoqi, they found the living tree, a hundred feet tall and six feet wide, with a shrine to the spirit it clearly must possess surrounding its base.

Chaney was stunned to find the tree had dropped its needle-leaves for the winter. It was deciduous, very unusual for a conifer and certainly nothing the fossil record had suggested. The tree was also one of only three at this location. There were many more, a whole forest of them, over a 6,000-foot pass two days hike further into the wilderness, they were assured. Silverman tried to talk Chaney out of extending the trip. Chaney was 58, suffering badly from asthma, and one of the guards accompanying them had stepped on his only vial of medication. It was still winter in Hubei, and the pass was dangerous. Chaney insisted. He hadn’t come all this way “for three lousy trees,” he growled. Sedan chairs and burly local carriers were procured for the two Americans. Chaney complained of the discomfort; Silverman decided he’d rather walk than endure the chairs. Two days later they arrived at the Shu-hsu valley.

Before their wondering eyes stood thousands of the redwoods, thick in the canyons leading into the valley, part of a rich forest of oak, birch, beech, and chestnut, with an understory of rhododendrons, iris, and bamboo. It was a miraculously-preserved remnant of the ancient Arcto-Tertiary forest which had blanketed the Northern Hemisphere in the Cretaceous (dinosaur-times) and early Cenozoic. Chaney named the living fossil redwood blanketing the canyon Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Silverman gave it the completely appropriate common name: Dawn Redwood.

Thanks to Chaney’s efforts, the Chinese botanical community adopted the Dawn Redwood and their protection has permitted most of the trees to survive to this day. The ancient forests of which they were a part millions of years ago and up to 1948 deep in the interior of China did not fare so well, though. Emergency physician and redwood fanatic William Gittlen visited Modaoqi and the Shui-hsu valley in 1998—and was able to drive by automobile to the sites. The Dawn Redwoods in 1998 stood isolated among rice fields and other agriculture that has crept up the canyons from the Shui-hsu Valley and other parts of the tree’s range. The accompanying forest trees had succumbed to the spread of “civilisation.” But at least the Dawn Redwoods had survived, and I assume stand there today, though no longer part of an intact forest association.

Dr. Gittlen showed the villagers photos Silverman had taken in 1948, one of them of the local headman and his two sons and daughter. The daughter, Wu Fa-ying, was still alive. The males were all dead, but at 62 she was vigorous, and proudly posed before a redwood with her own grandchildren.

Chaney (or what was left of him, having lost 45 pounds in China) brought home seeds and seedlings with him in 1948, some of which he planted in the Berkley Botanical Gardens, others at Golden Gate Park’s Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. Other seeds were sent around the world, where the Dawn Redwood is now a widespread horticultural prize. In 2011, while on pilgrimage to Charles Darwin’s old digs in Christ College, Cambridge, my wife and I were wandering the magnificent gardens in the back of the college. There before me loomed a Dawn Redwood, a huge and magnificent specimen, cones from which the garden's head groundsman presented me and which now grace my study’s window sill here in Chico.

I have upon several occasions dragged my children to Chaney’s Dawn Redwoods in Golden Gate Park, which due to crowding have twisted, fantastic shapes quite at variance from the tall, straight specimens common in China, Cambridge, and elsewhere around the world. One Dawn Redwood grows on our campus of Chico State University, where the tale is told that when it shed its deciduous leaves one winter the campus maintenance men prepared to remove it, assuming that a conifer with dead needle-leaves was a dead conifer. Reportedly a knowing botanist from our biology department, Dr. Kingsley Stern, valiantly stood before the tree and refused to allow the chainsaws to approach, thus saving our Dawn Redwood. Long may it grow.
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