Happy to hug a tree in Yosemite

A decade ago if you had asked me about my knowledge of plants, I would have said, I studied Botany in college. Which would have meant, I am familiar with some of the scientific terminology: plant cell biology, the vascular system, the phylums into which they are classified. I think we focused more on shrubs and smaller plants, not much on trees. Of course, this is all fairly superficial and I wouldn’t want to be tested on any of the material.

Then considering I grew up on a farm and was surrounded by plants and animals, I should have known better. But, here again, the connection I made with plants related to what I gain from them. When would the unripe mango be tart enough to be bitten into? writing about it makes my mouth water. When would the shahtoot شہتوت (black mulberries) be soft and dark enough to stain my fingertips? And how long would it take to dig out potatoes to roast in the woodfire?

Getting to know a tree

Recently, I have tried to get to know plants better. Earlier they were like a cousin-twice-removed whom I recognize at a family wedding, but I wouldn’t have much to share. Now, I want to give them a long hug. I want to know what they’ve been doing. And if we connect well, they can catch me up on the the rumors I read. They can tell me if they are true.

The dogwood tree cornus florida

Take the case of the dogwood tree,Cornus florida, belonging to the Phylum Spermatophyta—if you’re wondering. It’s a Native American plant that has been burdened with a heavy crime for its 40-foot frame. Granted it’s strong enough to make golf clubs and wooden mallets, but its main crime does seem biologically questionable.

The dogwood in Yosemite

I’ve heard the name, but I’ve never seen it to notice it. In fact, I wouldn’t have recognized it in a forest until last week on my trip to Yosemite. As we drive up Hwy 120, darkened ghost stumps from forest fires haunt the landscape—phalanxes of dead trees killed in an environmental battle.

But as we enter the valley, we’re welcomed by snowflake like blossoms on a tree that is not familiar to me. While Selma seeks the Baobab tree in the parks of Spain, the spirit-like dogwood tree welcomes me on my short visit to this ancient glacial valley. Does it even know about its ancestors?

I wonder what this tree might think about the stories humans have chosen to tell about it. And as we tell these stories how we project ourselves in our telling. Take, for example, Christopher Merrill‘s Self-Portrait with Dogwood.

Here, Merrill, the essayist and poet, admits to his affinity with the tree. He sees himself in this tree that lives as long as humans. He tells us how the dogwood appears in history in the most unexpected places. It’s the Trojan horse. Yes. It’s that strong! Then we find it in the hands of the phalanxes of Macedonian soldiers, preparing to conquer the world.

Relatives of the plant are found in China, Korea, and Japan. There it is called the Kousa dogwood. 

And myself, what do I think of this tree? As I mentioned—till last week—I hadn’t given it much thought. But now I am captivated by its beauty, I want to go closer and touch the four petal-like bracts. All across Yosemite valley, I see these beautiful white flowering trees. Since we’ve arrived early enough in the afternoon, we decide to walk to Vernal fall.

But as we struggle uphill, we notice all the other hikers are returning, having already enjoyed the spray of the lower vernal fall. When we began the hike, the sun was shining quite bright, but all of a sudden we’re enveloped in the shadows of the cliffs above us. The signs about bear sightings are also disarming. I want to return to the peace of the valley.

So we turn back and plan to visit the fall on our next trip. As we walk down the Merced River, the white petals of the dogwood comfort me in the darkening shadows of the forest. How had I missed these trees on my previous visit to the valley? Maybe the awe of half dome and El Capitan blocked my view of the softer touches around me. Or maybe I hadn’t noticed them because it was not spring, but this time, I am entranced by them.

When I return to the hotel, I want to know more about them. I search the internet and read of the ancient giant sequoias for which Northern California is famous, but the dogwood tree is not mentioned.

What’s in a name?

The next morning, after breakfast, I check the hotel gift shop, and I come across Flowering Shrubs of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada by Shirley Spencer, and there I find the name of the plant: the dogwood tree. Nothing in its appearance reminds me of a dog, so I search the internet again and realize it’s “dawg wood”. Its name in English might have come from dag+wood= sharp object, or it might be related to the fact that the berries were not even fit for dogs. Celtic word dagdagga, or dagwood. Cornus florida seems much more appropriate.

Why not blame a tree?

What’s more, this tree has a religious significance that I had not known. Given that monotheistic religions have been an intrinsic part of my childhood, I am taken aback. In England, I went to the Church of England Primary School. Before that in Pakistan, I spent a year in Presentation Convent taught by Irish sisters. Later in Faisalabad the Dominican sisters of the Catholic taught me in Sacred Heart School. But I had never heard or seen the importance of the dogwood tree in the story of Christ.

Dogwood tree in Yosemite May 2011 Dogwood" by Trace Nietert is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Yosemite May 2011 Dogwood” by Trace Nietert is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Apparently, in the US, this Appalachian legend of the dogwood tree and it’s connection with Christ is quite prevalent. The ancestors of this tree, the story goes, is tall and strong, strong enough to be built into the cross for Christ’s crucifixion. But the tree is so traumatized by it’s part in this human tragedy that it begs forgiveness from Christ. Grudgingly, Christ forgives the tree, but from then on it is much shorter than its previous self.

The tree’s complicity, however, is not forgiven. As a reminder, the white bracts that look like leaves are marked with a hole symbolizing the nails and the pink color signifying the blood of Jesus. And now on Easter, sprigs of the tree are a reminder to worshippers of the crime the tree was forced to comit.

This is not the only story connected with the dogwood tree. In the the Mohawk version, the dogwood tree is considered The Tree of Life in the Sky World. For the Native Americans, the roots of the dogwood were used for tea and dye. The bark to cure fevers and malaria, and the twigs to whiten teeth. One legend is of the Sky Woman who in her pregnancy wanted tea from the roots, but when her husband dug them up, she fell through the hole down to earth.

To be sure, I don’t know what the tree itself might think about these interactions with humans, but clearly we have history. And because of all that it has endured, I would, no doubt, give it a hug next time I met it.

"Yosemite Dogwood" by flythebirdpath > > > is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“Yosemite Dogwood” by flythebirdpath > > > is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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1 Comment »

  1. If there’s one thing that separates us from the other living beings, it’s our ability to tell stories.

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