Flow (with the Redwood Trees)

On a Sunday in summer 2008, I was sitting in the library at the California Academy of Sciences, alone on the third floor of the brand-new Renzo Piano-designed building. I no longer have this kind of access, but at the time I was able to move at will into the temperature-controlled stacks, to consult a century’s worth of books and periodicals elucidating arguably the most important concept of all time, the theory of evolution by way of natural selection. I was writing a book (Evidence of Evolution), and for me at least, that is never an easy task. Scientific explanations are not good at communicating a visceral, emotional, intuitive understanding of their subject. It was my job to understand the dry science, and to make it warm and whenever possible, juicy. I spent a lot of time in that library that summer, but that day I had before me a stack of books about evolutionary development. This science tracks the development of the bodily expression of an organism – a butterfly, a frog, a human being – from its inception as an embryo. Turns out there is a single code directing the deployment of all body types, called the “hox genes,” and these work in bugs and bears and you and me. Hox genes have been discerned in fossils going back 542 million years, to the Cambrian period in which the variety of body types on Earth exploded – some call this the most significant evolutionary moment in time, after of course, the mysterious inception of life itself. I was reading about this fundamental unity at the base of the bewildering diversity of life forms and I got dizzy. But my pen was moving smoothly, ideas deploying by way of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. I was writing like hox genes deploying and shaping a new thing with ancient reference points. Later I would cut out the excess adjectives.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this sort of engagement, production, and pleasure a “flow” experience, and he is credited with essentially founding the field of positive psychology on it. Ed Ricketts, the amateur marine biologist who famously inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, was keen on flow but he called it “breaking through.” It’s a moment when time telescopes and the present is not a limitation but a portal.

A concept I am eager to try to convey is that our personal experiences have a foundation not just in our bodies but in the life of all bodies and their environment over time. Yes, a great big flow is going on here, and it’s called evolution. Grappling after this big idea I got a major assist from John C. Merriam. Merriam was a paleontology professor who in 1917 apprehended the past as it unfolded in the present, while contemplating a redwood forest in California’s Humboldt County. Merriam had been researching the history of the Pacific coast, and he was assigning invertebrate and plant fossils different layers in “a stratified geologic column.” (That’s the life forms of the past lying down on top of each other, deployed as if instructed by Hox genes, to take an artistic liberty.) Merriam had come to see “a forest wall reported to have mystery and charm unique among living works of creation.” He was not disappointed. “In swift panorama the history of these trees…passed before me, stage after stage from the remote past.” Now that’s flow.

Merriam’s student Ralph Chaney eventually articulated the redwoods’ historical progression around the globe, putting his starting point at one hundred million years ago (dinosaurs afoot), when Western Europe, Russia, China and Japan were covered by a redwood forest. From Europe and Asia, the redwoods migrated west. Traveling to investigate, Chaney reported to Merriam: “Sequoia flora of Middle Tertiary Age just received from St. Lawrence Island represents first actual record of land bridge between North America and Asia.” This missing tree link helped establish that humans had also come to America across what had been the Bering Land Bridge.

Redwood forests can provide a comforting sense of permanence and continuity to us harried Homo sapiens, and indeed their story of time is a lot longer than our story of time. Yet in our blind way, of course, we continue to assault the redwood trees. Not only are we reducing our own access to the cooling big picture flow we can experience while wandering among their giant trunks, we are also depleting the planet of their capacity to sequester carbon dioxide and so mitigate climate change impacts. Let your money and time flow to organizations helping support and protect our remaining giants, including Save the Redwoods League and the Sempervirens Fund. And you can help redwoods by making your own observations on Redwood Watch — get your flow on!

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Illustration by Michael Schwab @ michaelschwab.com
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