Have you ever touched something that was well over five hundred years old? Have you ever touched something that was a nine hundred years old and still alive? High up in the mountains of Costa Rica at the Cuerici Field Station, I was able to do just that. While hiking along the trails around the station, my guides stopped in front of a giant masterpiece created by nature. One of the guides asked the group to guess the age of the natural wonder that loomed over us. My peers and I shouted numbers like: one hundred, two hundred and fifty, one hundred and twenty-one. Of course, we were all wrong.
The ancient oak tree that towered over our heads was estimated to be around a thousand years old, according to calculations made using its circumference. I was bewildered by this little piece of information. I immediately strolled over to its base and placed my palm against its bark in order to form some sort of connection to this living being and the past that it has lived through. It’s not everyday someone can touch something so old, that is still so alive. Imagine the ages of history that this one tree has existed through! Empires have risen and fallen and independences declared within its time. This seems unexpected. If a man-made structure continued to thrive for that long it would be celebrated and groups of people would congregate around it with cameras at the ready. Yet here is this one tree, seemingly ordinary, respiring and growing independently from any human interaction. This tree is living the way it’s supposed to live. Its white bark is soft, damp, and covered in moss; spider webs hide in its buttresses; and fungi bloom at its base. The seemingly ordinary has become extraordinary as it supports other forms of life while it grows old. It makes me feel as though it’s a permanent resident in time and I am just a visitor. It has outlived all of my ancestors and it will probably out live me as well, so long as it is not cut down.
The reason why oak trees of this age are not common is because they are harvested for their lumber. As my guides explained to me and my peers, it can be damaging to a forest area if an oak tree were to be cut down or to fall down. It would make a break in the canopy and clear out an area of vegetation, which allows for more sun light and wind to interact with and damage the other plants. Due to the potentially damaging effects, there have been efforts to harvest the pieces of oak wood that have already broken off of trees that are currently laying on the forest floor, instead of cutting down a living tree that is protecting and housing countless lives and that is potentially over a thousand years old. This way the need for the wood is satisfied and life is preserved.
Nature is a wondrous and fragile thing. The life around us can exceed every expectation we have, so long as we let it grow. The ancient oak that I connected with could have been easily cut down to be made into a table and the environment surrounding it could have been paved over to provide luxury to a few human lives. Generations of plants, animals, and insects, as well as I, are very happy this isn’t the case. The ancient oak in the forest by the Cuerici field station, and hopefully many more, will continue to live the timeless life that was intended for it by its own very design.