A case for the Dawn Redwood, Brandeis’ only sequoia tree

January 31, 2020

When we think about “art on campus,” most people tend to imagine objects made of paint, canvas and wood and placed in either the Rose Art Museum or Dreitzer Gallery in Spingold Theater. The multitude of statues and busts with plaques nailed to them that litter the campus also come to mind, but what about all the stuff that makes up the campus itself? I’m talking about the foundational aesthetics that define the look and attitude of Brandeis University, its architecture and landscaping. The buildings, walkways and the decorative plants did not spontaneously generate when Brandeis was founded. On the contrary, almost every object on this campus was the result of a conscious decision made by the interplay of designers, architects and administrators. We can’t afford to take these easily overlooked aesthetics lightly. Accounting for the landscaping alone, hundreds of thousands of dollars are likely set aside every year to maintain our many acres of lawns, vast array of ornamental trees and the annual flower beds. I would like to make the case that “art” can extend beyond the gallery and into every aspect of this campus’s design. In short, plants matter.

Observe the Metasequoia, a tree planted between the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center and the Shapiro Campus Center. It is a fairly nondescript tree, at least at a glance. Careful examination reveals certain irregularities in its features. It is markedly taller than any of the non-oak in the vicinity of Fellows Garden, and its branches sprout from the very base of the trunk, bestowing upon the tree a distinctive triangular or arrowhead-like profile. The girthy lower branches are upturned in apparent exultation as they spiral up the trunk, and at this time of the year, they are entirely barren of foliage. This configuration of branches would not be surprising at all on a pine, and while the Metasequoia is just as much a needle-bearing conifer as your average Christmas tree, it is not evergreen. In fact, this rare specimen is one of only two species of deciduous conifers within many miles of Brandeis University. The Metasequoia will drop its needles just as readily as the birches next to it will drop their leaves when autumn comes around, resulting in the uncanny pine-tree nakedness that you can observe right now.

The height of the Metasequoia can be explained by its relation to the giant and coastal sequoias of the West. You’ve seen the textbook pictures from Yosemite. The redwoods of California make up some of the tallest organisms on the planet, boasting trunks so massive that a car can be driven through them. While the Metasequoia, also known as the Dawn Redwood, has never been known to reach such insane sizes, it is by no means a small plant. You have probably walked by this tree hundreds of times and had no idea you were passing the only deciduous redwood of the three surviving sequoia species on Earth. The Metasequoia’s radical fall coloration makes it the most stylish of its cousins, and I suspect that is why it was allowed to be planted so conspicuously next to the admin building. In marketing a “New England University,” autumn is everything, and the needles of the Metasequoia take on brilliant copper-red hues during the fall that complement the yellow-orange leaves of its neighboring birches. The fact that it remains barren throughout the winter is a secondary bonus—it doesn’t stand out as a lone conifer when the other trees have finished their show. A landscaper is like a painter that employs foliage as his medium, and the Metasequoia, which is growing in popularity as an ornamental across the board, is a great addition to the toolkit.

Beyond surface aesthetics, our Environmental Studies department has good reason to keep a species as scientifically interesting as the Metasequoia around. It shares a story with the famous coelacanth, a lobed fish which was thought to be extinct for millions of years but was miraculously discovered alive off the coast of Africa. The Metasequoia is another of these “lazarus species,” with fossils indicating that vast forests of these kinds of trees once populated much of the northern hemisphere. In the 1940s, clusters of living Dawn Redwoods were discovered in China. The locals had been logging these things for years to build bridges and such, completely unaware that they were in the presence of a scientifically significant, not to mention critically endangered, tree. The intervening years saw expeditions for seed collection, and now the endangered Metasequoia has a proud home right next to the office of University President Liebowitz.

Interest in this tree is not limited to the scientific and landscaping communities. In fact, a certain cult-like interest has grown around the Dawn Redwood, with private entities taking an extreme interest in the ideal of restoring healthy redwood forests to the eastern United States. A vintage-looking HTML website known as “dawnredwood.org” speaks of one such endeavor that has supposedly been taking place in North Carolina since 1995. Doug Hanks, the site’s curator and apparent redwood fanatic, speaks of a project known as the Crescent Ridge Dawn Redwoods Preserve. It is a privately funded attempt to grow a self-sustaining Metasequoia forest in the most theoretically optimal climate to maximize tree growth. The man is convinced of the economic promise that such a preserve could offer. His website optimistically details his ambitions for the park, which include a pre-planned trail system to mimic “ancient Indian trails”, fairy circles for scenic marriages, and a cable car system to allow tourists to explore the crowns of the yet nonexistent mature sequoias. A link at the top of the website leads to an appeal to prospective filmmakers, in which he argues that the low cost of living and scenic views of North Carolina could provide a future hotspot for movies. It might be safe to say that this man’s ambitions grow even larger than his favorite trees.

In reality, an eastern redwood forest will likely never match the scale or vigor of the Yosemite sequoias, but the idea is potent enough for dreams. Imagine that, our own redwood forest revived from the dregs of a nearly extinct species! It is not hard to see why tree lovers and scientists alike could be enthralled by the Dawn Redwood. The Crescent Ridge website optimistically posits that the project could be “completed” by 2035, but I suspect this is a wildly optimistic estimate. In all likelihood, the minds behind this project will be dead long before the trees ever achieve their full potential. Trees do not conform to humanity’s transiently frail sense of time. The Dawn Redwoods have existed for millions of years regardless of human evolution, and they might very well outlast us by a few million more.

In the meantime, we can appreciate what we have. Brandeis students and faculty have easy access to not only a beautiful and rare landscaping piece, but a tree with a potent history and an alluring future. How could such a thing be anything but art? The next time you find yourself speed walking through Fellows Garden to reach your lonely Village single, slow down and smell the flowers. Many of them carry a fantastic story.

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