Ginkgo biloba has a penchant for longevity.
Consider this: a single tree can live more than a thousand years, maybe up to three thousand. And through an evolutionary lens, the fossil record tells us that the species we enjoy now — the only one left in its order; it has no remaining siblings or close cousins — has been virtually unchanged in 270 million years. For a long while, the ginkgo was believed to be extinct. Exploration gradually revealed that it had been with us all along, in remote, quiet corners of Japan and China: monasteries, palace gardens, temples.
It’s unclear whether the ginkgo still exists in the wild, but we know it’s been cultivated for centuries. All the same, there is another story, an important story, that I need to tell you. Consider this:
In Hiroshima, there lived a beautiful ginkgo tree at the site of the temple at Housenbo. When the atomic blast occurred in 1945, just a little over a kilometer away, the temple’s main hall was destroyed, and everyone in it, like almost every other living thing in the vicinity, was killed. The ginkgo itself was charred severely, and was not expected to recover.
But Ginkgo biloba, as we’ve already seen, is tenacious. Life kept whispering within it, echoing in woody corridors of root and cell, waiting in the battered earth.
New buds emerged the following spring. And the one after that.*
When the main hall was finally rebuilt in 1994, there were discussions of transplanting the tree or removing it altogether, due to space restrictions. But after the horror its people had survived, who would have the heart to take it away? After this unimaginable sorrow, who could look upon an unlikely surge of life — a living organism, believed to be extinct — and decide it should have no place in what comes after?
The tree remains. The new temple structure was redesigned to embrace it: the roof was modified to grant it space, and air circulates beneath the front steps, which are split into two lobes that curve around the trunk.
I ask of you: find a ginkgo, if you can. Take one of these fleshy leaves in your fingers, trace these smooth, scalloped curves, and consider the force of will that courses through them. Think of those same leaves etching their lines into stone, millions of years before. Stand awhile under a ginkgo in autumn; watch tiny yellow fans flutter to the ground at your feet, as the tree settles slowly into sleep.
However you choose to see it, whether this tale is about the resilience of an ancient species or of human beings, whether you court the metaphors or stick to the science, you are in the presence of life itself. And it will not give up.
** — This ginkgo was not the only one to survive the blast in Hiroshima: there are five others documented.
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