Our Dawn Redwood Tree

Dawn Redwood Tree

The Story of the Dawn Redwood[i]

At Allen Avenue UU Church, a beautiful Dawn Redwood tree grows in the center of our front garden. Our Dawn Redwood was planted shortly after our church building was finished, most likely in the spring of 1971. It was planted in memory of Dr. Harry Lyons, a Portland dentist who had been active in our church for many years. Dr. Lyons was president of our church when Rev. Robert Wolf was called to be the minister in 1969, and his was the first memorial service conducted by Rev. Wolf, in October of that year. Rev. Wolf led the congregation during the construction of the new church building on the site. The building was dedicated on April 21, 1971, and the tree was planted shortly after, arranged by Willard "Bill” Gray, who became president of our church soon after the time of the dedication. He purchased the tree in Maine, and arranged for its care during its early years. 


The people of the church intentionally purchased a dawn redwood because the siding of the new church building had been made from redwood trees, and this was a way of giving back. No one remembers any sort of special ceremony for the planting of the tree. It was tiny at first, and had to be protected to keep it from being mowed over. I wonder if they imagined at that time, how tall and grand the tree would become? How central it would become to our landscape?


Dawn Redwood trees have a fascinating history. They are a cousin to the great Redwoods and Giant Sequoias that are found on the west coast. But the species was unknown to the most of the world until the middle of the 20th century. For many years, scientists had been studying redwood-like fossils from North America and Asia. In 1941, a Japanese paleobotanist called Shigeru Miki noticed a fossil specimen that was similar to the sequoias but not quite the same. He published an article claiming the discovery of a new fossil genus, naming it metasequoia, meaning "like the sequoia.” The fossils of metasequoia date back 90 million years, to the time of the dinosaurs. But they seemed to disappear from the fossil record about 1.5 million years ago.


Meanwhile, close to that same time, in 1941 the Red Army was retreating from Japanese invaders to remote areas in Western China. A forester named T. Kan was puzzled by an unusual tree in Modaoqi, a small village in eastern Sichuan. The conifer stood beside the village temple. The villagers called it Shui-sa, or water fir, and said that a god lived within the ancient tree. There was a small forest of the trees near the village. A few years later, specimens were collected and brought to to office of Professor Hu Hsen Hsu, head of the botanical institute in Beijing. Professor Hu had read the article from 1941 describing the fossil tree, and realized that they had found a living specimen of that same species. So the dawn redwood became known as a living fossil.


Dr. Hu contacted botanists around the world, including Dr. Elmer Merrill, director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Dr. Merrill acquired seeds from the tree in Modaoqi in 1948, and from there they were sent to institutions and arboretums around the United States, in an effort to preserve the species and see under what conditions it might grow. This was just before the Communist Party took power in China and closed trade relations with the U.S. Had the discovery happened later, we would not have the trees we now have. The trees thrived in North America, and now very large specimens can be found around the country.


So the Dawn Redwood story is a story of rebirth from near extinction. And our congregation, planted here on Allen Avenue in 1971, was in some ways the rebirth of three Universalist congregations that had fallen on hard times and decided to merge. They joined together with a commitment to build a new church, and since then the church has grown and thrived, even as the tree has grown and thrived.


Dawn Redwoods are unusual in that they are deciduous conifers. Most conifers are evergreen, but the needle leaves of the dawn redwood turn a rusty orange color in the fall, and are shed in winter. Then, in the spring, all the needles are re-grown and beautifully green again. The growth of a congregation is like that too--deciduous. There are the expansive seasons and the seasons of dormancy, where the growth is invisible, yet the roots and branches are building strength for the coming seasons. The Dawn Redwood tree reminds that growth comes in cycles, that we must change and adapt as our size changes, and that we are always in relationship to the environment around us.


The Dawn Redwood tree has a trunk that rises up straight and tall—it reminds us that we need a strong center—a strong mission—to keep our community growing. The tree also has multiple branches that intertwine and stretch out in all directions. Likewise, our community must include many diverse people who can follow their own passion, while holding fast to the center. We don't know how tall the tree might eventually grow. It is not unusual for Dawn Redwoods to grow to 100 feet. Forty years (in 2011) is still quite young for a tree. It might yet outgrow the space in which it is planted. And we might too.


In this International Year of the Forest, 2011, some people are adopting individual trees and watching them, taking photos, observing their changes, observing the life that congregates around them. If we pay close attention, we might discover many more lessons that we can learn from our Dawn Redwood tree. I invite you to take photos, write poems, listen to the Dawn Redwood, and share what you learn with the rest of us. If you are having a hard time, come sit beneath the tree, and then reach out to the community. As David Wagoner reminds us, "If you are lost, stand still. The forest knows where you are. Let it find you.”[ii]


[i] History compiled by Rev. Myke Johnson, with help from Janet Stover, Rev. Robert Wolf, Pat McLaughlin, and others. Information about the Dawn Redwood species was compiled from several sources, including: Meetings with Remarkable Trees, by Thomas Pakenham, p.184-5, "Metasequoia Story,” and online here

[ii] From the poem, "Lost.”

For the first service of 2014, we gathered around our beloved redwood tree: