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The Moon Tree 5/15/20


There is a Douglas Fir tree not far from my house that was planted during the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. Today that tree is still a little shorter than the huge deciduous trees that shade the 30th Street mall just across the street from it, but it’s big. Probably 50’ tall. If you’ve spent any time on the OSU campus there’s a good chance you’ve walked right by it, and an equally good chance you didn’t notice the small plaque at its base or the faded and wrinkled QR code attached to a low-hanging limb that mark its significance. It’s one of zillions of similar trees in the area and a quick glance won’t reveal anything special about it. But I walk or jog right past that tree most days and sometimes wonder whether it has any awareness of its own provenance. Of course it doesn’t. It’s a tree. Which is why I also want to talk to it and explain to it how special it is and the cool things it did before it was even old enough to remember. Am I nuts? Yeah, probably. Crazy enough to talk to a tree? Of course not. Not when I can write it a story.


You won’t remember this, Tree, but the summer of 1969 was one of the most eventful in history. This doesn’t even include the Mets’ amazing run to the World Series championship, since the series was played in October. It doesn’t include the debuts of The Brady Bunch or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, both of which occurred just days after the autumnal equinox. But it does include John Lennon’s announcement to leave The Beatles, effectively breaking up the band on September 20th. I know this is of interest to you because “Norwegian Wood” is probably one of your favorite songs, right? It also includes the day six weeks earlier when those same Beatles had their picture taken walking across Abbey Road and the next night when members of the Manson family began their two-night killing spree in Los Angeles. Just a week after those killings close to a half million people gathered in Bethel, New York for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. As a tree, I’m sure you’ve heard of Woodstock, right? And four weeks before that, on July 19th, Teddy Kennedy had driven Mary Jo Kopechne into Poucha Pond and left her there to die. There was a lot going on that summer.


But the day after Kennedy drove off that bridge, before anyone had heard of Manson or Woodstock, before people started claiming that Paul was dead, before the Cubs’ historic September collapse, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. You may not remember it, Tree, but there was a time when the NASA space program was culturally significant. In the three and a half years after Apollo 11 there would be five more manned lunar landings and each of them, at least in my house, was a big deal. I distinctly remember being woken up at 5:00am so I could sit with the rest of my family in front of our single tiny television set and watch Apollo 17 lift off from Cape Kennedy. I always liked those missions because you could look up at the moon and, for the two or three days that they were there, you could imagine that somewhere on that big rock, at that very moment, there were people. As a child I assumed that, just like the war in Vietnam (that’s a whole different story, Tree), these things had been going on forever and would continue forever. I didn’t know that that was the last mission that would land a man on the moon.


Though Apollo 11 made household names out of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, it did little to enlarge the profile of Michael Collins, who stayed behind in the command module while his crew mates were down on the lunar surface having fun. A year and a half later it was Stuart Roosa who drew the short straw and got stuck piloting the command module for Apollo 14. While big-shot Alan Shepard was using the moon as his personal driving range, Stu got to stay in the module conducting experiments. And what kind of experiments was he running? At least some of them involved several hundred seeds that he had brought with him. Many of them were Douglas Fir seeds. See where this is going, Tree? By the way, you’re named for a guy named David Douglas. Someday when we have more time I’ll tell you the story of how that Scotsman died at the age of 35 and is buried in Honolulu, of all places, and why there is now a small grove of Douglas Fir trees on the big island of Hawaii. Crazy stuff, but that’s for another time.



Before becoming an astronaut, the young Stuart Roosa had spent some time in Oregon as a smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service, and it was the Forest Service that arranged for him to take those seeds with him. Roosa now lies buried in Arlington Cemetery, but his legacy lives on in those seeds he experimented on. Today, the trees that sprouted from those seeds after the Forest Service germinated them upon their return to Earth, the so-called Moon Trees, can be found all over the world. So, there you go, Tree. You’re a Moon Tree. There are five more of you in Oregon, so there are others like you not too far away: The University of Oregon has one. There is one on the State Capitol grounds and one at the VA hospital in Roseburg. The other two are at a private residence somewhere in Salem. Hey, Tree, who do you think you would have to know or what kind of unethical and immoral acts do you think a person would have to commit to get a couple of you moon trees in their back yard?

Whatever paces they put you through, the results must have been satisfactory because today there is no discernable difference between you and your non-space-travelling counterparts. It would be kind of cool if you did have something to set you apart; a goofily long trunk or polka-dot pine cones or something. But, nope. You blend in really well.

Stuart Roosa spent those hours in the module alone, just him and you seeds. I’m sure you felt much like he must have: You had travelled all that way and were so close to something really amazing, yet when it came to the good part you were all stuck in the stupid module together. I get it, Tree. I really do. As unlikely as it may sound, Tree, it turns out you and I have some things in common. Really. Just hear me out. I also was planted in Oregon where I eventually put down roots and grew up. No, I’m not tall or green but I can be a little prickly on some occasions and sappy on others and birds (and sometimes people) like to crap all over me. But that’s not all, Tree. Get this: When I was two years old my parents took me to Disneyland. Disneyland! But they didn’t take me into Disneyland. Just TO it. They left my sister and me at the hotel while they took my older brother and sister INTO Disneyland. They probably didn’t even leave us a pile of seeds to experiment on. They did graciously allow us to return home with the rest of the family, although I’m sure there was some discussion about whether or not they could get away with just leaving us there. Like you, I don’t have any recollection of the trip but I had that same experience of making a long journey only to be stymied when the destination was within sight. But that’s probably where our similarities end. I don’t know what that vacuum of space is like. I’ve never experienced weightlessness. I’ve never had a national hero conduct scientific experiments on me (not that I’m clamoring for that experience). I’ve travelled far, and sometimes fast, but nothing like what you did.


I’m hesitant to tell you this, Tree, but you’ve spent your life in the greatest softwood lumber producing state in the country. Don’t worry, you have your plaque; you’re untouchable. And it may creep you out a little to learn that you’re in the Beaver State. You may have noticed that a good portion of the people walking by have little beaver images on their t-shirts, or backpacks, or coffee mugs. Don’t take it personally. They mean nothing by it and you have nothing to fear. It may seem like nobody notices you but, all things considered, you ended up in a great place. You’re right outside the offices of one of the world’s premier forestry colleges. If anyone knows how to take care of you these people do. The university is one of only two land-sea-sun and space grant institutions in the country. The other is in central Pennsylvania. So unless you think that would have been better (which nobody does) you couldn’t be in a better spot. Our professional soccer team is even named the Timbers, although we celebrate goals by sawing your relatives in half. But still… Pretty cool, huh? When you consider that two of your sister seeds have spent their entire lives in Arkansas and another, a sycamore, is at a Girl Scout camp in Indiana I think you’ll agree, Tree, that you’ve nothing to complain about.


So, that’s the story, Tree. You’re a Moon Tree. You’re a tree that has experienced things most of us can only imagine. You may not remember your pre-germination self, but I can’t help but think you Moon Trees have added something to the collective consciousness of trees everywhere. Do you think I’m nuts, Tree? That’s ok. You’re probably right.


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