In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the character Lucien keeps a library of “every story that has ever been dreamed … novels their authors never wrote, or never finished, except in dreams.”1 One shelf, presumably that of British authors, holds The Return of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, Alice’s Journey Behind the Moon by Lewis Carroll, and The Lost Road by J.R.R. Tolkien. It aches a little to scan this shelf and to realize that these novels will never exist.
Gaiman’s imaginary library prompts me to imagine and even reconstruct other collections of the lost. As a scientist, I can’t reconstruct Dream’s lost texts, but I can reconstruct lost DNA, which is itself a sort of text. The records of natural history are scarred with evidence of past extinctions leaving gaps and ghosts behind.
Yet God repeatedly calls this world “good” in Genesis 1. How can this be true, with so many million lights extinguished before Adam and Eve awoke? Whatever the meaning of the words “day” or “kinds” in this passage, it’s the meaning of “good” that haunts me. The whole passage depends on that word. So let’s honor these lost species by remembering them, and ask, what kind of good is this?
We stand on a foundation full of bones and fossils, and each living species holds echoes of the past in its palimpsest of DNA. We might reconstruct dinosaur DNA and build a Jurassic Park, but let’s stop to think if we should. Maybe not – and animals are too complex anyway. But instead, consider an actual “park” of trees now extinct.
Our Garden of Extinct Trees could have four areas, each named for an era of natural history important to trees. In order, you would walk backwards in time, encountering Holocene Park, Mesozoic Park, Carboniferous Park, and Devonian Park. The first one might even be constructed here and now.
Theme parks are designed with a big structure inside the gates that draws visitors inward and onward.2 Holocene Park would accomplish this with Wood’s Cycad: a 20-foot-tall tree with palms as long and thin as ferns, and cones as yellow and round as lemon drops. Basal offsets of this tree are still growing across the world,3 but the species only lives through hybridization with the Natal cycad.4
Other trees, extinct in the wild but still cultivated, could be grown in Holocene Park. The Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) was collected from the colony of Georgia in 1765, and named after– you guessed it — Benjamin Franklin.5 The Franklin tree has white, sweet-smelling flowers, but others are varied and bright as light through a prism, their flowers crimson and pointed like a star (Kokia cookei), pale and curved like a claw (Cyanea superba), or yellow and flared like a ballroom dress (Sophora toromiro). (This final tree may be reintroduced to Easter Island soon.)6
Other trees are extinct by any definition. The Saint Helena Olive (Nesiota elliptica) is more genetically similar to a jujube than an olive, but its fruit can no longer be tasted. The last specimen died in the wild in 1994 and in captivity in 2003. I can only hope for some kind of genetic reconstruction someday.7
Imagine reconstructing trees a little farther back, just 200 million years or so. This second area of our garden would be Mesozoic Park.
Mesozoic Park starts getting weird around the edges, with two conifers unlike any you’ve seen. Araucaria mirabilishas with smooth cones the size of chicken eggs, and leaves like a Monkey Puzzle tree8 About a hundred million years older is Araucarioxylon arizonicum, found fossilized throughout the Petrified Forest National Park. At 200 feet tall, these are the tallest in our imaginary garden. A walk-through attraction of ramps and platforms could wind up and around these trees, like Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse.
Keep walking back in time to 300 million years ago, to our third area, Carboniferous Park. The swampy Carboniferous forests held a pair of 100-foot-tall species that are decidedly alien to our current era, even growing their wood in different ways. Scaly Lepidodendron trees had cells that grew only in one direction, making the trees so spongy inside that they might wave in the wind like giant grass.9
Even stranger would be Sigillaria, which stretches the definition of tree to its limit, even to the extent of reproducing with spores rather than seeds. Sigillaria leaves grew from its trunk, making “wood” from tightly packed, photosynthetic leaf bases. It was bright green from trunk to tip.
A friend of mine says his family motto is “It can always get weirder.”10 This could also be the motto of our final area, the 400-million-year-old Devonian Park. Cladoxylopsida trees are the very oldest, but also some of the most complex. The wood in a Cladoxylopsida trunk grew as a circle of small columns, like the colonnades of St. Peter’s square, filled in with softer tissue.11 As the small columns expanded, the trunk would spread out and split apart, constantly cracking and repairing.12
The weirdest of them all must be Prototaxites, a 25-foot-tall species halfway between between a saguaro cactus and an asparagus stalk. This tree isn’t even a plant – it’s from another kingdom entirely, being recently being classified as a giant fungus.13 Does it taste like mushrooms? If so, imagine the possibilities for a theme park restaurant here.
Many of these most ancient species grew in just a few years. On a geologic time scale, this is like the dream in My Neighbor Totoro where a giant camphor tree grows in a matter of minutes, as an inverted waterfall pouring up from the ground.14 All these species in the Garden of Extinct Trees sprang up with alacrity, before dying out. As theologian Katherine Sonderegger wrote, “in a rich harmony – a tumult, really – the substances the Lord God has made sing out with His praise.”15
But there’s dissonance in this music. All of these species are gone, as lost as Tolkien’s never-written The Lost Road. Why would these songs go silent, all this beauty lost, to be seen only as dead fossils today?
This is the real barrier to accepting the message of Genesis 1. We must face this world of death in all its complexity and refuse the temptation to reject it as something malformed, nor to grudgingly accommodate it as something neutral. No, this is much more – all this is good.
Remember the mental journey you just took. If you imagine finding these fossils, wandering through this garden, maybe even restoring these species to life, what’s the word for that? Isn’t this reconstruction good?
Even more, it might have to be this way. We humans can remember or cultivate species that otherwise compete for resources. All of these trees could not exist naturally at the same time, on the same planet, using the same laws of chemistry.
Life is profligate and prodigal – if Totoro’s camphor tree continued to grow at that rate it would fill the earth and crowd out everything else. By reining in the tyranny of limitless growth, even extinction can be necessary for diversity, and weirdness, to thrive.
This is the same argument made by the scientist Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P.: “Therefore, in my view, it was also fitting that God created via evolution rather than via special creation because in doing so he was able to create more species to reflect his glory: With evolution, he created four billion species over a three billion year period, which is significantly greater than the mere eight million extant species today. In fact, it would have been ecologically impossible for all four billion species to co-exist on our planet, because there are only a limited number of ecological niches on the planet at a given moment in time.”16
In the Garden of Extinct Trees, the Library of Dream is realized for trees. Not only did God create all these fossils in the earth for us to find like literal buried treasure, but God also made them relate in time to each other, and in space to the earth from which they have sprung. In this way, evolution speaks to the hidden riches of God’s wisdom and glory. God lets it speak in its own weird and quiet way – He does not compete with His own creation but graciously allows it to be. This too is good.
Not even the whole world would have room for all the books to be written about what Jesus did, as the Gospel of John says. And not even the whole world would have room for all the species that would testify to the works of His Father, and ours. The only word for such a world is that it is very good.
- Gaiman, Neil. “Season of Mists, Vol. 4.” The Sandman (1992), p. 40.
- Walt Disney called this a “weenie” after the hot dog he would carry to lead his dog: https://www.themainstreetmouse.com/2013/05/13/whats-a-weenie/
- Cafasso, D. et al. (2001). Maternal inheritance of plastids in Encephalartos Lehm. (Zamiaceae, Cycadales) Genome. 2001 (2):239-41
- This may be possible because of the amazing genetic plasticity of plants. I discuss some of the ways plants evolve through whole-genome duplications and other astonishing mechanisms in p.202 of McFarland, Benjamin J. A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life. Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Cravey, Matthew. Personal communication.
- Xu, Hong-He, et al. “Unique growth strategy in the Earth’s first trees revealed in silicified fossil trunks from China.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.45 (2017): 12009-12014.
- Hueber, Francis M. “Rotted wood–alga–fungus: the history and life of Prototaxites Dawson 1859.” Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 116.1-2 (2001): 123-158. In addition, evidence is building that an algal symbiont was involved, which would make it a lichen rather than a fungus!
- Sonderegger, Katherine. Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1. Vol. 1. Fortress Press, 2015, p. 202.