As one gazes upward at the perimeter of the room while sitting through a lecture in Convocation Hall, attention is drawn towards the large portraits of University founders, Chancellors,Vice-Chancellors and other associated with Sewanee’s history; but on Monday everyone gathered for Peter Crane’s Phi Beta Kappa lecture on his recent book had their attention directed upward not to reminisce about the University’s past, but to look out the windows onto Guerry Garth, to gaze upon the female ginkgo tree majestically standing as a living example concretizing what was to be said in the coming hour.
That tree, as Dr. Crane would argue regarding the species as a whole, represents a history much longer and more tumultuous than that of the painted men in ermine robes, though in some ways the story Crane wove in his talk and in his book of “proliferation, decline, and reemergence” finds parallel in the University’s development before, during, and after the Civil War, but ginkgo’s story unfolds over the course of eons rather than decades.
Dr. Crane’s talk, which will soon be made available online told the story of the species, an evolutionary anomaly that is the sole representative of one of the five extant lineages of seed plants. He traced the trees from their ambiguous origins sometime before the Jurassic period through it’s equally as mysterious decline leading to an evolutionary bottleneck leaving only 1 or 2 species of the tree by 100 million years ago to its eventual resurgence in our contemporary age, largely through the actions of humans.
In an age when so much of what we hear regarding the interactions of humans and the natural world are bleak tales of destruction and impending ecological collapse, the story of the ginkgo offers a more optimistic outlook of what humans can do for the biodiversity of the world. Reduced to only one or two native populations, ginkgos have been cultivated and revered in China for over a millenia. From there, these trees were spread around the world and now line city streets, fill parks, and capture imaginations on continents far removed from China’s forests. Whether the tree is revered or merely admired, the status of this evolutionary lineage is much more secure due to human action.
Hopefully we will be able to learn from this example and use the success of the ginkgo as impetus to work to preserve other species nearing extinction.