I was climbing the highest branch I could reach of the oak tree when I heard my granny calling me for lunch. Granny Liz’s farm was full of interesting and weird old stuff with plants all around. She was quite a peculiar person. Plants have been her passion since she was a kid. At least, that’s what she used to say. There wasn’t a day we would visit her that she wouldn’t have had a fascinating story to tell us: going on adventures in the middle of an island in Cambodia, backpacking around Brazil, camping in New Zealand, exploring Ghana. She visited every continent but Antarctica. And all these adventures to look for trees. To be honest, I’ve never got that. Why would someone like trees that much? They are fun to climb, and I would love to build a treehouse on one, but besides that, they are quite boring. Are they even living organisms? Sometimes, I doubt it.

I could barely move after eating seconds of homemade gnocchi. Granny was nowhere to be seen which was unusual. She loved having family around in the kitchen. Moving from one room to another, I found her in her office. I mean, it looked more like a craft space than a normal office. She was turning the pages of a book. Without turning around she said, “Mia, do you want to hear a story?” How could she possibly know it was me waiting in the door? Before I had time to answer, she stood up and walked towards me holding the book in her hands. I nodded and followed her.

The bench we sat on was facing the garden. As she flipped the pages of the book, I could recognise the oak tree in front of us in all of the pictures. There were some drawings in yellow paper, and black and white photos that were not a simple digital effect; they showed the old age of the pictures. There were also colourful ones with my granny, mum, and me as a baby and a toddler. It was a photo album. But a photo album of a tree? The last page revealed what Granny had been doing. A picture of me climbing the same oak tree. I knew Granny had an instant camera but I hadn’t realised she took a picture of me that morning.

“Do you know how old this oak tree is, Mia?”, she asked.

I have never thought about it before. How old can a tree be? “I’d say more than 100 years? Just because in this photo album I can recognise some of our old family members. If this is our great-great-great grandfather, then this picture is from a few generations ago. Is this even possible?”

She giggled. She knew she got my attention and curiosity.

“That’s a great way of thinking about it. Do you believe me if I just say that it is 438 years old?”

“I don’t know. How do you know that? 100 years are registered in these pictures as I can see, but the rest? Besides, if this is true, are you sure this is even alive?”

I hadn’t even finished asking her and she walked towards the barn. I saw her waving her hand and I followed again.

“Yes, it is alive. It is still reproducing and evolving in this garden. I mean, it is still producing new leaves, flowers and fruits. You can see right away. Sometimes, it is less obvious to see, but you may want to look a little closer. That’s what I did for most of my life. I studied trees. There are a few ways to determine the age of a tree. It isn’t me that is saying the age of this tree, it is science.”

I scratched my head and tried to connect all the information I had. The tree that I climbed that morning was older than anything else I knew of. If it could speak, imagine how many stories it would tell. “How? How can science tell the age of trees?”, I asked.

“Can you see that tree stump? Have you noticed the concentric rings on it?”

The stump she was pointing at was one close to the barn. I remembered the day they had to cut it down because of a thunderstorm that hit that tree around two years ago. She continued explaining, “One way to determine trees’ ages is through the observation and analysis of their trunk rings. In fact, these rings can tell us not only the age but how the weather was at different points of the trees’ life.”

As I got closer, I could see the rings. I mean, of course I noticed them before, but I have never imagined they could tell so much. They just looked like art: some light-coloured, followed by some dark-coloured rings with different thicknesses. “But how?”, I asked.

“You would be a great scientist yourself. You know how to ask good questions and you are a great observer!”, she replied.

I couldn’t contain my curiosity and asked again. “Granny, how could you tell the age and the weather by their rings?”

“If you think about the rings as the pictures you just saw in the photo album, you can understand that they are a record of time. But instead of capturing images, they capture the wood growth. The colour of the rings tell us the season. If the ring is light the growth happens during spring and early summer, while dark is for late summer and fall.”

I had to admit at this point that trees were becoming a bit more interesting to me. Maybe because of so many things I have never realised about them. A whole new world to discover. “Does the weather influence the thickness of the rings?”

She smiled. She seemed a bit surprised. “You are very clever. When there are warm and wet days, sensitive trees tend to grow more and the opposite is true for cold and dry ones. We can cross check this information with the weather data that we have; for example, if last summer we got a lot of rain. Ancient trees, however, like this one we have in the garden, offer snapshots of the climate in the past when we didn’t have these measurements.”

“Wait a minute! That doesn’t make any sense. How would you check the rings patterns with the tree still alive?”, I asked.

In the back of a drawer, I saw her getting a weird tool. It was made of steel and looked like a T with some knobs. “I knew you would ask this. This is an increment borer, an instrument we use to get a straw-like piece from the trunk of the tree from centre to outermost layer. Isn’t that nice?”

Yeah, it was quite nice.

She kept saying, “You know all the adventures I told you in stories? That is because I travelled around the globe to study trees. I would go to get pieces of trees to study them and compare their growth to understand past climate. What is interesting is that some scientists are using this information to try to predict the future.”

“What?”, my chin dropped. Can trees be very old, tell stories about the past, and teach us about the future at the same time? I still couldn’t believe it.

“You heard it correctly. Together with other information, they believe that future forests will have smaller trees capturing less carbon from the air which isn’t very good for us.”

Wow! How have I never thought about trees this way? What will happen with forests? I guess I was wrong. Trees did tell stories! They are like silent storytellers. I was the one not paying much attention.

While my head was spinning around with all these thoughts, she handed me the photo album. Her eyes were full of tears but a smile was stamped on her face. I understood it right away. It was now my turn to take care of my granny’s treasures, the irreplaceable photo album and ancient tree we had in our family garden.


fiction, science 2022/07/31

Submitted for the creative writing competition: 5th edition of Science-me a Story - Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK/CERU).