In these parts of the world, our majestic and sacred coastal redwood trees (sequoia sempervirens) are the closest we can find to an immortal living object. The trees in the Armstrong Grove near Guerneville are at least 1,400 years old and other redwood trees have been known to live for as many as 2,200 years. Among immortal manmade objects we might think of Stonehenge, the Egyptian Pyramids, sacred texts or cave paintings. What might be among the more intangible or ethereal objects of greatest longevity? This week, for some reason, our U.S. Constitution comes to mind.
Prior to very recent times, we thought of our redwoods and the social construct of the Constitution as both being forever and steadfast. Now we are not so sure. Our ancient redwoods are being threatened by manmade climate change and our U.S. Constitution is being threatened by not dissimilar manmade cataclysms. In one case, we are burning too much fossil fuel. In the other incidence, we are burning the truth.
When the framers of the Constitution finally ratified the many social compromises and laws included in the 4,543-word document in 1789, the redwood trees in Armstrong Grove were already over 1,000 years old, reaching more than 300 feet into the sky. The trees that were felled for timber in the mid-18th century, just before the U.S. Civil War, had been growing since the times of Jesus Christ and the Roman Empire. Our living Armstrong redwood cathedral has stood as a silent witness to the Spanish Flu epidemic 100 years ago and is here as we fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The forest’s example of immortality is soothing to us. We would not be Sonoma County without our redwoods.
When the Constitution was completed 231 years ago, bystanders asked Benjamin Franklin, a delegate to the constitutional convention, what sort of government the leaders of the British Revolution had just formed. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he replied. This Franklin quote has been too often repeated in recent days. But the violent insurgency on our U.S. Capitol and members of congress on Jan. 6 brings chilling new relevance to his challenge.
Like redwoods, our Constitution and democratic republic need nutrients, protections and a sustaining climate. Redwoods need lots of fog and rain and not too much heat or drought. The nourishment for our republic is civic engagement, obeying our laws and social compromises based on good faith and patriotism to country above all else.
Franklin also said in 1789, “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” James Madison said, “If all men were angels, (we) would not need laws.”
Redwood trees have a remarkable ability to reproduce from seeds, cuttings, stump or root clumps or burls. Our Constitution is not as self-renewing or self-correcting. Alexander Hamilton wrote that our ability to keep our republic “depends on officers with both courage and fortitude, but also with the moderation and self-restraint necessary to follow lawful presidential orders with which they personally disagree.”
We admit we are overdoing these tree-to-people equivalencies here, but if redwoods had to rely on U.S. senators for their survival we must fear for their enduring existence as we now fear for our republic. Following the insurrection of Jan. 6 and the cowardice and degeneracy by 47 Republican senators Franklin’s warning has become too alarmingly timely.
Leave it to our ancient redwoods to be witnesses to history. We, ourselves, are not ready to be witnesses to how history may judge the insurrectionists of Jan. 6 or their enablers in the Trump White House and GOP senate offices. We are much more interested in the future where we answer Franklin’s challenge.