Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sequoiadendron Giganteum

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California is an organism unlike any other in the world. At well over 200 feet tall and sometimes more than 35 feet wide, the Sequoiadendron Giganteum, better known as Giant Sequoia trees, are the largest living things on earth.

They're also one of the oldest. Some of the Giant Sequoias standing today have held their ground for more than 3,500 years. They have tasted of the same winds that filled the sails of fishing boats during China's first dynasty. Perhaps they heard when Babylon fell, the singing of the Israelites being led out of Egypt, or the clanging of swords and shields as the Jaredites battled to their own extinction. Only the Bristlecone Pines of the Great Basin and Chile's Alerce trees have lived longer.

Over last three millennia, while Sequoias have stood tall, literally hundreds of forests have been eliminated due to fires, insects, droughts and other natural phenomenon. Others have been cut down to build homes, weapons, canoes and books. Some forests have regrown; some have struggled because of poor soil quality, harsh environmental conditions, or the prevalence of nut-eating animals that devoured their potential before it ever had a chance to take root. Surely Sequoias are among the luckiest species on earth to have avoided all of that.

Except, of course, that Sequoias haven't avoided those things at all. Sequoia trees grow at high elevations where life-sustaining air and water are both in short supply. Their trunks are so large and so soft (you can punch them without hurting your hand) that it is physically impossible for the trees to push sufficient water from the roots to the branches basking in the sun high above the ground. As they grow, Sequoias provide shade for other plants that soon begin to crowd the trees and suffocate their roots. Worst of all are the disasters.

In the mountains of central California, it is not uncommon for naturally occurring fires to burn hundreds of thousands of acres on an annual basis. Drought conditions can persist for several years and every twenty years or so there will be a winter with no snow at all. When most trees don't have enough moisture to produce sap, the insects invade and wipe them out. All of these and more-- like the earthquakes for which California has become infamous-- happen regularly in and around the groves of Sequoia trees. Really, Sequoias are set up for miserable failure. So how are they still here? How have they endured when nothing else has?

One meaningful way we can answer those questions is by looking for true principles in a similar situation set in a different environment. This will help us discern eternal truths from circumstantial evidence.

After the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833, the Lord commanded the Prophet Joseph Smith to lead a group of men from Ohio to help their fellow church members. Roughly 200 men were gathered for what many at that time thought would be a military mission to reclaim property and push back against the mobs that were persecuting the Saints. The group, originally known as the Camp of Israel but better known today as Zion's Camp, was entirely self-funded with some members consecrating as much as $170 (valued at more than $5,000 today), at a time when most Americans made less than a dollar a day. It would also prove to be an extremely difficult and soul-searching experience for its participants, who would walk as much as 40 miles each day through dehydration, hunger, sickness, humidity and heat.

Ultimately, the Lord would disband Zion's Camp before it had fought a single battle. Some of the men were angry at this outcome and apostatized from the church. Others were disappointed or supposed the camp to have been a miserable failure. Joseph Smith, who had contracted cholera and suffered a great deal himself while marching from Ohio to Missouri, would later explain to the Saints, "God did not want you to fight. He could not organize his kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham" (History of the Church, 2:182n). Through incredible opposition, the Lord unlocked even greater potential.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Quorum of Seventy were founded in February 1835. Nine of the original Twelve and all members of the Seventy had marched with Zion's Camp. These men would go on to baptize thousands. They would organize the wagon trains across the plains and establish communities throughout the mountain west. In short order, and with faith in the Lord's blessings, they would make the desert blossom as a rose and build both the temporal assets and spiritual legacy that are a great strength to the Church even today.

The prophet Lehi taught that "it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, ... righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad" (2 Nephi 2:11; see also verse 15). This was true even in our pre-mortal existence, when Lucifer sought to destroy the Father's plan and capture His glory. Cast out of heaven, Lucifer and his followers roam the earth tempting and seeking to deceive those who were loyal to God. Yet, as Elder Oaks has pointed out, "that the evil one, who opposed and sought to destroy the Father's plan, actually facilitated it, because it is the opposition that enables choice... that leads to the growth that is the purpose of the Father's plan" (Opposition in All Things, April 2016).

Sequoia trees are no different: their adversity is their strength. Their height protects their cones from many of that animals that would use their cones for food and ensures the trees get the sunlight they need. Their soft trunks, useless to mankind for wood, store moisture and are naturally fire-resistant. Though insects may penetrate their bark, Sequoias are not dependent on their trunks to push water to the rest of the tree. The grace of an occasional fog provides moisture to the branches, preventing the trees from dying, and allows the tree to grow back where insects may have burrowed.

Then, every so often, the stress of drought and crowding underbrush reaches fever pitch and a bolt of lightning sets the forest on fire. What would be the end of most trees is a glorious beginning for the deep-rooted Sequoias as the fire's heat begins to expand the otherwise tightly sealed Sequoia cones. As the cones are opened, each tree releases up to 400,000 winged seeds onto the freshly fertilized ground below. Because the trees are so tall, seeds can float hundreds of feet away to find an open patch of ground. Through incredible opposition, even greater potential is unlocked.

As seeds turn into seedlings and seedlings turn into trees, Sequoias create an additional barrier around their groves. Where there are Sequoia trees, it will be difficult for other trees to grow; and where few other trees grow, fatal forest fires are reduced to brush fires that cause temporary pain and scarring but also fertilize the ground so the Giant Sequoias can grow stronger and establish a generation to last another three thousand years.

One thing that distinguishes us all from Sequoia trees is ability to choose. Sequoia trees are what they were created to be and they fulfill their role in God's plan. Each of us has been created as child of God with a divine and glorious potential. Our role is to learn to be like our Heavenly Father through faith in Christ and his Atonement, repentance, making and keeping covenants, relying on the Holy Ghost and enduring all things; but unlike Sequoia trees, we are allowed to choose whether the opposition inherent to this life will unlock our potential or weaken our ability to resist the dangerous fires of worldly philosophies and temptations. We can plant the seed of our testimony on fertile ground and become the faithful builders of an eternal Zion; or we can harden our hearts and become like the destructive apostates that are swept away when times get tough.

We get to choose what kind of a tree we will be in the forest of God's creations, but the choice we make will determine our destiny. If we will choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, using opposition to build the strength of our faith rather than deplete it, offering all we have and are as Abraham did, the Lord will send us his tender mercies as the fog to strengthen us now and expand our souls until they are more glorious than even the Giant Sequoias.