A tree burned by volcanic ash in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park


© Dennis Stock / Magnum Photos


Looking at a burned tree is like looking at a moment in time. Tiny seeds grow into ligneous organisms whose age can be estimated by concentric growth rings in their trunks, according to the laws of dendrochronology. The study of tree age based on growth rings was first developed in 1906 by Andrew E. Douglass, though Leonardo da Vinci had noted the phenomena centuries earlier. This dating system, known as a “fluctuating scale” system, permits the comparison of ring sequences in trees that live in the same period and in the same geographic area.
The most important teaching we can derive from these studies is that every tree has its own tale to tell. Some feel the seasons change around them, grow, bear fruit and live on, or give life to a new generation despite climatic and environmental change. Others experienced catastrophic events like lava flows, fires and volcanic eruptions. For these, time stops suddenly. It only takes brief exposure to a temperature of 300°C to trigger a process of spontaneous combustion. For vegetation in volcanic areas, like the islands of Hawaii, such phenomena are relatively frequent and much of the memory normally conserved in tree trunks is destined to be deleted by the next lava flow.
But some trees, like the one seen here, resist this destiny. The memory of trees records past events and reminds us that life goes on regardless, because every tree leaves behind seeds that will record new memories in new wood.

Tamara Vitacchio