In Circles

In Circles

Photograph by Dr. Richard Kessel & Dr. Gene Shih/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Dr. Richard Kessel & Dr. Gene Shih/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.
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“Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

Black Elk

Good morning. That is, if it is morning for you. Depending on where you are in the world, it might be afternoon or evening. It might be Friday, or is it still Thursday? It could be a different day altogether. Maybe you are reading this in the future, looking back into the past, which as I write these words is in every way my present. If you are looking ahead, wondering where this train of thought is headed, let me offer you another query to contemplate: What is time?


We define our days by dials on a clock, but none among us can say with certainty what exactly time is. Is it the fourth dimension? Is it God—omniscient and omnipotent, healer of all wounds? Is it something humans invented or did we discover its existence? Is it merely the measurement of chronology, a way to organize events? The Western mind would say so, that time is irrefutably linear. According to Oxford Languages, time is “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”


Dendrochronology is a field of study that uses tree rings as a means of measuring time. Rings form in a tree’s trunk as new cells are generated in the cambium, the growing point that can be found beneath the bark. As these cells develop, the tree expands outward in all directions. In temperate regions, rings form from the passage of the seasons. In spring and summer, the tree grows quickly, forming the lighter inner part of the ring. In fall and winter, growth slows, forming the outer darker part of the ring. Together, one light ring and one dark ring form a year in a tree’s life. Trees grow more ancient as newer rings form.


The climate can affect how a tree’s circles develop, and because each ring corresponds to roughly one year, scientists can read between the rings to learn about how our world has evolved over time. Some species, such as the bristlecone pine, can live for thousands of years. Scientists can even extend a tree’s records by over 10,000 years by comparing them to other fallen trees, allowing them to glean invaluable information about weather patterns and climate conditions from eras past—as well as make predictions to help prepare for the future.


And yet, there is so much more that trees have to teach us about time itself. The first is that it’s circular. We grow not only taller, but wider—circles within circles, every iteration of ourselves contained within, written in the repetition of our rings. We grow both older and younger. The second is that there is a season for everything. Time passes both quickly and slowly, as does our growth. The third is that, like the years of a tree as reflected in its rings, time is defined by both the dark and the light. Without either, we would not be able to read its passage.


It doesn’t take a dendrochronologist to see the nonlinear nature of time. All one has to do is look at the news to feel as if we are going in circles. Last week, the IPCC issued another “code red” for humanity. Media outlets covered it for a few days, and then the story disappeared. How many alarms must scientists sound before their message is received? And what of everything else? The unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, climate catastrophes in Haiti, wildfires in the West, climbing coronavirus cases—this week has felt like we are living in a time loop. One disaster after the next, we are seeing the urgency with which our world’s systems must change.


In trying times like these, let us remember the teachings of trees. Let us remember that life is not a line, that even what seems like going in circles is still part of our expansion. Let us remember that our rings cannot be rushed, that there is a season for action and a season for slowing down. Let us remember that it all comes back around, that what may seem outwardly lost is inwardly found. Let us remember that which the heart knows, that from center everything grows.

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