by Cindy Neal Carpenter
We have past the year’s longest night, and though longer days are difficult for us to discern, it won’t be long before nature does. It is time to be thankful for the gifts of the old year, let go of what is not helpful, and welcome in the new. Symbols of a New Year’s fresh beginnings can be found by those who, like me and most interpreters, tend to find intangible meanings in tangible things. The recent sight of a lone American sycamore with branches decked all over with seed balls is one of those symbols. This is no ordinary sycamore. This is a rare Moon Tree, sprung from a space traveling seed that went where no tree seed had gone before.
I love this tree at the Cradle of Forestry in America, and its little known story. It is one of some 50 known surviving trees that went to the moon as seeds on the Apollo 14 mission in February, 1971. Astronaut Stuart Roosa loved the outdoors and had worked for the USDA Forest Service as a smokejumper before becoming a test pilot and astronaut. Stan Krugman, then Forest Service Staff Director for Forest Genetics Research, gave him redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir, and sweetgum seeds as part of a NASA/USFS project to study the effects of radiation and weightlessness on seed germination and seedling growth. So Roosa gladly included the 400-500 tree seeds in his Personal Preference Kit, a small pouch Apollo astronauts were allowed to fill with their special possessions.
Roosa and the tree seeds orbited the moon above our pretty blue planet 34 times on board the command module Kitty Hawk as Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the lunar surface and Shepard famously hit golf balls. Once back on Earth, the seed canisters burst open during decontamination procedures, and the seeds were feared to be no longer viable. Surprisingly, nearly all germinated successfully, and after a few years the Forest Service had grown 420-450 seedlings. Research showed no difference in growth between the space travelers and their earthbound genetic twins.
The Moon Trees’ next journeys were to forestry organizations and public sites around the world, planted between 1975 and 1976 as part of the United States’ Bicentennial celebration. The Cradle of Forestry’s Moon Tree was planted in the fall of 1976 by Karl Oedekoven, then Minister of Forestry for the Federal Republic of Germany. This was appropriate since the Cradle is the home of America’s first forestry school, founded in 1898 by German forester and humanitarian Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck. President Gerald Ford sent telegrams to planting ceremonies, writing that each small tree was “a fitting tribute to our national space program which has brought out the best of American patriotism, dedication and determination to succeed.”
According to the NASA Moon Tree website, 16 Moon Trees survive in our Sunny Southeast Region. At least 10 second generation Moon Trees also grow in our region. Several years ago I noticed seeds from the Cradle’s tree, but it didn’t occur to me to collect them. I’ve felt I had missed my chance. And now, here they hang against the endless sky, lovely brown seed balls on a bare-leaved American sycamore. I have hope now this symbol of wonder, devotion and history can survive, especially as our Moon Tree declines.
At second-generation Moon Tree planting ceremonies, Stuart Roosa’s grown children expressed hope the trees encourage children to reach for the stars. When interpreting the Cradle of Forestry’s Moon Tree I like to encourage curiosity since we are learning so much about our solar system and our universe, yet there is still so much to learn about our forests and their care. As I anticipate a New Year, reflect on the world today, and ponder the potential and meaning in a Moon Tree seed, I also ponder the relevance of President Ford’s telegrams’ concluding sentence: “May this young tree renew our deep-rooted faith in the ideals of our Founding Fathers and may it inspire us to strive for the kind of growth that benefits our own citizens and all mankind.”
Peace on Earth, and Goodwill to All.
(Sources: NASA Moon Tree website; Cradle of Forestry in America site files; Forest History Society archives)