The incredible talking date

Yesterday I got to write about one of the coolest science stories I’ve ever seen: Methuselah, the 2,000-year-old tree! Well, not exactly. The tree, an ancestor of the modern date palm, is only three and a half. But researchers in Israel and Switzerland confirmed this week that they grew it from a 2,000-year-old seed. The story appeared at National Geographic News today and you can read it here: 

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080612-oldest-tree.html

There are a bunch of startling facts: the seed was left behind by Jewish zealots who committed suicide in mountains above the Dead Sea — rather than succumb to the rule of the Romans. Sarah Sallon, the lead researcher who is also a trained physician, in Jerusalem, told me the zealots left their food stores behind so there would be no lingering idea that they died of starvation rather than on purpose, and researchers knew where to look for those stores because of painstaking records written nearly 2,000 years ago. The BBC reported today that the seeds were found in ancient human waste. Whatever the details, the seeds were so well preserved that researchers got one of them to sprout in 2005. 

As soon as I learned that much, I began to imagine that there must be a caretaker for the tree, which they’ve named Methuselah. And I had to wonder if that person talked to the tree — asked it questions or even appealed to it for the wisdom of the ancients. The answer to that question fell outside the scope of a National Geographic News story, but I’ll put it here. To me, only a truly amazing phenomenon will prompt a rigorous scientist to behave like a deeply feeling human being — and be willing to admit it!

The remarkable seedling – which won’t reveal its gender for another few years – has the potential to inform medicines and an understanding of the genetic relationships between ancient and modern date palms.

 If Methuselah is female, it might support species-restoration efforts.

But Sallon has found inspiration beyond the tree’s scientific promise. She’s written a children’s book from the seedling’s perspective – and she points out that in the Jewish faith, the date palm is the “Tree of Life,” which holds the promise of peace.

 “I was very prompted … to ask that date questions,” she said. “I wrote a story for children. I called it ‘The Date’s Tale.’”

Sallon is now hunting for a publisher for her book, which recounts the moment the Romans entered Masada to find all the people who had committed suicide – and how the date felt to be “woken up” after 2,000 years.

“I’ve been writing it over the years as I’ve been watching the date grow,” Sallon said. “I’ve sort of put words into its little mouth. I really got into the date’s little mindset.”

My first question had gotten such a good, emotive response that I came back around to the non-scientific facts later in the interview. I asked Sallon if she and her colleagues had placed bets on Methuselah’s gender — and whether they knew exactly what they would do to celebrate if Methuselah bears fruit. They won’t know about the gender until about 2012.

But at those questions, Sallon bristled. And I got a strong reminder about how different our lives are, in the West and the Middle East.

“We will celebrate when there is peace,” she said. “We will celebrate when all people in this region can plant these trees together, and share any medicinal benefits it brings.”

 

 

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