Dustin Bajer, How To Grow a 1000-year-old-tree, An Ancient Ginkgo Tree In the middle of a City

How To Grow a 1000-Year-Old Tree

Edmonton Public Library How-To Festival

What would it be like to live in a world where people tended 1000-year-old trees? How might planting long-lived trees change our thinking about the future and our role in its creation? The following is a recording and edited transcript of a talk I gave at the Edmonton Public Library’s How-To Festival in 2023.

How to (And Why) Grow a 1000-Year-Old Tree?

[00:00:02.170] – Dustin Bajer
It’s not like I’ve grown a thousand-year-old tree, but this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. A group of us, some of whom are in today’s meeting, have been thinking about it.

[00:00:27.440] – Dustin Bajer
While travelling around Central America, I remember walking through the jungle and looking at ancient cities. I guess not even that ancient as they were occupied 500 years ago or less. I remember a guide pointing at a giant hill of what looked like a forest, and the guide said, “There’s a city under there. It’s covered in trees.” I just had a “wow” moment – if you let it, nature can take over a space. It occurred to me that we spend much time beating back the natural world. Nature is an incredible force. I remember thinking, “What would happen if we partnered with it instead of beating the jungle back?” What if instead of trying to block nature off, you could redirect it – partner with it?

Origin Stories

[00:01:46.200] – Dustin Bajer
For the past 15 years, much of my work has involved integrating the natural world into the built environment. The idea of growing thousand-year-old trees has been on my mind for a while. It’s been a slow hunch, but now we’re making plans to figure out how to grow thousand-year-old trees throughout Edmonton. We’ve been discussing the possibility of growing 1,000-year-old trees. What would that look like? Where would you put them? What species would you use? How would you ensure that people know what they are from generation to generation?

It’s an exciting challenge because we encounter ten more questions whenever we think we are getting closer to an answer. It has us thinking about long-term responsibility and creating a greener Edmonton.

Long-Term Thinking and Responsibility

[00:03:14.090] – Dustin Bajer
Much of our cultural narrative seems dystopian; the world has more than a few challenges: multiple wars and climate change. There’s a cultural narrative that the future will be worse than the present. We assumed that progress would keep happening for a long time, and I feel like that’s flipped a little bit. There are important questions to ask, like what is progress, or progress for whom? But there is this cultural narrative that things are getting worse.

Dustin Bajer, How To Grow a 1000-year-old tree, Pushing Back Against a Dystopian Cultural Narrative.
Pushing Back Against a Dystopian Cultural Narrative.

[00:04:14.930] – Dustin Bajer
One of the comments I get is, “We won’t be here in 1000 years,” and I think that is one of the big reasons for tackling a long-term project. Let’s challenge that assumption. Trying to grow thousand-year-old trees flies in the face of a cultural dystopian worldview. It says the future could be greener, better, and more abundant – and we can start building that future. We could grow a greener, more vibrant Edmonton today.

A New Narrative of the Futures

[00:05:01.230] – Dustin Bajer
Countless science fiction involves travelling back in time to correct past wrongs and make a better present. Well, we are in somebody’s past, so what decisions could we make today that would improve things for the future?

[00:05:25.990] – Dustin Bajer
I don’t know what the future is going to look like. It’s hard to imagine what people 1000 years from now will value. But we can use long-term thinking strategies to make decisions that increase options for each generation who, in their context, will make decisions that will open doors for the next generation. Is growing a 1000-year-old tree one way to make that argument?

[00:06:12.740] – Dustin Bajer
If we plant 1000 trees capable of living 1000 years, will they all make it? Will any of them make it to 1000 years? I hope so, but it’s less about the trees and more about the stories we can create. How do we reevaluate the way we see the future? How can we acknowledge that, whether we intend to or not, we’re making decisions that somebody else will live with? And so, a project about growing old things is about increasing opportunities for the future. It’s a conversation about what it means to be a good ancestor.

Dustin-Bajer-How-To-Grow-a-1000-year-old-tree. Growing old trees is about creating the conditions for conversations and actions that open doors to better futures
Nobody knows what the future will be like. Growing 1000-year-old trees is about creating the conditions for conversations and actions that open doors to better futures.

The Long Now Foundation

[00:07:12.410] – Dustin Bajer
There’s an organization in San Francisco that I’ve been following called the Long Now Foundation. I thought I could delve into some of their lessons for a moment. When most people talk about “now,” they’re referring to the last few days and the next few days – the immediate things that concern them, the day-to-day stuff. “Nowadays” might refer to the previous decade and maybe this decade or the next. The Long Now Foundation asks us to imagine what it would be like if we took a long view of history. What would it mean to live in a “Long Now”? What would it mean to make decisions beyond the immediate view of “now” or “nowadays” into a “Long Now”?

The Long Now Foundation defines the “Long Now” as the last 10,000 and the next 10,000 years. We’re talking about growing a tree that is 1000 years old. So it’s even modest compared to the Long Now. Much of our day-to-day concerns are probably less important than we think. How would decision-making change if you were forced to look at things on the scale of a thousand years?

The Pace Layers of Civilizations

[00:09:26.960] – Dustin Bajer
There’s an interesting book written by Stewart Brand that explores the idea of Pace Layers of Civilization. Brand argues that civilization is built upon layers that move at different paces. Nature is the slowest-moving layer, followed by culture and governance. The fastest-moving layers are commerce and then fashion. Fast paces learn, and slow paces remember. Friction between the layers is normal, but Brand argues that things get weird when the pace of the layers starts moving out of sync. Bad things happen when commerce starts overrunning the government or when the government attempts to control culture. We notice when nature moves suddenly – earthquakes, tornadoes. Climate Change, I think, might be an example.

Stewart Brand and the Long Now Foundations Pace Layers of Civilization
Stewart Brand and the Long Now Foundation’s Pace Layers of Civilization

[00:11:23.290] – Dustin Bajer
I think a lot about pace layers in how cities are constructed and managed. Edmonton is on Treaty Six territory, which has had people here since the glaciers left 13,000 years ago. The city often ignores lower, slower layers. Commerce and infrastructure are the primary drivers of culture and our city’s built form (nature?). Developers almost always begin by removing everything – getting back to a blank canvas and plopping down something determined by the prevailing market. It lasts 30 or 40 years and then gets wiped clean again for something else.

Slow Landscaping

[00:12:22.300] – Dustin Bajer
I’m interested in exploring how the natural world could be used to alter this pattern. What are the repercussions of anchoring thousand-year-old trees in a fast-moving city? What would it take to challenge our ability to blank slate everything or, at the very least, require us to consider our responsibility to past and future generations? Might we maintain slower layers or slower relationships crucial to a vibrant culture?

Dustin Bajer, How To Grow a 1000-year-old-tree, An Ancient Ginkgo Tree In the middle of a City
An Ancient Ginkgo Tree In the Middle of a City

[00:13:12.030] – Dustin Bajer
I love the idea of having thousand-year-old trees dotted throughout the city. I love the idea that you can walk around a corner, and BAM, you come across something like this. A 1000-year-old tree requires 1000 years of continuous care or, at the very least, benign neglect. It takes 1000 years to grow a 1000-year-old tree and an afternoon to cut one down.

A 1000-year-old tree is a living story, a living representation of a city partnered with the natural world. What would that feel like? What would it look like to be in an Edmonton that had access to that? How would Long Trees change the way we view ourselves and the way we build the city?

[00:15:12.220] – Dustin Bajer
One of the things in Brand’s book that I like is the idea that long-term thinking is the opposite of long-term planning. Long-term planning says, “At this time, we want this outcome.” Long-term thinking says, “What decision will increase the number of available choices for future generations?”

The Adjacent Possible

[00:15:39.530] – Dustin Bajer
There’s an idea called the Adjacent Possible from another Stuart, complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman. The Adjacent Possible is everything that could happen from this moment. When choosing one of our adjacent possibilities, we choose not to pursue the others. And so, it makes sense to choose adjacent possibilities that lead to even more adjacent possibilities.

[00:16:38.190] – Dustin Bajer
Long-term planning aims to achieve a specific target – it collapses all potential futures into one. Long-term thinking, in contrast, says, “Okay, we have all of these potential futures in front of us. We can’t know which is the most desirable, so rather than aim for specific outcomes, let’s make decisions that increase the number of potential futures going forward.” Long-term planning eliminates futures, while long-term thinking creates them.

Dustin Bajer, How to Grow a 1000-year-old tree. Expanding the adjacent possible.
What can we do now that will create more opportunities for future generations? How can we increate the number of potential futures? Let’s expand out adjacent possibilities.

[00:17:14.730] – Dustin Bajer
That makes this project a paradox because the goal of the project is to grow thousand-year-old trees. That’s a very specific thing. Ultimately, it’s less about growing 1000-year-old trees and more about using the symbol of a 1000-year-old tree as a prompt to foster the cultivation of better futures. This is about creating as many adjacent possibles as we can.

Nature’s Upward Spiral

[00:18:34.550] – Dustin Bajer
Imagine a parking lot. It’s asphalt; it’s inhospitable – not much lives there. If you take a bucket of water and pour it on a parking lot on a warm day, it’ll evaporate and be gone. But parking lots have imperfections. Tiny little cracks. It’s not uniform. Maybe you get little pebbles in there, and those pebbles all heat up, expand, and contract at slightly different rates. And you get tiny little cracks, tiny fissures, and a little bit of water that lands there. Maybe it doesn’t evaporate right away, and perhaps it freezes and expands that crack slightly.

Now that you have a crack, perhaps you get a little dust or debris that floats across that asphalt, and some of it lands in the crack, and it wedges it open, and the cracks get bigger throughout the seasons as things expand and contract and water gets in and freezes and cracks things. And then maybe you get a tiny little seed that lands in that crack, and maybe it sprouts. And maybe it doesn’t survive very long because it’s still pretty inhospitable. But in the act of sprouting, it made some sugars and a little bit of organic matter. You repeat that season after season, and finally, you get a little plant that sprouts and survives. Perhaps it sends down some roots, and maybe when it dies, you have a channel of organic matter that water can get into a little bit deeper.

Thinking is the Opposite of Long Term Planning
Playing the Infinite Game. Long-term thinking leads to a branching of possible new futures

Now the plants are surviving. Maybe some of them will flower. You get insects coming in to visit the flowers. Maybe you get birds coming in to eat the insects, and the birds defecate and drop off nutrients. Maybe there are some seeds in there. And you come back after some time, and that parking lot has become an ecosystem or a forest. So, at each point in this process, as nature accumulates, the amount of possibility increases. Long-term thinking is about making day-to-day decisions that increase opportunity, complexity, and abundance. Growing a 1000-year-old tree prompts a broader conversation about creating a more abundant future than the one we currently live in.

[00:21:07.620] – Dustin Bajer
If a tree is a timeline, each branch is a potential future. And as we make decisions, we prune branches. The future of each branch isn’t apparent, so rather than making decisions for future generations, we might consider cultivating the tree and growing a crown of abundant futures.

3 Things Protecting Heritage Trees

[00:21:39.630] – Dustin Bajer
Over the last few years, I’ve been cataloguing heritage trees around Edmonton. We’ve made a map of hundreds of trees around Edmonton that folks can use to find them. They’re a good starting point for thinking about what it takes to grow a thousand-year-old tree. In the few years that I’ve been cataloguing trees, three things keep standing out to me:

  1. Age and Size. We tend to protect trees because of their age and size. Edmonton is a young city, and so if a tree is 100 years old in Edmonton, we call that old tree. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is incredibly young. But age is relative, and I suspect that what we consider old will shift as the city ages.
  2. Uniqueness. We tend to value less common plants more than common ones. Unfortunately, this doesn’t bode well for natives, who, by definition, are more common. A quirk of being rare is that rareness can change over time.

    Outside of rarity, a tree’s growth habit or location can make it uncommon or unique.
  3. Narrative. We love trees that represent us. We love trees that have gone through trial and tribulation and are tied to specific people or events. If trees fall into one of these categories, we tend to think of them as heritage trees. That is not an official definition. The City of Edmonton doesn’t officially recognize trees as having heritage value. Neither does the province of Alberta. It’s something we’re working on. But trees that have been on the heritage tree list tend to have one or three of these qualities.

The Holowach Horse Chestnut

[00:23:29.740] – Dustin Bajer
There’s a beautiful horse chestnut tree in downtown Edmonton that is a little over 100 years old, so it’s old by Edmonton standards. It’s unique because there are only a handful of them in the city, and this one is likely the oldest. It was planted by Walter Holowach, who picked up this horse chestnut off the ground while he was studying violin in Vienna, brought it home, and planted it in the backyard. It’s still in the original location, but now it’s in a back alley behind Jasper Avenue, surrounded by a parking lot. So, we know it has an origin story. It’s old, it’s unique, so it fits all three of these criteria.

There have been attempts to cut it down throughout the years, but there have always been folks who’ve shown up to protest, and the tree has not been removed thus far. So, 10% of the way to the 1000-year goal is on a tree with a life expectancy of 300 years. So, it’s probably not going to reach 1000, but it’s a great tree to follow and study.

LongTree Species

[00:24:36.870] – Dustin Bajer
A good place to start is exploring what kinds of trees we can grow in Edmonton that can live for a thousand years. There are more candidates, but I have four options behind me, and we’ll go through them one at a time. So, in fact, we do have tree species here, one of them being native, that can live for at least 1000 years.

Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata)

The first one we’ve been talking about the most is five-needle pines, like the bristlecone pine. The specific species we’ve been looking at is Pinus aristata. They exist in the city and can live for over 2000 years. They’re native to North America and are found locally, though they are uncommon. They’re not clonal, meaning it’s a single tree with multiple trunks coming out of a single root system. This also means that if you cut it off at the ground, it’s done and dead. So if someone chops off our 700-year-old bristlecone, it’s done for.

Bristlecone pines produce edible pine nuts, which is a nice perk to have some thousand-year-old pesto at some point in the future. And the needles can be used for making things like gin. In fact, the Long Now Foundation has been making bristlecone pine gin, which might be a nice feature for a thousand-year-old local tree.

This tree is a high alpine tree that grows near the tops of mountains. One of the challenges of climate change is that their range keeps moving up the mountain to escape warm conditions. Unfortunately, when they reach the peak, they can’t go down the mountain and up to a higher mountain. So, their native range is shrinking. It turns out that Edmonton’s climate is very similar to a mountaintop in Colorado. They do well here, and it could be an opportunity to find additional habitat for this threatened species. A downside is that they are prone to fungal infection when young but tend to be more resistant as they age. There might be some challenges there.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

[00:27:26.430] – Dustin Bajer
The second tree we are considering is Ginkgo biloba. Some research suggests that the cells in an old tree, like a 1000-year-old tree, are very similar to those of a young ginkgo. Cellularity, they stay young and keep growing. They are currently native to China, though. If you came to what is now North America 250 million years ago, they were native here – so native depends on the length of your “now.” If you have a “long now”, you could say it is native, and we are returning it to its native habitat. It is found locally. We do have local examples of Ginkgo, but they are uncommon.

Ginkgo trees are clonal, which might be an advantage. What it means is that underneath the ground, we have this big mass of roots, and you might start with a single tree, but it will send up shoots from the root ball – like another branch and another branch – and so it’ll actually make a colony, all one tree, all connected through the roots. A benefit of them is that if you cut a ginkgo off at the ground, it will shoot up new shoots. And so, if a 700-year-old ginkgo gets its head chopped off, it can send up new branches from below. It starts from scratch but is technically still the same tree, so it is still 700 years old.

Ginkgo produces an edible nut, though the fruit around the nut tastes or smells like a combination of old feta cheese and vomit – so that’s a bit of a bummer (but a 1000-year-old vomit tree is also cool). The reason they’re doing that, by the way, is that they’re trying to attract dinosaurs to eat the seeds and move the fruit and seeds around. This tree evolved 250 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. It’s a living fossil, and it still thinks the dinosaurs exist. It doesn’t know yet. So, another cool tree.

English Yew (Taxus baccata)

[00:30:08.290] – Dustin Bajer
A third candidate, which is not something we’ve talked a lot about as a group, would be a yew. English Yew is not native to North America like the other two. It’s native to Europe. I don’t know of a single English yew in Edmonton, but it’s kind of on the borderline of our growing zone – we might be able to get some established. Even though it’s a conifer, like these bristlecone pines, which typically don’t regenerate if you cut them off at the ground, yews do. It’s a really interesting tree that can get fairly large. A weird fact about it is that it contains chemicals that are commonly used in chemotherapy, and it’s considered sacred in many cultures where yews are native.

Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

[00:31:07.910] – Dustin Bajer
And then, the underdog – the overlooked local: Trembling Aspen. Edmonton is actually north of the Great Plains and south of the boreal forest, so we’re not technically a prairie city. We’re in what’s called aspen parkland, where the dominant tree species is this one here – which has the ability to grow for tens of thousands of years. The irony is we might actually have thousand-year-old trees in the City of Edmonton that we’re unaware of. And the reason we are unaware of them is because these trembling aspens can be huge.

There’s an aspen tree in Utah called the Pando tree. It’s one tree that covers many acres in size and has been suggested to be the most massive organism on the planet. It’s primarily roots and sends up shoots that we think of as trees. You could imagine the tree growing horizontally under the ground and shooting up branches. Each branch may live for 60 years at the most, but the tree itself, this giant hydra of a tree, can grow up mountains and slowly move across the landscape over hundreds or thousands of years. It can migrate across the landscape by sending out new shoots at its edges.

Aspen can live for tens of thousands of years and is almost indestructible. If a forest fire consumes the tops or the entire above-ground plant is logged, it can send out a mass of shoots to compensate. The disadvantage is that we don’t see aspen as old because we look at each branch as a short-lived individual tree instead of being a part of a larger whole. We, quite literally, can’t see the forest for the trees. However, it is the tree that our biome is named after, and it has a long history with the people who have a long history here.

I’m waiting for DNA testing to be cheap and affordable because if you go into the river valley and find many aspen trees, it’s probably one with all of these trunks. And if you could take some DNA samples and kind of survey the forest, you could get a sense of, like, okay, is this one tree, or is it two, or is it 10,000 trees? But I’m willing to bet that Edmonton has a couple of these trees in our river valley, most certainly those that are, in fact, thousands of years old. So we might have an answer right there.

Selecting a Long Tree Species

[00:34:24.550] – Dustin Bajer
The bristlecone, ginkgo, and yew check off the long-living and unique boxes. Aspen poplar is certainly a long-lived tree, but we don’t consider it unique. Maybe we could change that; maybe there’s a conversation that we could have or an initiative we could do. If we could prove there’s a 2000-year-old tree in the middle of Edmonton, we might say, “Okay, well, that’s pretty unique. Let’s give this tree the attention it deserves.”

[00:35:13.560] – Dustin Bajer
I put a chokecherry in the far left-hand corner – fairly common; they’re all over the place. Lives about 30 years at the most, so it wouldn’t be a good candidate for a LongTree.

Dustin Bajer, Selecting species for long trees. Long-lived vs short lives, common vs uncommon
Long-lived vs short lives. Common vs Unique. Selecting which long-lived species to plant

The Problem With Uncommon

[00:35:31.530] – Dustin Bajer
A few notes on uniqueness. A species can be considered unique, but that can change – right now, ginkgo is unique, and at one point, I would say American elms were unique, but now they’re everywhere. A Manitoba Maple would have been very unique in Edmonton 150 years ago. In fact, some of our oldest heritage trees in Edmonton are these original Manitoba Maples. But now, if you walk through the river valley, there are Manitoba Maples everywhere, and we no longer consider them unique.

[00:36:07.670] – Dustin Bajer
A tree’s form might make a specific tree unique. A big willow tree in Government House Park looks like a giant stepped on it and smashed it. It’s growing horizontally in every different direction, making it the perfect scrambling and climbing tree. There are always kids crawling all over it. Maybe a weird location might make something unique. The fact that the Holowach Horse Chestnut has narrowly escaped execution multiple times makes it unique. The fact that it’s faced with adversity gives it uniqueness and a story. So there are ways that we can play with it.

Planting Location Strategies

[00:36:46.380] – Dustin Bajer
I’m sure there are more candidates for trees, but I want to discuss where you might want to plant a 1000-year-old tree. It’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have an answer, but I’ll break it into high and low-road strategies.

High-Road Strategy

[00:37:03.340] – Dustin Bajer
A high-road strategy might include partnering with long-lived institutions and developments, like cemeteries, which are inhospitable to develop. It’s not impossible, but we tend to avoid developing them. Could that be a place for old live trees? Religious institutions that have been around for thousands of years are also potential candidates. They often have access to land. Does it make sense to plant trees in partnership with those institutions? Community leagues? Most neighbourhoods in Edmonton have community leagues surrounded by parks, and developing these parks is unpalatable.

[00:37:56.410] – Dustin Bajer
Parks and government institutions such as hospitals could be another high-road strategy. The benefit of a high-road strategy is that it typically involves relatively long development cycles. On average, a residential lot gets developed every 40 to 50 years, which is barely longer than the mortgage of the house on it. However, planting a tree at a religious site means that you have a community and a space that will tend to it long enough to reach a point where we can say it is old.

Dustin Bajer, Where to Plant a 1000-year-old-tree, High Road Strategy
Living in the Age of Danger

[00:38:54.490] – Dustin Bajer
In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand talks about the dangerous period in a building’s life when it’s too old to be considered new and too new to be considered old. And if economic times are good when a building is in that zone, they tend to get replaced. An example of that in Edmonton would be all of the brick buildings on Jasper Avenue that were built in the early part of the 20th century. It’s the 1950s, and Edmonton’s economy is booming, so they were knocked down. We now look at these brick buildings and think they’re super cool and worth preserving. In the 50s, they were too new to be old and too old to be new – get rid of them and put something new in.

[00:39:49.630] – Dustin Bajer
Could partnering with the long-lived organizations help get a tree to the point where we consider it old enough to be worth preserving?

Low-Road Strategy

[00:39:58.890] – Dustin Bajer
A low-road strategy might be to plant trees wherever we can. This could include guerrilla gardening them in parks and getting them into backyards and front yards and wherever we can fit them, with the idea that some might survive.

[00:40:22.550] – Dustin Bajer
While I like the idea of planting a tree at a church or in a cemetery, I don’t know if a really old tree in a cemetery forces us to reconcile the role of nature in the city in a way that a tree in a park or backyard threatened by developed would.

[00:40:53.920] – Dustin Bajer
I like the idea of being a little bit of a shit-disturber. I wish for the best in the future – that is the ultimate goal. But I love that a project like this could create friction with developers and city planners. We’re not trying to stop development. Edmonton is currently going through zoning bylaw renewal, and I’m very much in favour, but we need to have a broader conversation about building places that we care about. Part of building places that we care about is acknowledging what was there before.

Dustin Bajer, Where to Plant a 1000-year-old-tree, Low Road Strategy

Kayashima Station

[00:41:41.090] – Dustin Bajer
I wasn’t planning on talking about this, but a 700-year-old camphor tree in Japan was slated to come down to make way for a train station. People protested, so the municipality had to return to the drawing board and redesign the train station to incorporate the tree. If you Google “700-year-old Camphor tree Japan,” you’ll see this beautiful train station with a 700-year-old tree growing out through its middle.

[00:42:18.860] – Dustin Bajer
I guarantee you that that is far more interesting than whatever they were going to stick there. I don’t want to be anti-development, but I want to make it not so easy. Let’s not erase all possible memories of what was there by putting up something you could build in any city – anywhere in the world. How can we create a point of friction to prompt a conversation about integrating the natural world into development?

Crafting Narrative Armour

[00:42:54.550] – Dustin Bajer
The third component is the story. When you first plant a tree capable of growing into a 1000-year-old tree, it is young and tiny, which is not enough to protect it. So, how do you give it a story? It may be where you are planting it. It may be who is planting it. Have you created a ritual that gets repeated every year? What stories and narratives can we put into planting and tending 1000-year-old trees? Thinking broadly, growing 1000-year-old trees is less about the trees and more about the stories we tell ourselves about why we are growing 1000-year-old trees. What does this project tell us about ourselves? What does that say about the kind of city we are and the kind of organizations we want to create?

[00:43:45.670] – Dustin Bajer
What I love about a long-term project is that you have the luxury of time. Usually, we’re fighting against the clock. If we’re not fighting against the clock, it changes the decisions we can make and the tools at our disposal. This isn’t about creating something we’ll be able to witness – it’s about creating something that future generations might be able to ponder or inherit. And this means you can do some exciting things.

A Financial Time Bomb

[00:44:32.680] – Dustin Bajer
I was on one of the granting committees at the Edmonton Community Foundation for quite a few years, and they work by setting up endowment funds and then granting from the interest of those investments. I had a meeting with them last Monday about what it would look like to set up an endowment fund for 1000 years for 1000 trees. If we could raise $10 for every tree we put in the ground and put that into an endowment fund for the next thousand years at 4% interest, we’d end up with more money than currently exists in the world. So, I love the idea that in addition to planting 1000 trees and changing our cultural narrative, we could take advantage of time and do something like put a little bit of money aside for those trees.

Dustin Bajer, How to Grow a 1000-year-old tree, The luxury of time
Dustin Bajer, How to Grow a 1000-year-old tree, The luxury of time

700 years from now, when a tree is going to be cut down, it can hire a lawyer, buy the land it’s on, and become its own park and owner. I love the idea of building in a little financial time bomb that could make these trees the richest entities out there over their lifespan. Perhaps they could use that fund to support themselves and any initiatives that integrate nature and the built environment in mutually beneficial ways.

[00:46:24.330] – Dustin Bajer
If we had an organization growing 1000-year-old trees, we could distribute trees for a $10 donation to an endowment fund. We could also distribute tickets to the 1000-year birthday party with each tree. As long as they have their ticket in the year 3023, they’re welcome to come on in – and it’s going to be one hell of a party because we’ll have some good funds to throw it. Why not? I love the idea that with the luxury of time, we can start doing some interesting and tricky things we can’t access right now.

The Secret Long Tree Society

[00:47:21.860] – Dustin Bajer
We have been pondering these ideas and figuring out how to execute them. Fortunately, we have a thousand years to figure it out. We’ve been, tongue-in-cheek, calling ourselves The Secret LongTree Society. We’re discussing how to transmit information from one generation to the next – even just the location of these trees, who planted them, and the reasons behind it all – the stories that have been gathered.

[00:47:55.930] – Dustin Bajer
If we’re throwing a 1000 birthday party, how do we ensure someone will be there to organize it? If an endowment fund will support trees and the broader goal of long-term thinking and responsibility, we need an organization to support the distribution of grant funding. How would that organization function? Interestingly, “How do we grow 1000-year-old trees?” is the same as “How do we create the kind of city that tends to 1000-year-old trees?” How do we create a culture that cares about making decisions that will benefit future generations? How can we be good ancestors?

Dustin Bajer, Secret Meeting of the Long Tree Society
Secret Meeting of the Long Tree Society… okay, not really.

Join The Secret Long Tree Society

[00:49:34.170] – Dustin Bajer
We have started meeting once a month to have these conversations, and we’re having discussions with the Edmonton Community Foundation regarding the establishment of an endowment fund. We have seeds that we will begin growing. A Capstone group from NAIT is assisting us in creating an inventory of long-term projects. If you want to start something that will last 1000 years, please join us.

[00:50:22.070] – Dustin Bajer
I don’t know if I’ve given you all the tools needed to grow a 1000-year-old tree. But hopefully, over the last 55 minutes, I’ve piqued your interest and given you some food for thought. And so, I will now open up to questions.

Questions & Answers

[00:50:49.550] – EPL Host
Wow. Dustin, thank you so much. That was absolutely fascinating. As someone who came into this not knowing anything about trees, I really found that so interesting. So we do have some great discussion happening in the chat. So I don’t know that there are really many questions that haven’t been answered. Somebody asked about the aspens. So, could a forest of these be one tree, which I think you addressed?

[00:51:18.830] – Dustin Bajer Absolutely.

[00:51:20.650] – EPL Host
Yeah. That’s really neat. And someone pointed out that the Pando tree is actually in Utah. Any other questions for Dustin about this topic?

[00:51:41.240] – Dustin Bajer
See, Mildred was asking about ginkgos. There is definitely ginkgo in Edmonton.

[00:51:50.160] – Participant 1
Hey, Dustin. Yeah, thanks. You’ve been very helpful in the past. I had bee questions that you answered through direct messages on Twitter. Really appreciate that.

Do We Need a 1000-Year Tree Here?

[00:52:02.260] – Participant 1
And thank you very much for this. I think that it’s a powerful idea. It’s a great way to frame a conversation about long-term thinking. And I’ve been a long-time appreciator of the Long Now Foundation, which was born the same year as our eldest daughter, which is when I really started thinking about the future. And my question is about actually maybe kind of nitpicky, but just in terms of tree varieties and what kind of world we actually live in, here on the prairie. I have a lot of trouble imagining what this land looked like in its pristine state, but I spend a lot of time trying to imagine that. Are 1000 year trees really, I mean, great way of thinking about things, but are they really what we need in this environment?

[00:53:02.200] – Dustin Bajer
Yeah, that’s a good question. I had the luxury of spending some time with Chris Chang-Yen Phillips in an episode of his Let’s Find Podcastwhere we tried to answer some of the questions about what this land looked like. It’s an interesting question because I think it depends. Thirteen thousand years ago, it was under a kilometre of ice, so nothing’s native to here. Then, we’ve oscillated between grasslands, aspen parkland, and forest, depending on the climate and the people who manage the landscape. Humans are a keystone species, and depending on how we manage the land, our river valley, for example, has looked very different, even over the last hundred years. In terms of going forward – this is where it gets tricky or a little controversial at times – but I think a good guide would be biodiversity or ecosystem function.

The Nature of Change

[00:54:20.880] – Dustin Bajer
One of the traps we get into in conservation is taking an arbitrary snapshot in time – we paint a picture of the species here in a particular orientation in 1890 and try to recreate it. One of the things that I’ve come to believe over the last couple of decades is that nature is a verb. It’s constantly changing. It’s always moving and in flux. When we hold on too tightly by trying to recreate a particular snapshot, we can risk creating an altar of nature rather than functional systems.

[00:55:19.450] – Dustin Bajer
In the case of planting a 1000-year-old tree in the city, part of it is biodiversity building, but it’s mostly about building culture. It’s mostly about having a broader conversation about our relationship with the natural world. It’s meant to be provocative. And yes, there’s still a lot of stuff to figure out as we go.

Long Trees and Reconciliation

[00:55:54.250] – Participant 1
Yeah. Thanks for the answer. I think, not to use a word that’s maybe losing a little bit of its sting, but I think what you’re talking about in some ways, is a reconciliation in relationship with nature. And I just wonder if, I think a supporting conversation for this conversation is the other reconciliation that we’ve been talking about for the last ten years and how those perspectives really must necessarily be included in any conversation about that reconciliation as well.

[00:56:39.900] – Dustin Bajer
” think that’s a really important point that I’ve entirely glossed over in this presentation, especially when we’re talking about how to create a culture that cares about long-term thinking. We have examples of this locally. So, for a project like this to progress, it’s going to be very important to have those conversations with those communities to get insights about what kinds of cultural tools might be appropriate for passing down knowledge from one generation to another and, more broadly, a conversation about our relationships with nature.

[00:57:36.800] – EPL Host
Okay, let’s see if we have any other questions. I think we are pretty much out of time, and we answered most of the questions in the chat. Someone asked, how long do horsechestnuts live?

[00:57:52.260] – Dustin Bajer
I think a horse chestnut can live -I’ve definitely looked this up – I want to say 300 years is a really old horse chestnut—definitely a long time – not 1000 years, but definitely a long time.

Is a High-Road Strategy Elitist?

[00:58:10.200] – Dustin Bajer
I saw an early comment talking about churches, graveyards, and cemeteries. Somebody pointed out that it seems a bit elitist to plant trees in quarantined spaces or those often seen as separate from the general public, and I agree. That’s why I gravitate towards a more low-road approach of getting trees, tended by citizens, into the community. There are some interesting conversations to be had there.

[00:59:06.620] – EPL Host
Amazing. Okay, well, thank you again, Dustin, on behalf of EPL and myself. As I said, you’ve definitely piqued my interest personally in this topic. So if people want to learn more, they can scan the QR code or visit Shrubscriber, I assume.

[00:59:22.490] – Dustin Bajer
Yeah, you can visit Shrubscriber.com. Not everything, but it’ll get you access to a couple of our spaces, primarily the space where we’ve been having conversations about planting long-lived trees.

[00:59:40.320] – EPL Host
Great. Okay. All right. Well, thank you again. And with that, I think we will sign off. So thanks, everyone who joined us, and have a wonderful rest of your day.

[00:59:50.040] – Dustin Bajer
Yeah, thank you, everybody. Bye.