The Ginkgo biloba is the last of its kind, the sole surviving species of the genus Ginkgo, which can be found in fossils dating back 270 million years but today exists in only one form: the lonely, magnificent ginkgo tree.
The ginkgo didn’t feel lonely when I first met it. The hundred or so newly-minted freshmen of Timothy Dwight were gathered in the college courtyard, and the ginkgo stood sentinel as we traded I’m from Chicago, how about you and No way, I’m in Entryway E too!. We didn’t have a name yet for the towering tree in the northwest corner of the courtyard, with its slender cleft trunk, its stingray-shaped leaves and its frothy silhouette swaying high above the shingled rooftops, but we embraced it anyway, just as we embraced every part of the unfamiliar territory that the admissions brochure had promised would feel like home.
The name came soon after, in the first email from our residential college dean. Dean John Loge was a wiry, bearded hippie who had been at Timothy Dwight for 23 years, and he made it clear that to be in TD was to love the ginkgo. His weekly missives were full of it — its history (planted in the 19th century, before the construction of TD itself); its beauty (the way its wet leaves glistened as he returned from evening walks); its unmistakable, unquestionable, undeniable TD-ness. “Our ginkgo,” he called it.
So we seized onto it, folding it into the fledgling routines we had tentatively begun to establish. Shirtless boys played soccer under it, dribbling around the tidy woodchips that ringed its base. Suitemates studied for their first college exams in its shade. On homesick nights, when the courtyard was empty, I sat beneath it to call my mom, whispering into the blue light of my iPhone so no one else would hear. We took pride in our ginkgo, the same way we took pride in our oak-beamed dining hall and our scarlet intramural jerseys — a fierce, showy, almost desperate kind of pride, to prove that we were doing Yale correctly.
End-of-summer humidity gave way to chilly mornings, and we stopped waving to everyone in a TD shirt on the street. The packs in which we’d traveled to classes and parties dwindled into smaller, more exclusive circles. The ginkgo’s leaves changed, too. One day in November they were green; the next, they were a brilliant saffron, dabbing the sky above TD with jubilant brushstrokes of gold. And then one morning we woke to find the branches bare, the ground blanketed with the thousands of leaves the tree had shed overnight, as if someone had spilled thick yellow paint in a perfect disc around its trunk. We didn’t need a Dean Loge email to know this was another TD rite of passage: people poured into the courtyard, gaping together at the aftermath of our glittering, one-night-only botanical show.
The rest of freshman year was difficult, punctuated with late nights and rejection letters, breakups and arguments. I went months without thinking about the ginkgo, naked and covered with snow. In April, one of my suitemates unexpectedly announced that she wasn’t going to live with us the next year, that she would prefer if the group we had believed inseparable — the sweet suite, we called ourselves — did, in fact, separate. Weeks of crying followed. My two remaining suitemates and I tiptoed around each other, gingerly navigating the new contours of the friendship we had flaunted as proof of our successful integration into TD. When I left campus for the summer, I did so eagerly.
In November, the ginkgo’s leaves fell again. My remaining suitemates and I, sophomores now, held a photo shoot, the three of us tossing leaves into the air and rolling among the sheaves of gold. In the photos, we’re giggling, but I don’t remember how we really felt as we dove into the frosted, shimmering piles: relief at the reminder of the previous year’s happiness, loss for the same reason, or just the determination to prove that we still belonged to this place as much as we had then.
Maybe it’s ironic that we called the ginkgo to be the witness to our community — this loneliest of trees, the last of its kind, made even lonelier by its refusal to die: 140,000 people were killed when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, but six charred ginkgo trees survived. When Hurricane Sandy battered New Haven, our ginkgo weathered that, too, although a few storm-damaged branches were made into commemorative pens that sell to nostalgic TD alums for $99 each.
Yet despite its stubborn will to survive — or perhaps because of it — the ginkgo isn’t actually lonely at all. It is a perennially popular gardening choice, a nursery bestseller, the most common street tree in Manhattan. There are a dozen ginkgos right here on Yale’s campus. Ever since people discovered that the tree was not, in fact, extinct, they have planted it everywhere. Peter Crane, the former dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, spent 10 years writing a book about the ginkgo because he thought its redemption story was so extraordinary. “It’s a tree that people have saved,” he said.
Two years have passed since that photo shoot, since my suitemates and I so carefully documented the indisputable evidence of our triumphant belonging. Dean Loge is retired now. I am a senior. It’s only recently that I’ve stopped feeling like a fraud, or a brochure, when I call TD home. It’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable admitting that. So, not too long ago, I picked up the phone to ask Dean Loge what I never felt I could as a freshman: What makes the ginkgo so special anyway? Why did he choose it as the object of his adoration, the muse for his emails, the nucleus around which he built our college community?
“You remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit?” he replied. “It was loved into being.”
“It could’ve been the magnolia tree,” he continued. “Now the ginkgo tree is so much more than just a plant, and it’s because we who live there see it that way. The essence of the place is the ginkgo tree. And it’s the essence because we made it so.”
The ginkgo disrobed again a few weeks ago. I was off campus, and so for the first time in four years, I missed it. By the time I returned to TD, most of the golden halo on the ground had already blown away.
I took a photo anyway. There was no luminescent foliage, no perfectly posed group shot. Just the branches, bare and brittle, stretching into the weak late-November light. I’d be lying if I said the tree looked beautiful — Dean Loge didn’t brainwash us that much — and I sure hope it wasn’t a metaphor for my final year at Yale.
It’s still a metaphor for something, though. Our ginkgo was planted more than a century ago, but people create it all over again every year — love it into being, the same way we love the home around it into being. “It is the idea of Ginkgo … that sustains Ginkgo-ness,” Dean Loge wrote in an email my freshman year. There may be a dozen other ginkgo trees on campus, but if you’re in TD, you will be able to name only one.