Plum tree, Prunus domestica, Plum blossom (Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay)

The Ninety-Foot Plum Tree, Filling Some Gaps

This article first appeared on the Mammoth Tales blog on 5th January 2013

Reproduced with permission

Years before I started writing a book about mammoths, I invented a game I called “Find the Mammoth” with any new catastrophist author I came across. Frozen mammoths are found everywhere in catastrophist literature. It doesn’t matter what the writer’s preferred catastrophe is—the Biblical flood, Atlantis, Lemuria, rogue planets, or a sudden relocation of the poles—the discovery of frozen mammoth corpses in Siberia conclusively proves their theory. The logic behind the claim is simple: elephants are tropical animals, mammoths are elephants, therefore Siberia used to be tropical; intact, frozen mammoths prove the shift from tropical to Arctic happened in matter of hours. Once the mammoth has been established as evidence, the writers usually follow up by listing a few instances of tropical or temperate flora being discovered above the Arctic Circle.

Eight or ten years ago, while playing a round of Find the Mammoth, I came across one of these flora claims: the ninety-foot plum tree. I discovered the claim on the old Talk Origins site in a piece by E.T. Babinski. Babinski first ran into the claim that such a tree had been found above the Arctic Circle from the creationist “Dr.” Kent Hovind. The ninety-foot plum tree was apparently a standard bit of evidence that Hovind tossed out in his presentations. Hovind described the tree as being frozen with green leaves and ripe fruit. The details fit nicely with the idea that Siberia was suddenly and catastrophically frozen. He credited the discovery to Baron von Toll who found the tree in the New Siberia Islands, six hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. Babibski did a very good job of debunking the claim by tracking it to its original source.

Unfortunately, most of Hovind’s web presence disappeared after he went to jail for tax evasion, so I cannot find a good quote. Babinski was able to find out from Hovind that the tree anecdote was something he had read in a newsletter called “Bible-Science News” about ten years earlier. After some searching, Babinski was able to find the source, “The Mystery of the Frozen Giants” by Lee Grady (vol. 23, no. 4, April 1985). Grady credited the book The Waters Above (1981) by young-earth creationist Joseph Dillow. I haven’t been able to lay my hands on a copy of Dillow’s book for a price I’m willing to pay, but the exact quote can be found in dozens of creationist sites on the internet and I was able to find a Croatian translation of the entire chapter. This is the quote, which Babinski tells us appears on page 316: 

Baron Toll, the Arctic explorer, found remains of a saber-toothed tiger and a 90-foot plum tree with green leaves and ripe fruit on its branches over 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the New Siberian Islands. Today, the only vegetation that grows there is a one-inch high willow.

Grady copied this almost word-for-word. Dillow cited as his sources, the book The Mammoth and Mammoth Hunting in North-East Siberia (1926) by Bassett Digby and the journal article “The Carcasses of the Mammoth and Rhinoceros Found in the Frozen Ground of Siberia” (1929) by I.P. Tolmachoff. I do have my own copies of both of these. Neither writer was a flake. Digby was a naturalist who had traveled extensively in Siberia and written several enjoyable books about his experiences there. Tolmachoff was a well-respected academic and curator of the Section of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum. Tolmachoff cites four different works by Baron Toll in his article and mentions evidence of Pleistocene alder trees (Alnus fruticosa) on the New Siberia Islands four separate times without, however, specifically describing that one find. The description of the tree is in Digby. 

It was along the south coast [of Great Lyakhovski Island] that Toll found his extraordinary layers of what he called “fossil ice [permafrost].” They were as much as 70 ft. thick. On the top of them lay the post-Tertiary deposits in which were remains of wooly rhinoceros and mammoth, American stag, reindeer, a horse (apparently the Mongolian wild horse, which still exists), saiga, antelope, ovibos, and sabre-toothed tiger. There was lying among them, too, a 90 ft. alder-tree (Alnus fructicosa), with even its roots and seeds preserved. 

Digby with mammoth tusks in Siberia – Source

Babinski’s eagle eyes noticed something that I would have completely missed had he not pointed it out. The botanical name is misspelled in Digby’s account. The correct name for that variety of alder, which Tolmachoff uses, is Alnus fruticosa. Digby wrote Alnus fructicosa with an extra “c” in the second word. Fruticosa means bushy; fructicosa means fruiting. There is no plant called Alnus fructicosa.

Alnus fructicosa. This tree is not ninety feet tall – Source

Since Digby has a description of that one find and Tolmachoff does not, it looks like Dillow based his paragraph just on Digby and not on Digby and Tolmachoff. I suspect Dillow footnoted Tolmachoff just to add authority to the story. Digby mentions the ninety-foot height, so Dillow can be forgiven that one detail. Digby and Tolmachoff both are specific on the point that the tree was an alder. Even if they had called it the non-existent fruiting alder, that would not have made it a plum tree. The genus for plum trees is Prunus, not Alnus. Digby describes “roots and seeds preserved,” not “green leaves and ripe fruit.” And plum trees do not grow to be ninety feet tall. At this point, it looks bad for Dillow.

Babinski thinks Digby made an honest mistake in saying Toll found a ninety-foot tree. I agree that the giant tree was the result of an honest mistake but, as I have discovered, the mistake was not Digby’s. Let’s go back to Baron Toll and what he really wrote. Baron Eduard Gustav von Toll (1858-1902) was a Baltic German geologist who conducted three expeditions into Siberia for the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. On his first expedition he investigated two mammoth sites. On the second, he mapped a large area west of the Lena River. On the third, he traveled out onto the ice of the Arctic Ocean and was never seen again. Toll’s tree was found during the second expedition. I have not been able to lay my hands on the final report of the expedition; the nearest copy is apparently at Yale. Fortunately, Babinski was able to get a translation of the relevant passage (the original is in German). In it, Toll describes the exposed strata of a bluff on Great Lyakhovsky Island:

And the layers from top to bottom as follows: 

1. a peat covering composed of water mosses among other things.
2. a frozen, sandy clay layer with Alnus fruticosa, Salix sp., a scapula of Lepus sp. [i.e., a shoulder bone of a saber-toothed tiger—Babinski’s note]
3. similar layers with Pisidium sp. and Valvata sp. The reclining nature of this layer is covered here. In figure 1 these same layers 1 and 2 form the upper horizon, only the deposit of the sea basin with Pisidium and Alvata is missing there.

The surprising thing in this instance is the discovery of Alnus fruticosa which is so wonderfully preserved that the leaves hold fast on the twigs of the boughs–indeed even whole clusters of blossom casings are preserved. The bark of the twigs and stems is fully intact, all the stems of the Alnus fruticosa along with the roots, in the length of 15-20 feet, jut out of the profile as can be seen in both figures of the table. With a magnifying glass, one can even recognize in figure 2 the blossom casings of the Alnus fruticosa.

Babinski comes to a reasonable conclusion that Digby somehow added the twenty foot height of the tree to the seventy feet of the permafrost layer to come up with a total height of ninety feet. The sentence, he says, is not entirely clear in the original. Digby might have read that the tree jutted out and took the 15-20 feet to mean that much of the tree protruded from the ice while the rest of the tree extended the full length of the seventy-foot deep layer of permafrost.

This is where Babinski ends his search. I think Babinski did an excellent job at slapping down Dillow’s plum tree. Digby’s book was more in the tone of a popular travel narrative than an academic monograph and has no bibliography or source notes. Babinski had no reason to look for additional sources between Toll’s formal report and Digby. However, in my own mammoth research over the years, I have come across a few more links in the chain from Toll to Digby and Digby to Dillow.

First, let’s examine the gap between Toll and Digby. Look at what’s missing from the excerpt of Toll that Babinski gives us. There is no mention of the seventy-foot thick permafrost layer. Maybe, it’s mentioned in another part of the report. If it is, it’s not in close enough proximity to the 15-20 foot figure to make the mistake that probable. Also missing is the long list of animals that Digby gave.

Toll, the Arctic explorer. Source

Toll returned from his expedition in January 1894. The May issue of the journal of the (British) Royal Geographical Society published a brief summary of the expedition that mentioned “complete trees of Alnus fruticosa with leaves and cones.” No thickness was given for the permafrost. This article was based on a brief report Toll sent to the Russian Academy right after his return. Toll gave a somewhat more detailed version of the discovery in a public lecture in St. Petersburg the following April, but no transcript of the talk was published until the end of the year, and then only in Russian. Finally, in April 1895, over a year after Toll’s return, the Royal Geographical Society published an English translation of the talk for their readers.

It is well known how widely spread mammoth tusks are over North Siberia, and how fabulously numerous they are in the New Siberia islands. And it is also well known that, besides the tusks and the bones of the mammoth, whole skeletons of this animal and of the rhinoceros, as well as of the Bison friecus and the Oviboa motchatus, are found.
The cliffs of the Great Liakhoff island also proved to be very instructive, as it appeared that the fresh-water sandy clay, which covers the underground layers of ice, contains, together with shells of molluscs (Cyclas and Valvata), remains of insects, and bones of Post-Tertiary mammals, which prove that this clay belongs to the mammoth bed; also whole trees of alder (Alnus fruticosa), willow, and birch, 15 feet high, and with perfectly well-preserved leaves, and even cones.

Here we have four of the nine animals that Digby mentioned and the alder mentioned as one of three species of preserved trees fifteen feet high. Five animals are missing as is the seventy foot number for the permafrost layer. Later in 1895, Toll’s full report was published by the Russian Academy. This is the source Babinski quoted above. The question remains, where did Digby get his information? It’s most likely that it came from the most famous anarchist in the world, Prince Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin was and is a fascinating figure. The anarchist prince was pacifist who rejected violent, revolutionary confrontation in favor of a philosophy based on cooperation and mutual aid. His philosophy did not come from a traumatic experience, such as Lenin’s whose brother was executed as a radical; it was based his reading of Darwin and his scientific observations of insect and animal communities. As a political exile, Kropotkin, like so many others, often supported himself as a journalist. Unlike the other political exiles, Kropotkin was a popular science journalist as well as a revolutionary journalist. He was also an expert on the geology of Siberia.

The Anarchist Prince – Source

The July 1900 issue of the journal of the Royal Geographical Society carried an article by the Prince entitled “Baron Toll on New Siberia and Circumpolar Flora.” [95-8]. The article was a review of a new article by Toll that had been published in Russian the previous year. Kropotkin’s review contains this passage: 

The glacial formations are represented on the southern coast of the Great Lyakhovski island by a lower bed, about 70 feet high, of ice, and an upper bed of clayey fresh-water deposits, always frozen, and containing tusks and pieces of the skin of the mammoth, as well as full frozen carcases of Ovibos and rhinoceros. Remains of horses, stags (the noble American stag), antelopes, saigas, and even of a tiger, were found in this bed. To prove that these animals lived and fed on the spot, a complete tree of Alnus fruticosa, 90 feet long, with all its roots, leaves, and fruits, was found.

This is very close to Digby’s description. The seventy-foot thick deposit of permafrost is mentioned, followed by the list of animals, and, most importantly, the ninety-foot alder. There are only slight differences. Kropotkin only lists eight animals, Digby has nine. Reindeer is the missing animal. Digby describes the tree as with “its roots and seeds preserved.” Kropotkin gives a little more description by saying the tree was preserved “with all its roots, leaves, and fruits.”

Is this the end of the line? Can we definitively say that Digby’s source for the ninety-foot tree was Kropotkin’s 1900 review article? Is it safe to say the last few differences between Digby and Kropotkin are small enough to ignore? We could do that, but we would be wrong.

Since 1883, Kropotkin had been earning a small income writing articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The most famous of these is his long entry on anarchism that appeared in the famous 1911 edition. In that edition he also wrote a number of smaller pieces relating to Siberia, including one for the New Siberian Archipelago. In it we find the now familiar passage: 

Along the southern coast of Bolshoy Baron Toll found immense layers of fossil ice, 70 ft. thick, evidently relics from the Ice Age, covered by an upper layer of Post-Tertiary deposits containing numbers of perfectly well preserved mammoth remains, rhinoceros, Ovibos, and bones of the horse, reindeer, American stag, antelope, saiga and even the tiger. The proof that these animals lived and fed in this latitude (73 20′ N), at a time when the islands were not yet separated from the continent, is given by the relics of forest vegetation which are found in the same deposits. A stem of Alnus fruticosa, 90 ft. high, was found with all its roots and even fruits. 

Here it is, all three parts in the same order—permafrost, animals, tree—the reindeer has been added to the animal list, and the leaves of the tree are no longer mentioned. At this point, I do think we can say with confidence that Digby’s source for the ninety-foot alder was Kropotkin’s article in the 1911 Britannica.

There is now only one gap in the informational chain from Toll to Digby. That is Toll’s 1899 article in the journal of the Russian Academy. I have been unable to lay my hands on a copy of that particular issue. It seems unlikely that Toll made an error reporting his own research, especially since he had made that particular point at least twice before in print venues. However, it seems equally unlikely that Kropotkin, a trained scientist, would have made such a mistake translating from his native language into a language that he was fully fluent in. If neither scientist was in error, who does that leave?

The words fifteen (пятнадцать) and ninety (девяносто) are as different in Russian as they are in English. However, the style in both Russian and English journals at the time was to print numbers as numerals, not words. Thus, it would only take a typesetting error of one character to change 20 into 90. This could have happened either at the Russian printers or at the English ones. Like Babinski’s theory that Digby added seventy to twenty to get ninety, this is only speculation on my part. Predictably, I think my speculation is the more likely solution.

To my knowledge, in the quarter century after Kropotkin first published the error (whose ever it was), it was only repeated once—by Digby in 1926. I cannot find any additional mention of the tree until after WWII. In the post-war years, the first mentions I can find are not from creationist sources but from the godfathers of postwar, American, secular catastrophism, Immanuel Velikovsky and Charles Hapgood.

Velikovsky published first. In 1950, MacMillan published his book Worlds in Collision which postulated a revised chronology for ancient Egyptian history (he removed a couple centuries) and explained various Old Testament miracles as the effects of Venus and Mars pinballing around the solar system for a thousand years before settling into their current orbits. Due to a ham-handed reaction by the scientific community, Velikovsky became a fringe martyr and his books remained in print for the rest of life. Velikovsky touched on Toll’s tree in his third book, Earth in Upheaval (1955). This book was intended to present the geological evidence for his theories. The tree appears in chapter two, the one about the frozen mammoths.

Eduard von Toll repeatedly visited the New Siberian Islands from 1885 to 1902, when he perished in the Arctic Ocean. … On Maloi, one of the group of Liakhov Islands, Toll found the bones of mammoths and other animals together with the trunks of fossil trees with trunks and cones.

This is an interesting version. Velikovsky does not mention any length for the tree. In fact, he mentions only “trees,” not any specific tree. He also makes the curious mistake of putting the find on the wrong island. Maloi is Little Lyakhovsky, not Great Lyakhovsky as stated by Toll, Kropotkin, and Digby. Velikovsky is the first of our writers not to trace his information through Digby. Instead he gives as his source Rev. D. Gath Whitley, “The Ivory Island of the Arctic Ocean,” in the Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute (1910), an organization founded to defend “the great truths revealed in Holy Scripture … against the opposition of Science falsely so called.” Velikovsky’s description is faithful to Whitleys’, including the island mistake.

They first went to Maloi, which is one of the Liakoff Islands, and the second island that Liakoff discovered. In this island they discovered the bones of mammoths and other animals, and they also found the trunks of fossil trees, with leaves and cones.

Did Whitley introduce this mistake into the chain of information? No, as it turns out. Whitley based his version on the first report published in The Geographical Journal in 1894, the short summary. In it they wrote:

On May 1, MM. Toll and Shileiko, accompanied by one Cossack and three Lamutes, left the mainland and landed on the south coast of the Malyi Lyakhov island. Exploration was begun at once, and at the very start M. Toll came across the interesting fact that under the perpetual ice, in a sweet-water deposit, which contained pieces of willow and bones of post-tertiary mammals (the mammoth layer), were complete trees of Alnus fruticosa, 15 feet long, with leaves and cones.

Why would I go on this long about the Velikovsky strain if he had nothing to do with the ninety-foot plum tree? He would, indeed, be nothing more than an interesting footnote except for the fact that he has had his own influence on creationist and Biblical catastrophist thought. Velikovsky had a certain appeal to Biblical literalists because he attacked mainstream geology and seemed to provide a scientific veneer to some of the greater miracles of the Old Testament. John Whitcomb’s 1961 book, The Genesis Flood, co-authored by Henry Morris, is one of the founding documents of modern creationist geology. Whitcomb’s original version, considerable credit was given to Velikovsky, though this was almost eliminated by the time the book saw print. Donald Wesley Patten was more open and honest about his debt to Velikovsky. In his 1966 book The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch, he gives a brief overview of Velikovsky as one of his predecessors. In private, he spent years unsuccessfully trying to cozy up to Velikovsky and be recognized as his peer. Velikovsky absolutely did not want to be associated with creationists and other Biblical literalists. He physically ran away from Patten once when they met at conference (he later apologized).

Patten had his own ideas on how the planets ricocheted around the solar system and, like Velikovsky and almost every catastrophist of the Twentieth Century, he presented frozen mammoths as proof of his version. But when he mentioned Toll’s tree, he described it in a way that was different from Velikovsky, but familiar to us.

Baron Edward Toll, the explorer, reported finding a fallen 90-foot fruit tree with ripe fruit and green leaves still on its branches, in the frozen ground of the New Siberian Islands. The only tree vegetation that grows there now is a one-inch high willow.

Here are the most important elements of Dillow’s version—a ninety-foot fruit tree with ripe fruit, and green leaves. There is no mystery about Patten’s source. It’s a direct quote and he cites the author. It is Charles Hapgood, Velikovsky’s only equal among post-war secular catastrophists. Hapgood was a New England based professor of history whose main contribution to catastrophism was to popularize an idea he called Earth Crustal Displacement (he borrowed the idea from a privately published book by Hugh Auchincloss Brown). The idea that he put forth was a variation on the much older idea that the Earth’s axial tilt had abruptly changed in the past. In the original version, The Earth’s axis had once been perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the sun. This gave the Earth an Edenic temperate climate from pole to pole. Some cosmic catastrophe in ancient times had tipped the Earth’s axis to its present 23.4° off perpendicular. Naturally, the catastrophe was recorded in the usual ancient legends of floods, fire from the sky, and days when the sun refused to rise and frozen mammoths are proof of this. For both Velikovsky and Patten, this was a centerpiece of their catastrophic narratives.

In the variation the Hapgood promoted, the Earth itself was not knocked off its axis; it had always had more or less the same axial tilt. Instead, it was only the crust that moved. Rather than some passing rogue planet whacking the entire Earth out of line, it was some Earth-born imbalance that caused the crust to suddenly slip in relation to the mantle and core, which kept the same alignment. One moment, the mammoths were calmly munching on giant alders and the next, both mammoths and trees had been thrown into the Arctic where they instantaneously froze. Hapgood published his theory as a book in 1958, Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science. Patten took his quote from a magazine abridgment of the mammoth chapter published two years later. The book version is a little more detailed than the magazine version.

Baron Toll, the Arctic explorer, found remains of a sabertooth tiger, and a fruit tree that had been ninety feet tall when it was standing. The tree was well preserved in the permafrost, with its roots and seeds. Toll claimed that green leaves and ripe fruit still clung to its branches. Yet, at the present time, the only representative of tree vegetation on the islands is a willow that grows one inch high.

Hapgood cited Digby as his source. If he had stopped after his first two sentences, he would have been faithful to Digby. Digby only mentioned roots and seeds; he did not mention leaves or fruit. The words “leaves” and “fruit” do appear in some of the accounts before Digby. In chronological order they are:

  • The original 1894 short notice of Toll’s return in The Geographical Journal read: “complete trees of Alnus fruticosa with leaves and cones.”
  • The 1895 translation of his lecture published a year later read: “perfectly well-preserved leaves, and even cones.”
  • Toll’s 1895 formal report read: “the stems of the Alnus fruticosa along with the roots… one can even recognize… the blossom casings.”
  • Kropotkin’s 1900 review of Toll’s later article read: “roots, leaves, and fruits.”
  • Kropotkin’s 1911 Britannica entry read: “roots and even fruits.”

Nowhere does Toll claim that that green leaves and ripe fruit still clung to the tree’s branches. Leaves are mentioned in Toll’s notice of return, in his lecture, and in Kropotkin’s review article. Toll refers to the alder’s seed clusters as cones the first two times he mentions them and as blossoms the third. Kropotkin refers to them as fruit in both of his pieces. The only place both leaves and fruits are both mentioned are in Kropotkin’s review article. I don’t believe Hapgood read any of those sources. Hapgood was a trained historian. If he had read any of the first four on the list—three journal articles and a scholarly monograph—he would have preferred to cite them over Digby’s popular travel narrative. As a source, Digby only outranks the encyclopedia article, which does not mention leaves. Did Hapgood make those details up? Unless some other mention of fruit and leaves comes to light, it appears he did. Even if he did read one or more of the earlier sources and simply forgot to cite them, he is guilty of exaggeration for making the leaves and fruit green and ripe. At this point, it also appears that it was Hapgood who seized on Digby’s misspelled fructicosa to make the tree a fruit tree rather than an alder as Digby clearly stated.

This finally brings us back to Dillow. I can say with certainty that Dillow took his version of the tree directly from Hapgood with no middle-men involved. I’ll go farther and say he took it from the second, revised edition of Hapgood’s book published in 1968 under the title The Path of the Pole. I can be this certain because Dillow cites that edition of Hapgood several times in the same chapter as Toll’s tree, he places the details in the same order as Hapgood, and the first fourteen words of his passage are exactly the same as in Hapgood’s passage. As to why Dillow would cite different sources than those he really used, I think the answer is simple; he relied on tricks known to every lazy student since the invention of the term paper. Dillow copied Hapgood’s source notes to make it look like he did more research than he really did. Adding Tolmachoff to the note, even though he was of questionable relevance, made the note more substantial and impressive. Having a series of source notes that move from author to author is more substantial and impressive than repeating the same source over and over.

In the final measure, it appears that Dillow’s only crime, with regards to Toll’s tree, was lazy scholarship and making it a plum tree. That’s not to say he isn’t guilty of other intellectual crimes. The parts of Dillow’s book that I’ve been able to read are filled with embellishment, exaggeration, misrepresentation, and outright dishonesty. One example will suffice to demonstrate. This “fact” has been widely distributed on the internet, usually side-by-side with the ninety-foot plum tree.

Dr. Jack A. Wolfe in a U. S. Geological Survey Report (1978) told that Alaska once teemed with tropical plants. He found evidence of mangroves, palm trees, Burmese lacquer trees, and groups of trees that now produce nutmeg and Macassar oil. 

Dr. Wolfe did indeed say that tropical plants once grew in Alaska… during the Eocene 34-50 million years ago. This compressing of the prehistoric past into one event is not uncommon among catastrophists. Some catastrophist writers, at least on the internet, might genuinely have trouble grasping geological timescales. I don’t think Dillow is one of them.

Even though Babinski wrote his debunking almost twenty years ago, the myth of the ninety-foot fruit tree is still alive and well. As a plum tree, Toll’s tree continues to appear in creationist literature usually as evidence of the Noachian Deluge. Among secular catastrophists, the tree usually appears among supporters of Hapgood’s crustal displacement, such as Graham Hancock and Rand Flem-Ath (yes, that’s his real name). Babinski’s debunking gets linked to and copy/pasted into online fora again and again to no avail. Cut the tree down in one place and it pops up in another. Recycling is an essential part of fringe writing. The writers comb through each other’s works for anecdotes to use as evidence for their pet theories. Many writers never leave the echo chamber nor look for any new information that might challenge their anecdotes or even add a couple of interesting new details. Leaving the echo chamber would expose them to actual authorities and those are to be avoided at all costs; they’re out to suppress the truth. For fringe writers, other fringe writers, even those with competing theories are better sources than actual experts. For that reason, we can expect to see Baron von Toll’s giant fruit tree again and again into the future.

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