CONNECTION (5/10, Blessing of the Trees)
Trees are communal creatures who thrive in dense communities we call forests. In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohleben, a forester in Germany, tells of finding the remnants of a 5-foot stump of a tree that had evidently been felled at least 400-500 years ago, which was still being kept alive, without the benefit of its own photosynthesis, by the surrounding trees, which were feeding it through interconnected roots. It may be that this stump was once a “mother” tree. In old growth, undisturbed-by-man forests, mother trees are the large trees that have their share of the upper canopy. They are surrounded by “children,” young trees that have sprung from their own acorns or other kinds of seeds. These youngsters get very little sunlight, just snatches here and there. It wouldn’t be enough to survive on except that the mother tree actually feeds the youngsters through their interconnected root system. The young trees grow very slowly and stay very small for as much as 300 years (!), until the mother tree finally topples, a gap opens in the canopy, and the younger trees race to take their place in the sun. But the root connection is still there, which may explain the centuries-old stump that just won’t quite die.
roots join with other roots
feeding and sharing mysteries
drawing from the nourishment of Earth
up through veins and sinews
through branches to leaves
to breathe and share
in the forest communionfrom The Blessing of the Trees
A forest creates its own ideal habitat. Where climates are dry, annual leaf or needle fall from trees growing in close proximity creates a thick layer of humus on the ground which can store a lot of water, keeping the ground from drying out. A tightly packed canopy maintains the moisture and keeps out the wind, increasing the interior humidity. Therefore, a forest can prosper in an area where individual trees cannot. The same goes for hot climates. I always notice that under the oaks of the beautiful campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, where I work, it’s always a good 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding city in the summer. But Wohleben has measured a difference even greater in an old growth forest. He found that on a very hot day (98 degrees Fahrenheit), it was up to 50 degrees cooler in an old beech forest as compared to a nearby managed forest that was regularly thinned. So a forest, left to itself, creates a microclimate of its own.
Severe weather holds many dangers for trees, as we see in every natural disaster: hurricanes, tornados, ice storms, blizzards or just heavy, wet snow can break branches and trunks, topple and uproot. But forest trees apparently help each other, assisting members who are weak or sick through their roots, because it is to the benefit of all to maintain a canopy without many large gaps, which would let in strong storm winds that would uproot more trees.
In contrast, trees planted in urban areas or even managed forests, where thinning of closely spaced trees is regularly practiced, live much shorter lives than their fortunate cousins who live in undisturbed forest communities.
The analogy for we humans is obvious. In the Western world, we tend to value independence and self-reliance. We overestimate our separateness from others and from the rest of the natural world. But we were made for connection. We cannot thrive as lone rangers. We need each other. It’s no coincidence that children cannot be made without the participation of two people. Of course, there are all kinds of families, including many without two parents, but my point is that families are God’s idea, even when they strike us as less than ideal! So are all kinds of communities: churches and other faith communities, clubs, sports and group hobbies, neighborhoods, work friends, volunteer work — whatever floats your boat and is a positive force in your life and others’.
What a time we are living through with the coronavirus! Even as we are forced by wisdom, love and care for others to withdraw from physical closeness, we are being made ever more conscious of how much we need human connection. Left on our own, we are vulnerable to the storms of life. But planted in strong families, communities, and social networks, we support each other. We have to get creative about maintaining our connections in safe ways!
In the end, we must remember that God is love, and that love is what it’s all about. If you find yourself too isolated, sad and lonely during this time, please consider how you might reach out and find some connection today.
Next post: RESPONSIVENESS (6/10, Blessing of the Trees)