Yesterday, I was going through some old pictures and came across a picture of myself that was taken when I was about four or five years old. I remember having the picture taken by my mom in the side yard of our home.
In our yard, there was a weeping willow tree. I loved to climb that tree. Its branches were just low enough for me to grab hold of, swing my legs up, and hoist myself into the tree. I would climb as far as my young arms and legs take me and usually find an intersection of branches that would allow me to sit in the tree.
My childlike mind would imagine all kinds of things in that tree. Sometimes the tree’s branches were my throne. At other times the tree’s branches offered enough support to imagine being in a tree house. Most of the time, the tree was simply a
place to sit, swing, and wonder.
As a child, I had a fondness for trees. Besides the weeping willow tree, three beautiful maple trees grew in our front yard. Those trees provided the most wonderful shade to play in, and each fall their leaves would give us hours of enjoyment as we raked piles and jumped in them over and over.
I am still drawn to trees – big shady oaks, tall soaring pines, blossoming cherry trees, and wistful weeping willows. Each one is a reminder of rootedness, growth, and the cycle of life.
The psalmist says,
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers,
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law, they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so but are like
chaff that the wind drives away.
In this psalm, the way of the righteous is compared to a tree. The righteous soak in the words of God as the roots of a tree soak in the nourishment of water by the banks of a stream. The righteous bring forth fruit and prosper as does a tree that is alive and healthy.
Trees stand in the world as a reminder of the ways we are connected to God. Jesus spoke of it as vines and branches. When we are connected, we prosper, produce, and grow. We can do nothing except wither when we are cut off from the vine.
Theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass drew my attention to a book by Peter Wohlleben titled, The Hidden Life of Trees. Wholleben worked for the Forestry Commission in the Eifel mountains of Germany for over twenty years. He left his work at the commission but continued his fascination with tree life by establishing an environmentally friendly woodland in Germany.
His years in the forest were spent observing and protecting the woods, and his book chronicles what he discovered about trees as he worked alongside a group of scientists who did research in the forest. What he discovered about the “hidden life of trees” is that they are very sociable and share a deep-rooted connectedness.
Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible…A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
(The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben)
It seems that trees, one of the world’s oldest living organisms, speak to us in deep metaphors about community, connectedness, nourishment, and growth. They remind us that God’s wisdom comes to us in many ways – through stories, songs, meditation, and nature.
I like to think that the joy I found climbing trees as a child was the beginning of my love for trees and the beginning of understanding the lessons that they have to teach us. It seems that their lessons run deeper than I first imagined in my early days of tree climbing.
Graceful beauty, sturdiness, the shedding of leaves, regrowth, deep roots; the list could go on and on. These are the characteristics I see in trees. These are the lessons they teach me - that God is present in nature and the sacredness of nature is present for us to explore.
Singer and songwriter Ken Medema says it beautifully in his song, The Tree Song. I learned this song when I was young and its words have stuck with me. May these words leave you looking up into the leaves and down to the roots of your favorite tree. Sit there awhile. There are lessons to be learned there.
I’ve got roots growing down to the water.
I’ve got leaves growing up to the sunshine,
And the fruit that I bear is a sign of life in me.
I am shade from the hot summer sundown.
I am nest for the birds of the heaven.
I’m becoming what the Lord of trees has meant me to be.
A strong, young tree.