I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of going stir crazy right now. I like human interaction. I like high fives, hugs and seeing how close I can stand to somebody before they go nuts. Needless to say, COVID-19 and social distancing has put an end to that for everyone. Now, when Brittany Stillwell comes over it takes everything we can do to keep Ian from running and hugging her (don’t worry, he still talks her ear off). Like Ian, for many the hardest part of this pandemic is the social isolation – being away from friends, loved ones, and at this point, even frenemies (please note I am NOT minimizing the very real health dimensions of this). So, when you get lonely and stir crazy I have an idea. Go spend some time with an old tree.
Yep. You heard that right. Go spend time with an old tree. Most people think that trees would be the definition of ‘social isolation’ and a ‘pull yourself up with your bootstraps’ mentality, but surprisingly that’s not the case. Trees communicate through an underground fungal network. They can even share food and water with nearby trees who are sick or in need of nutrients. They can send a type of electrical signal that warns other trees of things like leaf rust or bark beetles that will cause harm. Though they don’t look like it, trees are social and interactive creatures, especially in times of need.
Trees don’t just talk with other trees, they can also talk with us. They can be a teacher for us, if we would only listen. Trees know about transformation. They begin as a small seed in a bit of soil and over many decades they blossom into a canopied wonder. Changing every fall as their chlorophyll breaks down – from a dull brownish green to fire-esque oranges and yellow. Spring comes and so does new life and a thousand shades of green. It’s no wonder why Christians across the ages, such as Hildegard of Bingen have connected trees to the transformation of human creatures. Do you see that connection?
Trees just don’t know about the good times in life. They know a lot about death, loss and struggle. You’ve seen pictures after hurricanes or tornadoes. Pictures that make your jaws drop and heart ache. Yes, there are damaged homes and infrastructures, but there’s also damaged trees without bark, branches or leaves. Floods impact trees threatening to remove the very soil that is their lifeblood. They know about fire and withstanding a heat that almost completely consumes. They know about predators such as the mountain pine beetle that eats to the very core. Yes, they know as much about life, struggle and death as any other – and yet many survive and continue to grow and are transformed by that struggle. What might they teach us about the more human struggles and how to overcome them?
All this talk about trees reminds me of JRR Tolkien’s character Treebeard talking about the Entish Language (In Lord of the Rings, Ents are a species of walking trees), “It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” How about when it gets warm later this week, you get a camp chair, sit under a tree and be social with these social creatures that live and speak slow.. Listen to their wisdom. Listen to their experience. Gaze at their beauty. Imagine all they’ve been through. Thank God for how trees bless all of creation, from squirrels and birds to humans. Lastly, thank God for our relationships with all of creation – but especially trees who have much to teach us. Doing so might make ‘social distancing’ feel a lot less isolating.
*For further reading, check out The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul by Belden Lane