Like a Tree
Growing up in the rural Pacific Northwest, the outdoors was the most important play place for my brother and me. We put our feet in the ground and wrapped our arms around the barks of the evergreens. We camped and fished and kayaked. For vacation we toured the red sands and jagged peaks of the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Glacier and Zion National Parks.
My whole life, nature, the wondrous, great outside, has been and is, just as much a sanctuary to me as anywhere else. I would lie down in the grass and stare up at the cloud formations, looking for faces or symbols of places. I would turn piles of pine needles into room and houses and cities. I would hug the trees.
But I learned at some point along the way, that in my household, a tree hugger was someone who was misguided at best and at worst malicious. It became normal for me to hear laments about how the “Damn tree huggers from King Country are trying to stop us from logging our forests.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond as I had likely spent the day hugging trees.
And as I have heard some of your stories, many of you have found the holy among the high places, with the trees. Because you have also felt, known, experienced, being saved by the trees, you have also felt the holy humming, that sacred sound always ready to be taken in.
Many of you have shared with me of the powerful, meaningful and deeply spiritual experiences that you have had outside, on trails, beside streams, away from all we are told are the confines of the Divine, many of us here have found the holy, among the trees- a play place and a sacred space.
On hillsides blanketed in sugar maple, red maple, hemlock, basswood and yellow birch, on hilltops covered in bristlecone pine, blue spruce, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, limber pine, lodge pole pine, narrow leaf cottonwood, quaking aspen, pinion pine, plains cottonwood, ponderosa pine, Rocky Mountain juniper, subalpine fir and white fir.
As Mary Oliver spoke to us, “When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”
I realized like many of you, that if I stopped and listened when I was out in the forests or fields, there was something, just something beyond me that nearly defied description. It saved me, and daily. When I let it be heard, there was a holy humming, a sacred sound… As if the trees could talk.
Science has confirmed that in a way trees can talk, but not at a frequency that we can hear. And some say that trees even kind of scream. A team of French scientists at Grenoble University in France have separated the various sounds of trees and analyzed those data over time. What they found is that when trees are starving for water they make something like a crying sound. The tree version of a scream comes from the process of being cut down. We can’t hear it, but it is detectable with equipment.
As Maneka Sanjay Gandhi writes, “The forest really does hum with life. Though often too low or too high for human ears to detect, insects and animals signal each other with vibrations. Even trees and plants fizz with the sound of tiny air bubbles bursting in their plumbing. There is evidence that insects and plants "hear" each other's sounds.” 1
The wisdom from the prophet Jeremiah spoke to us today, “Blessed are those who are like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Blessed are those who are like a tree.
I wonder if we get this blessing, this invitation, this reference in scripture because there is guidance for our lives, because trees have something to teach us.
In Psalm 1, we hear, Blessed is the one who is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
Blessed are those who are like a tree.
Some of you may have read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, where he highlights the incredibly complicated and beautiful world of trees. What stood out to me is how networked they are and how much sharing they do. Their existence is relational. They do not see themselves as individuals, created to thrive alone.
Wohlleben writes, “When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you "help" individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren't particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.” He goes on, “But isn't that how evolution works? You ask. The survival of the fittest? Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.” 2
A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. The weak trees are supported by the stronger ones as needed, even the powerful trees get sick sometimes. Growing fast, doesn’t mean a longer life.
Trees are networked and relational. The quality of connections matters to the health of the whole. When I mapped out the words you heard from Jesus, often called the sermon on the plain as recorded in the book of Luke, it looked a lot like a tree. The role of the full branch is to feed the hungry branch. The role of the laughing branch is to send nutrients to the weeping limp. The role of the piece rich with blossoms is to support the undernourished. It made me wonder if Jesus was offering an image that would offer a new image- something different than the top down king paradigm. This one would enable a reorienting of how the individual parts sees ourselves in relation to the whole. As scholar Gay Byron noted, this sermon was “looked up as a pressing challenge…to reverse social, economic and political injustices to gain right standing before God.”3 Not in another realm, but now.
And yet we are immersed in a mainstream American culture that skims the surface and moves fasts. We live surrounded by messages of individualism and disconnection.
Into this we can stop, so that we may hear: Blessed are those who are like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots…
I was delighted to see that the CUCC logo is a tree with a dove and a seemingly wide network of roots. And hovering above this strong and growing tree are the words, sustaining spirit, expanding roots.
I truly believe that this is what many of us need to thrive is connection and depth. So over the course of the next couple of months, we are creating opportunities to go beyond the surface. We will meet after worship the next two Sundays to share our stops on our spiritual journeys in a class called Explore CUCC. Next Saturday, will gather in a smaller group to make a meal for those in need. Over Lent, we will meet for intergenerational worship and soup suppers on the meaning of religion in our lives. We will add to the roots that have held this tree for decades. We will withstand those Chinook winds because of how deep we have reached.
Trees have something to teach us. In the words of Mary Oliver, “ the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.” The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, “and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”
I believe that our happiness is connected to a place where our spirits can be sustained and our lives can be planted deep. Some people find it in a hiking club or a singing group perhaps, but for me, it’s here in this community of connection and compassion. We can be stronger with a forest of friends around us. When we are weak, we are given nourishment and strength, soup and prayers, by the limbs up to the light and the roots reaching deep for a drink. When we are made to feel as if life is about being big or being quick, let us pause and process the wisdom of the ancients: growing what lasts, isn’t fast.
In a place where depth is not the default, we can stop and hear: Be like a tree, see yourself as part of a powerful network, with connections that are rich and branches that offer all that is needed to thrive, Let us slow down and dive deep. In a time that is all about right this minute, let us be about fruit for the next generations.
Blessed are those who are like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots…
Blessed are those who are like a tree planted by water
Blessed are those who are like a tree
Be. Like a tree.
2 Excerpted from Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World
3 easting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration