Friday, February 21, 2014

What's Up With The Tree Thing?

I am, you might say, some have said, obsessed with the shapes of bare-branched trees.  My FaceBook photo album "Trees & Clouds" has over 200 images in it, and that isn't the entirety of my bare-branched oeuvre.  It is, I suppose, not an unreasonable question to ask, "Why?"

I will confess that I'm not entirely sure why.  (That may be true of most people's obsessions, I don't know.)  I have a few theories, though.

The twists and turns of a trees branches is such a universal pattern.  You can see it in the dried riverbed along the Colorado river.  You can see it in a living bay (this one's the Chesapeake).  It's recognizable in a bolt of lighting, and the blood vessels in a human lung.  It's even been found on the surface of Mars!

It's universality is certainly intriguing yet I am equally captivated, and perhaps even more so, by the seemingly infinite variety of its particular manifestations.  Just take a walk around a tree looking up into it's branches.  It's sinuous shapes morph and move with just about each step you take.  No two vantage point provide the same view.  And even if you were to stay in one place, looking at exactly the same spot on the same tree, differences in lighting throughout the day and the ever-changing background of sky would give you a never repeating display.  Not only do a tree's branches resemble the snaking of a river, its every changing presentation echoes the river's flow.

There's something else, too, I think.  Within some of the Buddhist traditions there is an image used to explain the concept of our interconnectedness.  Look at the waves on the water.  Each wave appears to be separate, distinct, and each wave breaks on the shore in turn, alone and individual, if you will.  Yet each of the waves, all of the waves, are also nothing but ocean.

I look at a tree.  The single trunk branches off into big limbs, which become medium-sized branches, which become little twigs.  Eventually there will be seemingly individual leaves and fruit.  Yet where does the trunk cease and the leaf begin?  As much as the separation and individuality is obvious and, in some ways, a useful perspective, isn't the whole thing just, "tree"?

The great 17th century Christian mystic Brother Lawrence reported that it was seeing a barren tree in wintertime that sparked his spiritual awakening.  Here's how his biographer describes the experience:

"... in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time, the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of GOD, which has never since been effaced from his soul."
Lawrence was 18 years old at this time, and he continued his monastic (and mystic) existence until he was in his late 80s.  It wasn't this encounter with a bare tree alone that sustained him all that time, of course, but it is clear that neither did he ever foret it.

And I've wondered whether the tree could be an image for God.  In contemplating the interconnectedness of twig and trunk I have wondered what the trunk might be.  Or, to be more precise, I've wondered what the "tree-ness" of the tree is, what constitutes its essential being.  The answer, for me, is that this would be a good use of the word "God" -- to borrow a phrase from old Ben Kenobi, God "surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the [universe] together."

So I photograph tree branches.  I could find worse things to obsess about.

Pax tecum,


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arthurrashap said...

Yes, Erik, one "gift" of winter is the wonder of seeing the soul of the tree. Broken down, one can see the basics of life in the most simple fractal design of the tree. A simple "Y" repeated ad infinitim building into these magnificent sleeping companions. I wonder about the function they perform when in leaf, absorbing CO2 and giving off oxygen and what happens in the winter? Perhaps we just benefit from the life of trees in the Southern Hemisphere?

Looking at trees in the winter -
Opens the heart and mind to see.

Blessings Erik.

Dave Dawson said...

I share your love of trees...I too take pictures of them especially here in Annapolis. From my window next to where I am typing, I see one of the "branches" of the Chesapeake Bay. My wife and I love to explore the nature preserves nearby which are also a part of the sprawling branches of the Bay. Each morning during my quiet time I look out at the tall trees outside the window and this morning was "blessed" to see the Morning Star shining brightly between the limbs of one of the tallest trees. I began singing (in my head) "Bright Morning Star Rising." I appreciate your ministry and the ministry of TJMCUU so much. Keeping you all in my prayers. Dave