Monday, January 08, 2018

If Trees Could Talk
This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, January 7, 2018, at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"Bare Tree" (© Erik Walker Wikstrom  2012)

During that tree planting ceremony I was talking about during the Story Time, when it got to my mentor and friend Ed Lane, he talked about spending time in Sequoia National Park, out in California.  He mentioned, in particular, one tree there – the largest and oldest tree in the Park – the General Sherman Tree.  (It was named after General Sherman in 1879 by naturalist James Wolverton, who had served as a lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry under General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War.)  This tree – not only the largest in Sequoia National Park, but in the world, I’ve learned – is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and Ed mused on the stories that tree could tell, if only it could talk.

“That tree first grew around the time that Jesus was on the earth,” Ed said.  It would have been able to observe the thriving cultures of the Monachee and Potwisha peoples, the arrival, and eventual dissolution of the Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth, a experimental socialist colony established there in 1886 (which renamed the tree the Karl Marx Tree, and which is remembered in the name of the largest and most eco-featured residence at local Twin Oaks Community).  This tree would be able to tell of Colonel Charles Young and his company of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, who served as caretakers of the, then, 13-year old national park.  And, of course, it could talk about the visit of Ed and Helen Lane, in more modern times.  Oh, the stories that tree could tell, if only it could talk.

The oldest tree in Virginia, until it’s death in 2008, was a bald cypress dating back 1,000 years or more which lived in a remote swamp 80 miles southeast of Richmond.  (I couldn’t find anything about the tree that claimed its title as the oldest tree in the Commonwealth today.)  Oh the stories that tree could tell; the things it witnessed. 

The oldest tree in the world, until 2013, the oldest individual tree in the world was Methuselah, a 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristlecone, in the White Mountains of California.  It didn’t give up its status because it died, but because an even older tree has been discovered – another Bristle Cone Pine, in the same region, that is 5,062 years old. 

By contrast, the oldest living animal on the planet – again, until recently – was Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise, estimated to have been roughly 255-years old when it died.  The member of our own species with the longest lifespan was Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997, at the age of 122 years, 164 days. (She was born in 1875.  To put that in some perspective, she met Vincent van Gogh when she was 12 or 13.)  The oldest living person today is a woman from Jamaica named Violet Brown, who is 117 years old.

The oldest living person today could tell stories of our history over the past hundred years or so, but the oldest tree, if it could talk, could tell tales of the past 5,000 years.

Besides being, I hope, at least at least a little as interesting to you as it’s been to me to learn all of this, why am I spending time on a Sunday morning giving something of a biological history lesson?  Because I believe that trees can talk, and their collective longevity gives them more than a little perspective.

What do I mean when I say that trees can talk?  A member of the congregation emailed me this week, having seen today’s topic, and told the story of a very difficult year for his wife and himself.  While he was in the hospital, he was able to see a tree outside his window, and he was moved to write a poem:
Outside my window
Is a tree
Large, imposing, yet graceful.

It's arms extending
Reaching towards Heaven.

Though last month stripped of leaves
Its fingers left intact
Provide haven for perching
Flocks of dark starlings.

Hundreds flying and landing
In perfect unison
Against fall's backdrop
Clear, blue skies.

Years later, while sharing this poem, someone suggested to him that the tree he was looking at, the tree that inspired that poem, was a living metaphor for … him.  He concluded the email, “I wonder if perhaps, that tree, at that critical point in my life, did talk to me.”

And, as I said to our children earlier, every single person in that circle during that tree planting ceremony – almost 25 years ago now – had a story about a tree – or trees! – that had touched their lives and, it’s really not much of a stretch to say, taught them something important.

We’ve begun, this year, to order our liturgical cycle not only by monthly themes – and this month it’s the image of a bare tree, but seasonally as well, taking a category of life’s Big Questions.  For the winter it’s:  why is life so full of pain and struggle, and what can we do about it?  Why do people we love die?  What do dreams shatter?  Why do our dreams so often elude us?  Simply, why is it so often so hard between the twin realities of being born and having to die?

Those are questions which, ultimately, have no answers – no definitive nor, for most of us when we’re in the midst of the struggle, fully satisfying answers.  But the “what to do about it?” piece, does.  And I think – not surprisingly given what I’ve said so far – that one of the places we can go for those answers is, not surprisingly, trees.

Trees, as the examples I’ve given, are often long lived, so they take the long view.  If those trees could talk they would tell stories of joys and sorrows, loss and gain, celebrations and consternations, hard times and good times, and they would tell us that all of these things come and go.  No one experience of reality is eternal; no one experience lasts forever.  And so it is with us.  Our lives see this same rising and falling, ebb and flow, and whatever hard time we’re going through at the moment will pass.  It is as certain as the branches of the bare tree bringing forth new leaves in the springtime.

They would also remind us that even in those hard times all is not lost.  As the poet in our midst noted from his hospital bed, even the bare branches in wintertime, “provide haven for perching / flocks of dark starlings.”  And so, for us, even in the midst of our struggles, when it might appear to us that there is nothing good, there always is something to celebrate.  I do not mean this in a pollyanna-ish way, the so often too glib idea that “every cloud has a silver lining,” as if that should make everything “okay.”  As Monday’s page of my Grumpy Cat calendar said, “Don’t forget:  every silver lining is part of a larger, darker cloud.”  Yet without denying the reality of that cloud, trees tell us that even in the times of our own winter bareness we can be on the lookout for those starlings.

Trees put down roots.  Some have very shallow roots, and those are easily knocked down during powerful storms.  The ones that have roots that go deep can withstand the hardest winds.  Remember, as the poet Marge Piercy noted in a poem (that’s at #568 in our hymnals), “More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.”  If we listen well to the teachings of the trees we will sink our roots, too, deep into the soil of our lives, deep into what grounds us and nourishes us.

At the same time, as Taoist sages observed centuries ago, the winds of life can break a tree that is too rigid, too stiff.  Flexibility is a lesson we so often forget – the flexibility to bend with those winds, to resist the urge to fight them, to push back, but, rather, to accept them as they blow, knowing that the time will come when the winds end and we can rise again.

Three more teachings, quickly.  (There are so many more that I can’t mention before my time, and your patience, runs out … but which, perhaps, may give you a conversation starter during the time of fellowship in the social hall following the service.  Go up to someone and say, “Hey, what have trees taught you?”  And then, after listening to their answer, you can say, “Here’s something they taught me.”). 

First, after the first service someone on their way out told me that trees grow best in a diverse environment, with different species.  A grove which has only one kind of tree in it doesn’t do as well.  I don’t think I need to elaborate on the lesson there.

Second, those Bristlecone Pines I mentioned – Methuselah and its successor?  Again, someone on their way out of the first service asked me if I knew what else it needed to live so long, besides the obvious sun, water, nourishing soil:  fire.  It needs fire to survive.  This, too, is something I don’t need to expand on.

The lesson I want to offer you of the teachings of trees comes from a fact about trees that I haven’t mentioned yet.  Those long-lived trees I talked about earlier?  They are individual trees.  There is another type of tree, a tree that grows in colonies, which, though made up of individual trunks and branches, are considered to be one living organism, because they share genetic markers and grow from one root stock.  The oldest of these is not 1,000 years old, or 5,000 years old.  The oldest living colony tree is … wait for it … 80,000 years old. 

The lesson here, too, is obvious, but I will spell it out – don’t go it alone during the hard times.  Be part of a colony.  Remember the truth that if we are like trees, then we are colony trees, connected at our roots to one another, part of one another.  This faith community can help to us to have the lived experience of being part of a larger whole and, if this community does its job well, points us to the reality of our interconnectedness with all those who ever were, all those who will be, and the entirety of the earth and the cosmos on which and in which we live.

There is no avoiding the hard times we will unavoidably experience in this life, but the world abounds with lessons about how to cope with them.  As I said to our children, I hope that in this day (this week, this month, this year, this lifetime) you keep your eyes open to trees, and to the wisdom they offer.

Pax tecum,


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