Nothing is quite like the adrenaline rush of politics, but it doesn’t feed our souls. What feeds the soul is often so common to us as not to be noticed. In that regard I’ve been thinking about trees. As autumn progresses and leaves fall, the infrastructure of the tree reveals itself, showcasing still another facet of its splendor. Trees are the glory of our planet.
In my yard grow a wide array of trees. They include cherries, a hackberry, gums, two willow oaks, a red bud, a persimmon, a pear tree, several maples, five locusts, three hollies, bayberries, long leaf pines and two apple trees, one of which sadly won’t last the winter. It’s a mixed neighborhood where trees of different species grow close together and are comfortably accommodating one another. An acquaintance sitting on my porch one day commented that the hackberry was obscuring a view of the creek. He asked why I didn’t cut it down. Do I simply dispose of a child who happens to be standing in my way? I found his suggestion insensitive.
Of the more painful introductions to the inevitable changes around the Eastern Shore has been to witness the felling of trees for new homes or electric wires. I reacted viscerally – a knot in my stomach – to the constant whine of chainsaws as many old trees are felled making room for small developments and McMansions. As trees fall to earth with a thunderous crash, the sound feels like the cry of the earth protesting the desecration of its holy ground. I don’t like the sound.
As a child I was acutely aware of trees, so much so that at times I regarded them as companions.
Three trees were especially memorable. There was a large weeping willow that grew just below my bedroom window and two sycamores that defined the western edges of our property. My earliest experience of grief was when the willow was toppled in a hurricane. I remember distinctly mourning its loss as it was cut up and taken away.
I’d sometimes be marooned around my property on hot sultry summer days while imagining ways to entertain myself. I spent many hours with my back resting on one of the two sycamores. I worried about them, as their mottled bark looked enough like a neighbor’s psoriasis that I thought the tree might be diseased. The sycamores were then large enough to create abundant shade and on hot sunny days I sat under one or the other, just dreaming away the hours while watching the cumulus clouds build in the summer sky. As I think of it now, this would be a rare event for my grandchildren. In those days, it was only the trees, the lawn, the sky, the clouds, and myself. I wasn’t a reader then and had no access to diversions like the iPhone, that has become a constant presence filling every unclaimed minute of today’s young, It is well nigh impossible now for any young person to spend solitary time with him or herself with only the natural world as a companion. I suspect in time such deprivation will leave that generation with a longing in the soul, a deep hunger to experience communion with creation.
I suspect now with the high incidence of mobility for most families, a sense of place grows more tentative than it was for people like my family. We’d been residents of the same island for several generations. There were no claims to aristocracy in being long-term residents of the same place. For me it bred a sense of belonging to a landscape that remained relatively undisturbed until the Verrazano Bridge opened in 1964. The lovely hilled and treed landscape was soon to be devoured by development, turning Staten Island, once the garden of the New York’s five boroughs, into another Bronx or Brooklyn. Ironically, some of the oldest trees surviving, particularly the magnificent beeches, are found in the island’s cemeteries. Any sense of space was obliterated except for Raritan Bay and New York Harbor, which, if we’d discovered how to construct buildings on top of water, both would be totally covered with tract housing.
After we’d been established in the house I grew up in, my mother had a copper beech planted. It grew to have a majestically arched crown and the leaves shone like bright oversized pennies. I was enthralled as much with the color that the tree was, as the color that it wasn’t; until discovering the copper beech I believed all trees leaved in green except during the fall.
Peter Wohlleben is a forester in the Eifel Mountains of Germany. He has documented how trees are naturally communal and how they look out for one another. They can communicate above ground by scent, and underground through fungal connections in their roots that equip trees to feed their hungry neighbors. It’s known as the “wood wide web.”
For a world such as ours that abounds in technology but remains spiritually wanting, I see trees as bringing grace and beauty to a world desperately hungry for both. They also bring the message that our lives fulfill their destiny when we’re caring for one another.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.