When we think about trees we often think about what we see above the ground: their trunks, branches, leaves and fruit. However, the roots provide the tree balance and nourishment from the soil. And like a tree, our resilience and beauty come from something other than ourselves — the life and strength buried deep within us is rooted in God.
I started thinking about the complexity of trees after a detour on my path home took me off Broadway and over to 4th Street a few weeks ago. I was amazed how quickly the naked branches of a few short days ago had donned their emerald gala finery to create an expansive archway extending from north to south as far as the eyes could see. I felt hope and joy as I drove below the canopy, awed by how quickly the bare branches made way for buds that whispered, ‘spring is coming,’ then opened like a green umbrella to shout, ‘summer is on the way!’
As I noticed small children in the neighborhood yards, I was taken back to a willow tree in the front yard of the home where my daughters grew up. The earth under this massive tree was a magical place. On hot summer days, nudged by a light breeze, the wafting tendrils created a gentle fan that soothed the infant girl napping on a blanket. As the girls grew into grade school students, the long, graceful branches swayed like the arms of a practiced ballerina inviting them to dance and play under the sweeping limbs. This tree evoked comfort in a growing family, cementing an innocence that had no knowledge that the troubled waters of rebellious teenage years were just around the corner.
There’s a solid oak tree that stands like a solitary soldier at the end of the north road running by my uncle’s Minnesota farm. This tree embodies strength and security. It has stood the test of time and the forces of nature; neither winds exceeding 70 miles per hour nor frigid winter blizzards have taken it down. Its presence is a constant reminder that life isn’t easy, in fact it is very difficult, and yet if we are anchored, we are resilient and can endure. From miles away, every family member heading to that farm recognizes the familiar form of that mighty structure serving as a beacon. It conveys that every rotation of the tire brings you closer to the safe harbor of home — a familiar place in the family for more than 100 years where everyone knows and loves you, no matter your flaws.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand why my cousin always pointed out with pride that his mother was buried under a tree. Today, I am comforted because my dad has a tree near his grave. The whispering of that tree awakens stories within my soul when I visit. I remember the ache of my body and the sweat on my brow as I worked by his side for hours and hours one summer planting a shelterbelt of naked twigs secured inexpensively with the help of the county extension office. By the time he passed away, those bare sticks had blossomed into a 10-acre private arbor park. The wisdom of nature embedded in a tree unites us with our core…our spirit. I’m at peace in that place when a breeze blows and the treetop rustles. The soft swishing is like a quiet whisper saying, ‘all is well.’
Anyone who works with wood will tell you that when a tree is cut down, you can read its story from its rings. All a tree’s struggles and suffering are revealed in the narrow bands. Its periods of health and prosperity are indelibly written in the wider rings. A tree is not anxious about the circumstances of its life; it simply stands quietly responding to the purpose God defined for it.
We can learn a lot from trees. When we are suffering and feel we cannot go on, we can listen to the soft murmuring of the tree nudging us to, ‘be still.’ In this stillness, we can reignite our trust that God is present in these circumstances. When we reaffirm that God is not only with us, but is in us, our anxiety and despair can give way to peace and happiness.
Many will not be surprised that I love poetry nearly as much as trees. How wonderful, then, is a poem about trees! This one by Joyce Kilmer has always been one of my favorites:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
A Native Thanksgiving
Abstracted from a prayer prepared by Bettina Castagno
Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, other with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many peoples of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the tree of life.
We turn our thoughts to the Creator, Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. Now our minds are one.
These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed. — Daniel 4:10-12
May you be able to take a few moments this weekend or in the days ahead to walk under the canopy of trees in your neighbor or to sit quietly under the shade of a tree. Be awed by its fine form and allow yourself to listen to what it is saying to you in its whispers.