What might trees say if we could hear?
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis awakened my childhood longings that trees be living beings with thoughts and feelings, who hold mysterious ceremonies to celebrate solstices and wise counsels for discernment when desperate times called for it. Tolkein and Lewis leaned on tree folklore of their ancestral homeland and made me believe that trees experienced life--pleasure, pain, joy, sadness.
New York Times bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben suggests those ancestors may have understood something of the web of life that we forgot along the way.
I begin my days with contemplative prayer—often in a little Prayer Cabin situated above the goat barn. The goats are sleeping still, and quiet, when our pup Oliver and I arrive in the dark mornings of these lingering nights. Our movement wakes them, and we hear stirring and bumping as they stretch and bumble into the beginning of their own days.
On our way up to the cabin we pass two oldish maple trees. One offers support for the stairs to the cabin, and the cabin and deck surrounds the other. Some days as I'm coming or going I pause, hold my hand to the trunk of each tree and look up into the branches or into the deep crevices of its bark and offer a thank you (or an apology if our use of them offends or is injurious). Sometimes when I wander in the woods I pause longer (I’m being vulnerable here), resting my ear against a few maples and oaks in particular. I’m hoping to hear a stirring, a pulse, get a sense of how they experience life; maybe get a sense that they know I have come to be attentive.
I count these trees as friends of sorts, holding a quiet wisdom that instructs me to move slowly, observe deeply, listen carefully. They do the work of being a tree with easy fidelity to their tree-ness.
Trees seemingly have less trouble than I do with that fidelity piece. They can live fully into their tree-ness with less complication than I into my human-ness. My power of choice makes it difficult to reflect the potential God gave me to live fully into my human-ness. So I wonder what it’s like to experience life as a tree, rooted, stayed, faithful; home to myriads of life--microbial, fungal, vascular plants, winged, and clawed creatures. Trees store carbon dioxide and release oxygen that all life on Earth might flourish. What is it like to have, and do, such an important job as that?
Meister Eckhart, a German theologian, philosopher and mystic from the 13th century, reminds us what early Christians held as true: every creature and created thing, including trees, stars, and sand, are manifestations of God. Each is held and sustained in existence by God. Eckhart says every detail of life is the song God sings, the sermon God preaches, the life God lives. Similarly, Bonadventure, also a scholastic theologian and philosopher of the 13th century (a Franciscan from Italy) reduces the complexity of theology to three simple truths: All things emanate or come from God, all things then exemplify or are manifestations of God, and all things will be consummate eventually, because all things will return to God. Bonadventure said God is one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
There is no place where God is not. Our very existence has always depended on God’s presence in every particle of the universe. Eckhart, Bonadventure, and many others conclude that makes the whole of it sacred.
If God is in the tree (not the tree, but holding the tree in existence as Christ holds you and me--as Christ holds all creation together--Col. 1:16-17), then in some tangible way God experiences life as a sun, a tree, our pup Oliver, as you and me. God experiences joy, pain, pleasure, and sadness through us and with us.
I stumbled on these sorts of paradigm smashing thoughts some years ago. Learning that Bonadventure and Meister Eckhart (and a host of others) affirmed the same gives me confidence to post such heretical-sounding thoughts here. All of this points to God’s plan being bigger than merely saving humanity from its sin.
I find comfort in that now. It has changed my relationship to all created things. God so loved the cosmos, John 3 says… How big is the cosmos? Bigger than just humanity…? Yet, God became a human, walked among us, showed us (who could, after all, be self-reflective of such matters), the face of God, that we might know from whom we have come, on whom our existence depends, to whom we will someday return.
Gratitude seems an appropriate response for this opportunity to exist, to experience life. Perhaps what follows gratitude is a desire to pay attention, looking for God manifest in trees, sunsets, in the eyes of deer, pups, and each other. (Maybe it is reasonable to pause and place one’s ear against a tree, to say “I am here” or to hear whatever might be stirring). Perhaps what follows finally is a desire to partner actively with God in the on-going unfolding of a world characterized by shalom—peace because justice prevails. Peace because grace—present from the beginning--is on a long journey drawing the universe back into God’s loving embrace.