Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
From “Trees: Reflections and Poems” by Herman Hesse
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. . . . In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity, but they do not lose themselves there. They struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a tree.”
From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
“Plant numbers are staggering: there are eight billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them. Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.
So, humor me for a minute, and look out your window. What do you see? You probably see things that people make, like cars and buildings.
Now look again. Did you see something green? If you did, you saw one of the few things left in the world that people cannot make. . . . Perhaps you are lucky enough to see a tree. That tree was designed about three hundred million years ago. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf. There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It’s pretty impressive
Now focus your gaze on just one leaf. People don’t know how to make a leaf, but they know how to destroy one. In the last 10 years, we’ve cut down more than 50 billion trees. One-third of the Earth’s land used to be covered in forest. Every 10 years we cut down about 1% of this total forest, never to be regrown. That represents a land area about the size of France. One France after another for decades has been wiped from the globe. That’s more than one trillion leaves that are ripped from their source of nourishment every single day. And it seems like nobody cares. But we should care. We should care for the same basic reason that we are always bound to care: because someone died who didn’t have to.”
Something’s happening? Can you feel it? You can sure see it, though it’s not always obvious. In some places it appears as just a faint haze, in others, it’s an explosion of color that knocks your socks off. But wherever you look, there’s something going on: something opening, emerging, awakening.
It’s nothing new, in fact, it’s millions of years older than our very species. And yet each year it is fresh and vital and alive. The biblical prophet Isaiah captured its spirit: “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; The mountains, the hills before you shall burst into song
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
It is our way as humans to interpret the world through our own organs and appendages. So, it’s no surprise that we feel we must metaphorically append hands to the branches of trees to imagine how they might express joy. But at this time of year, it’s plain to see that they have no need of them. Take a look at the branch tips of the tree of your choice and watch how living tissue in the form of flowers or leaves emerges extravagantly from their tough winter cover. And tell me that isn’t something very much like joy.
The rising of the sap! It’s a capacity that I must admit I almost envy: Imagine looking forward to this moment each year when your being is suffused with new energy arising from your very rootedness in life. How would that feel? Would you not also seek out that capacity within to put forth new life, new hope, new being?
As Hope Jahren puts it, we all live among plants but many of us don’t really see them. They are ornaments to our living space or a source of raw materials for our many projects. But there are times of year – emergent spring being one – when they are in our faces demanding attention. So, let us take advantage of this moment to let go of our focus on the human for a bit and turn our thoughts, our senses, our respect to one group of our fellow beings: the trees.
Living in Asheville we are blessed with such awesome beauty and variety when it comes to trees. And even this, we know, is but a shadow of what we once had: before lumber workers cleared our forests, denuding mountainsides, losing many layers of topsoil, before pests that we humans introduced extirpated towering chestnut groves, and even now are infecting elm, hemlock, beech. And still, trees return, finding niches amid the crags to sink their roots and seek out the sun.
Many of us find our fascination sparked by favorite trees. I can think of a few: the larch planted by our porch with its soft green needles that flame bronze before cascading to the ground in autumn; the Russian elm towering some 70 feet over our yard, home to families of woodpeckers, and especially in spring the cherry outside the window of my home office that someday soon will erupt into pinkish white blossoms.
Yet, our fascination with individuals can mean that we literally fail to see the forest for the trees. David George Haskell, an acclaimed botanist at the University of the South in Tennessee, spent time tracking trees in locations around the world, and he found a common theme at each location.
Virginia Woolf, he said, had it right when she wrote that real life is the common life, not the “little separate lives which we live as individuals.” For trees, this means their survival depends on relationship – with other trees that they communicate with through roots but even more important a whole ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, insects and more.
Electrical and chemical signals are generated that nourish and protect roots as they grow, that discourage diseases and diffuse sunlight on leaves. It isn’t a stretch, Haskell says, to say forests “think,” so complex are the many connections among the organisms that contribute to the health of the whole.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, pushes the metaphor even further, speaking of the “hidden life of trees.” Trees, he argues, are fundamentally “social beings.” They have been shown to communicate in ways that we arguably could call scent, taste, and sound.
Beeches, spruce, and oak, he says, register pain when a caterpillar munches their leaves, then emit a compound that makes the leaves distasteful. Elms and pines can defect the saliva of harmful insects, then emit pheromones that attract other insects that devour the pest.
The salicylic acid in willows, precursor of aspirin, works the same way to discourage insect attackers.
Wohlleben describes what others have called a “wood-wide web” of roots and fungus filaments that links trees via electrical signals that while pokey compared to computers – moving only about one-third an inch per second – is incredibly dense, with one teaspoon of forest soil containing many miles of filaments.
What all these connections help accomplish are ways for trees to take care of each other. The rugged individualist ethic that echoes among humans has no place among plants.
For trees, it begins in their relationship to fungi. The threads of fungi that nourish the tree are in intimate partnership with it. They actually grow into the soft root hairs, creating a partnership that neither can leave.
This is how the tree connects with the web of life that sustains it and how the fungus finds a source of food. That network assures that the tree will endure, even if it is damaged or invaded by pests because the web can direct nutrients from other trees to help the weaker tree survive.
We, too, get drawn into this web, though in ways that are a little less obvious. Forests are huge shapers of our weather and climate. Simply by their presence trees shape landscapes. As Wohlleben tells it, for every square yard of forest there are 27 square yards of leaves or needles of trees, and all of that greenery captures a lot of rainfall. Some of it is absorbed by leaves, some filters down to roots, and some is evaporated back into the air. All those processes keep much of the water in the forest, rather than running off the land.
And the tons water vapor that results – whether evaporated from the surface of leaves or transpired from the trees themselves – create clouds that release rain in neighboring areas. So, clearcutting forests not only disturbs the immediate area, it also changes weather patterns, leaving widespread areas much drier and subject to wide temperature swings. There are other benefits, too. Cities plant trees for more than just aesthetic pleasure. Trees draw out soot and other pollutants from the air. Living in well-planted neighborhoods we find that we can breathe easier than in treeless ones.
More importantly, forests are also among the most efficient collectors of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Over the course of its life, the average tree collects about 22 tons of carbon dioxide in its trunks, branches, and roots. Some of it returns to the air when the tree dies, but most is locked up in in the ecosystem, as creatures munch it into smaller and smaller pieces that filter down into the soil, forming humus, and, if it is left alone long enough, coal.
Today, though, Wohlleben says, very little coal is being formed. With the rapid clearing of forests, fallen trees don’t get to rot, and disturbed humus is heated up and consumed, sending more carbon dioxide into the air. The filling of swamps closes off another carbon sink.
As beneficial as trees are, you’d think we’d do more to protect them. Sadly, the trajectory is not good. David Haskell took a look at data from the Landsat satellite, which has been tracking the Earths vegetation and terrain. He found that the area of land covered by forests is plunging. From 2000 to 2012, he said, 2.3 million square kilometers of forest were lost and only 800,000 regrow.
In the Boreal area – the Northern temperate forests where we live – losses outstripped gains by more than 2 to 1. These regions are also warming faster than elsewhere and experiencing more frequent fires. All this turns these forests from one of the most important carbon sinks – where carbon is absorbed and stored – to carbon sources that add carbon to the atmosphere. Warming also stresses trees by disrupting their leafing patterns, and milder weather allows pests to thrive.
Here’s where we humans might reenter the story: What are we to make of all this? What does it call for from us? It’s plain that global trends on which we have some influence are radically influencing what is happening to life on Earth. Changing conditions, of course, are nothing new. Earth’s climate and the distribution of life have evolved in many ways over time. And Darwin’s theories tell us that life will respond: some things will prosper, others will disappear depending on how well adapted they are to new conditions.
One response to all this might be: so be it! We’ll just see how it comes out. We’ll lose the hemlocks, but maybe the maples will come on. And what if one of the species on the chopping block is us? Rising sea levels, advancing deserts, resistant superbugs. Any number of trends could spell big trouble.
No, we need to find a better approach. David Haskell suggests we explore an ethic he calls “unselfing.” Essentially, it means centering our concern not in our individual interest but in the context of relationship. It’s an approach that, he says, “breaks the barrier between humans and the rest of life’s community.” And, Haskell argues, it rests in an appreciation of beauty.
Beauty, he says, is not something ephemeral. Consider that mathematicians use beauty as a guide. The best equations are those that are simple and elegant, and that points to beauty as a guidepost for truth. It is not a quality we impose on something; it is something that is inherent to it.
And it’s something, Haskell says, that scientists recognize, too. “Someone who listens to a prairie, a city, a forest for decades can tell when the place loses its coherence, its rhythms. Through sustained attention, beauty and ugliness, in their intermingled complexity, become heard.” So, he argues, “if some form of objective moral truth about life’s ecology exists and transcends our nervous chatter, it is located within the relationships that constitute the network of life.”
Once we attend to relationship – the relationship among different beings, between them and us, our thinking becomes “unselfed,” our gaze focused no longer inward but outward. And it leads to an ethic of belonging, a sense that we are part of a larger reality, which is the true context of our lives.
This is the spirit that calls people like Emerson to declare: “Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest person extort its secret or lose curiosity by finding out all its perfection.” Beauty speaks to us; it calls to us.
So, as David Haskell puts it, “We unself into birds, trees, parasitic worms, and sooner or later soil: beyond species and individuals, we open up to the community from which we are made.” And what better time than spring to do so: to unself into bark and bud, into flower and root, all these fellow beings linked with us in the thin veneer of life that we occupy on this rocky planet hurtling through space.