Learning Life Lessons from Trees

If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.
– Rilke
The least amount of judging we can do, the better off we are.
– Michael J. Fox

The poet Rilke, in the line quoted above, gives us an image that is helpful for our time. Images are important. They are in many respects what drives our choices and our behaviors.

The late Thomas Berry, Passionist priest and self-proclaimed “geologian,” began a movement when he said that our present images of reality and of ourselves are inadequate for the challenges of our time. He worked with the physicist, Brian Swimme, to create a new Universe Story to fire our imaginations in new directions. The story covers some 14 billion years of cosmic evolution – from hydrogen to stars to planets to life to us. But for me, as with Rilke, it often comes down to the trees, and what I can learn from them.

Outside my bedroom window right now, the trees that were only bare limbs all winter are abundantly lush with new spring leaves. I especially love to see them on a clear day, their new, pale green leaves, soft and fresh, aglow with sunlight and silhouetted against a richly blue sky. Soon, however, in the dryness and heat of summer, the leaves will turn brittle, their greens deepen; some will even be attacked by insects. Right now, though, the sight of them makes we want to stop what I am doing and just stare, trying to absorb from their presence something I cannot quite even name, but sense is restorative.

Lately, I also have been reflecting on how each tree’s shape is unique, not just from type to type, the way the broad oak differs from the giant catalpa, but individually unique, even within the same species. Just weeks ago, the bare-branched shapes of our neighborhood trees, starkly visible against the sky as I walked among them, called me to reflect on how each shape revealed a story. The elements of that story include location, sunlight, wind, water, and the years that these factors played upon the tree as it grew from its seed.

Speaking of seeds, the maple trees in our backyard just recently let loose their multitudes of seed pods, each one helicoptering its way from branch to soil. There must have been thousands of them covering our lawn and driveway within a few days. They all looked the same, yet I now realize each of them has its own destiny. The thought calls me back to the image of trees as a metaphor for understanding my own growth pattern and that of others I have and will meet along the way.

As humans, we tend to judge one another by how we look and by our capabilities. We tend to favor those who seem attractive to us, who appear intelligent, well-educated perhaps, and able to respond productively to life’s challenges. Each day on my way to work, however, I pass through the city streets on the walk from the train to my office amidst hundreds of other commuters. Each one is unique. Some are clearly successful, some not so, and others obviously are barely making it, evidenced by the paper cup they hold, shaking it to jangle the few coins inside, inviting passersby to add more.

I have walked this route for two years now, and as I have done so, I have been moved to reflect on what sets me apart from others in our ability to cope and to succeed in life, and to consider those differences without judgment.

It bothered me for a time that I had no adequate answer, and no route that seemed to lead me beyond judgment. Then one day, I thought of the trees. I pictured the trees in the many woods where I have walked in my life. I saw how, falling as a seed to the ground like all the others from their mother tree, each seed had developed differently according to the environmental factors it experienced. Some seeds were lucky, and landed in open areas, where adequate access to sunlight and rainfall helped them to grow strong, tall and straight. Others landed in spots shaded by already mature trees that blocked the sun, and so spent their life twisting their own trunk into odd-looking contortions in order to reach the light they needed to survive. Some landed in areas of rich, moist soil that nourished their growth, while others rose up precariously in rocky or sandy areas where the access to nutrients was limited.

A few weeks ago, in Yosemite National Park, I sat and marveled at the small, scrubby trees that cling to tiny patches of soil that has collected in cracks and crevices on the open granite face of Half Dome Peak.

Reflecting on the life of trees, I began to see how it is the same for each of us. We are the product of our environment in the same way as the trees. There is no need for judgment. Each of us, as with the trees, came into the world with the same potential to grow up as a splendid, even magnificent, example of the species. Where we came into the world made all the difference in how our story has played itself out. For some of us, life is a constant struggle to find the nourishment and care we need to fulfill our destiny to mature and bear fruit. Others have had the right environment all along, and may even blossom early.

The main point in this for me is to begin to look upon the sea of individuals flowing through the city streets each morning in the same way that I would look at the trees in the forest or along my street, without judgment, seeing them as sprouting from the soil in which they were planted, and marveling at how each one is, in his or her own way, struggling toward the sunlight, trying to reach what gives them life and meaning.

The other feeling I want to call up as I reflect on trees is gratitude. I want to remember to be deeply grateful to all of my parents and ancestors, all of my teachers, all of my friends, all of the authors and publishers mentioned on this site, everyone who contributed to providing the nourishing environment that has helped me to grow and bear what fruit I can.

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