“Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky. We fell them down and turn them into paper, that we may record our emptiness.”
I remember the first time I saw a tree. I was 25. Seeing a tree, really seeing a tree, was unnerving. Walking across campus after class I looked at a tree and in an instant I saw for the first time the profound object that a tree is. I gazed at its design and sensed holiness. It was both poetry and inaccessibility. It possessed not a hint of human design. I knew God thought up trees. He thought them up out of nothing: leaves, twigs, bark, roots. He had a thought and we called it a tree. What sort of being was I dealing with? A Being with original tree thoughts? I remember thinking, “I could never invent something like a tree”. Despair. How can I know an Otherness like that? He is clearly not human. Apparently there was more to trees than I first suspected, if I had been smart enough to suspect trees.
Science has been discovering the same truth about trees. Recently listening to a Radio Lab podcast I was once again undone by a tree. In the episode “From Tree to Shining Tree” the hosts of the podcast discussed new science that has been proving that there is far more to trees than us humans have ever imagined (the world is always way more than we bargained for).
Previous Knowledge of Trees: They are green. They have wood. They are shady. They look their best in Fall and Spring. They make oxygen while consuming carbon dioxide. They have a number of different types. They have roots.
New Understanding: Trees are a part of a whole world of tiny stupendous miracles. It turns out trees have a friend in a small ubiquitous fungi that pervades the soil. This fungus loves sugar which trees make and trees love nutrients which the fungi is adept at providing. Symbiosis in spades. But apart from this, the fungal system is also a mystical communication device. Tree speaks to tree in their dark chemical language. A tree feels disease and warns the others. Another has abundance and shares her wealth. Most profoundly however when a tree is aware that it is dying it begins to upload its carbon into the fungal network to be distributed to the teeming host of the living, a kind of biological last will and testament. The hosts of Radiolab enlisted the help of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard to explain this wondrous interplay. Her assessment? The forest possesses “ an intelligence beyond the species.” “Intelligence?!”, interjects the interviewer, shocked by the sentient implications of the phrase. She doesn’t back down. Her answer, “The more we study the forest the more it seems to operate like a mind.” Trees thinking? Forests reasoning? Sounds like mythology. Awe is in order, maybe even tears
Mythology is overgrown with trees. Of course there is the Greek idea of the Dryads. Dryads were the spirits of trees, their lives interwoven inextricably. The Celts and other pagans ascribed certain powers to different species of trees. The Hazel was considered magical. Wands were often made from its wood. Ash trees were regarded as sacred and were rarely cut down. The foreign nations dispossessed by the Israelites had a habit of installing shrines to their gods under trees. In Buddhist mythology Siddhartha Gautama Buddha meditated under a Banyan tree and reached enlightenment. Even in modern times both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien reanimated the ancient mythology around trees in their fictional works of Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of The Rings respectively. There are many other examples throughout history and cultures, but suffice it to say, trees weigh heavily on our collective human psyche.
Mythology sees trees as sort of a conduit between the Divine and humanity. I believe that this view is true since it is what the Bible teaches. The Bible isn’t a destroyer of all myth, rather, it is often a corrector of myth. When the Gospel entered the African continent it didn’t demand that people cease believing in spirits. It helped them to understand that the spirits they were serving were not actually the most powerful, or the most holy, or the most interested in their welfare. The Bible corrected their mythology, made it truer. Tree myths are the same. Mythology says some trees have special power. Where did people get this notion? The book of Genesis explains:
“The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (English Standard Version Genesis 2:9)
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15)
“But the Lord God called to the man and said to him ‘Where are you?’ and he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree which I command you not to eat?’” (Genesis 3:9)
“He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24)
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God imbued two trees with profound power, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. One had the power to infuse with life and one the power to damn. I believe these are literal entities. There really was a tree that if you ate its fruit you lived forever. There really was a tree that if you ate its fruit made you realize you were naked, exposed to the universe, to your self. It corrupted your mind making you aware of rebellion. It corrupted your body and brought you back to the dust in shame. It seems ludicrous but those few bites contained incalculable devastation. In one bite of a pomegranate-like fruit was all the war, famine, tyranny, entropy, doubting, mental illness, turmoil, cancer and exploitation that we have come to know intimately and long to be free from. On the other hand the very thing we want most, eternal life, we are forever cut off from. The search for the fountain of youth is no silly notion! We know it is out there somewhere, but we have forgotten the way is barred. We literally die trying to locate it. Its no wonder people regard trees as profundities. Our ancestral genetics tell us, whisper in our ear, “trees are no joke!”
Trees are living metaphors. Trees proclaim a cycle of crucifixion and resurrection with their seasonal vestiges. The promiscuous green of spring screaming new life to the world, the raucous green of summer full of doing and vitality, the dazzling, golden death of fall, the austere anticipatory bareness of winter that creates a deep longing for spring and a repeat of the cycle. Trees acting out the Gospel narrative arc in one-year increments and getting larger, better as a result of the reenactment.
Metaphor is one thing, significance another but intelligence, is something altogether more. Mythology grants a sentience to trees. Science seems to corroborate. The Bible, it would seem, agrees. The prophet Isaiah says, “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:10-12)
And I Chronicles 16:33 says, “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth”
And Psalm 96: 11-13 echoes, “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth.”
I might be tempted to write these verses off as mere poetic hyperbole, and many have done just that, except for what Paul says in the 8th chapter of his letter to the church in Rome. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves…” (Romans 8:20-23 ESV).
The language here is undeniably the language of sentient creatures. “Longing,” “eagerness,” “groaning” seems odd without at least a rudimentary awareness. When God shows up everything knows Him by name, everything comes more alive. The Lord of Hosts is here! Trees singing and clapping seems like the least they should do. Maybe creation hasn’t grown silent. Maybe we have grown deaf. Maybe the world, the universe is way more alive, more aware than we know.
That we have impaired faculties should not surprise us. We rebelled. We were banished. The trees, the fields, the sea are the innocent bystanders to our treason. Maybe the malevolence we feel in a dark wood, the disquieting feeling that we are not welcome is not the woods being evil, but being aware that we are. We are the malevolence. An ancient rumor in the dirt tells of our fall. The trees whisper it along. We are dangerous. Our Folly has cost everyone dearly.
All of this is maybe a reason why I felt so undone by that lone tree on campus all those years ago. There was, however, more to the story. In the moment I thought, “How can I know an Otherness like that?,” another set of thoughts occurred to me. The Being with original tree thoughts has not left us alone. He sent His son. He came to the rebels. A tree was killed and hewn into beams. The Creator of all trees was hung on it. He was swallowed by our curse. Winter fell in the world. The Creator was slain. Bleakness settled on the land, but here we must remember the metaphor of the tree. The Tree Maker cannot be imprisoned by the winter of human rebellion. Spring must come! The King of Life cannot be stopped because death is not his equal. He rises and offers to all who trust in His work on the tree access to the Tree of Life once again! I think we can fairly say that the bumper sticker stating, “Trees are the Answer” is, at least in part, true.
- RadioLab, "From Tree to Shining Tree." WNYC Studios, Podcast, June 2016, https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree/.