Do You Know Your Trees?


I finished reading a new book about trees on a day this week when the news around the world was once again overwhelming and terrible. In Afghanistan people were trying to escape with a desperation I can barely imagine much less, if I’m honest, consider for more than a few minutes at a time. Then it got worse: a suicide bomber. And here I was reading about trees.

Over the course of the summer, as our congregation has been able to gather together again, I’ve been listening to how we’re talking about the true and terrible reports being dispatched from all corners. It seems we have all been overpowered by the consistency of upheaval and heartbreak. There have been wildfires and earthquakes, a high-rise collapse, an insurrection to begin the year. Our emotions slide to despair as our attention lurches from one breaking tragedy to the next.

Maybe this is why I picked up Peter Wohlleben’s The Heartbeat of Trees. In it, the German forester describes a long relationship with trees. He is a careful observer and an earnest evangelist for the endless benefits experienced by those spending time beneath and among trees wherever they can be found. More to the point, Wohlleben is enraptured by the forests in his small corner of Germany. He knows these trees- the traits of soil and climate which make his forest unique, the history of logging and conservation which has shaped the forests into what they are today, the ways his neighbors appreciate – or don’t – the groves and stands which can only hint at the ancient forests which were once common in that region.

Which isn’t to say that the author isn’t concerned with the plight of trees around the world. There are chapters about climate change and some specific challenges facing forests around the world. He writes, though, rooted in his particular place among his unique trees. And this is what I noticed during a week which seemed to bring only more bad news.

The solution to our overwhelmed situation is not to turn away from the heartbreak over there but, rather, to turn toward our lives and all of the ways we are interdependent with other life, right here, wherever your here is. This ends up being simpler said than done. It can seem easier these days to catalogue a list of calamities across the globe than to see the smaller, quieter moments that make our own communities what they are.

I think, for example, about different responses to public instances of racial injustice in recent years. There are some who, learning about patterns of racial trauma and abuse by those in power, freeze in response. Their eyes have opened to widespread truths which they had previously overlooked and now they cannot not see them. As their eyes adjust to these harsh truths, they are beginning to understand that racism expresses itself not solely – or even primarily – in individual experiences but through long-standing patterns of oppression and marginalization. However, because these newly aware have not been supporting racial justice in their own neighborhoods, because they’ve ignored the local expressions of injustice and justice, what they feel is mostly a creeping despair.

On the other hand, we can imagine a person who, like Wohlleben and the trees he knows so well, has come to see her place carefully. She understands its history of racial malice, how forces of segregation and prejudice shaped what it is today; she knows the names and stories of the women and men of previous generations who labored for justice. This person isn’t ignorant of the repeated expressions of systemic racism which sometimes break into our national headlines. Like the rest of us, she grieves and is enraged. But unlike others, her connection and commitment to her place mean that her exposure to these headlines leads to discernment rather than despair. These sort of people can see the commonalities and differences between her community and others. They can show you where the momentum toward justice is that others miss. And, frankly, these are the people who are so deeply enmeshed in communities seeking peace and doing justice that the capacity to be overwhelmed in that vague, throw-up-your-hands, what-can-I-do sort of way is greatly diminished.

Finishing The Heartbeat of Trees didn’t so much make me want to learn more about German forests as it kindled my interest in the trees shading our Chicago neighborhood this hot and muggy August. I suspect this was the author’s goal. If more of us began to see the trees and vanishing forests around us, we might be less overcome by headlines about wildfires, drought, and climate change and more inclined to live gently in our own communities in ways that would address these global realities. Might the same be true about many of the other overwhelming realities we’re facing these days?

(Photo credit: Mali Maeder.)

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