BEING (A TREE)
I’ve been thinking a lot about trees, and reading a little about them, too. I lived with trees my entire life and missed them most of the same — though I derive small comfort from biologist Colin Tudge, who probably knows more about trees than anybody living, and whose definition of a tree is “a big plant with a stick up the middle” (Colin Tudge. The Tree (New York: Three River’s Press, 2005), 3). That’s about all I know, even though I live in a province world-renowned for its trees, especially its towering Douglas firs and thick-girthed coastal cedars. The sale of timber from our forests is one of our primary sources of wealth, and when Asians or Americans aren’t buying, or paying what we’re asking, things get lean around here.
And I live in a part of that province — southern, coastal, temperate — where trees grow big fast. A combination of things make it so. It rains torrentially for weeks at a time, but when the sun comes out it gets right down to business. There are mountains all around, and they hold, fall to spring, dense snow packs on trees their crowny heights, and then into rivers and lakes, out to ocean, so that trees have to work very hard to find most soil to bed down in. Temperatures are mild all year round, though usually every winter serves up one week of biting cold that kills nasty insects that otherwise might burrow under the bark and stunt or kill a tree’s growth.
When I first moved here, I had little money and a yard bereft of vegetation. I bought sixty dollars worth of mail-order plants, including a maple tree that, in a catalog photo, reached to the sky and stretched to the horizon, and all that summer cast a vast canopy of shade and each autumn massed with flaming red leaves, each as big as a kite. It cost me $1.99, plus shipping and handling, so I could hardly believe my good luck.
The day the delivery truck pulled up to deliver my order — a big moving van with a wide and long box trailer — I was giddy with anticipation. I signed the delivery order, and the delivery man solemnly rolled up to the door on the back of his trailer to, well, deliver my instant garden that would, in turn, deliver me from the shame of my yard’s nakedness. I waited for him to deliver, to pull down the ramp so he could forklift out my pallets of trees and shrubs and ask, “Where should I put ‘‘em all?”
This didn’t happen.
He simply handed me a packet, a cardboard oblong box about two feet by six inches, and light as bubble wrap, which it was mostly full of. Inside were several tiny boxes , labeled with their contents. The contents, stapled to the inside of each box, consisted of plastic bags with a fistful of black earth in each and, poking up from this, a frail and curling sprout. I had about ten of these boxes, and then one thing else: my maple tree. That was different. That was a stick. It was about eight inches long, branchless, with a skein of roots bundled in a small purse of burlap and held together with an elastic band.
I was crushingly disappointed. I was sorely humiliated. I felt like sending the whole thing back. I thought I was the laughingstock of whatever shell company existed out there to take my hard-earned money and send me this ridiculous and worthless pile of junk in exchange. I felt like Jack must have when he sold the cow for some magic beans, only to be told by his mother that he’d been duped and now they’d starve for his folly.
But just like Jack, I planted it anyhow.
And I could have not been more surprised than Jack when, not overnight, but soon enough, those sprouts grew into flourishing shrubs and perennials that, if I do not dutifully hack them back each spring, long ago would have taken over my entire yard.
Most amazing was the maple tree. When I got it, I cut out a little graft of lawn in my front yard and planted the eight-inch stick there.
The next day, I heard my son, Adam, and the next-door neighbor kid, Craig, both four at the time, whooping and hollering outside. I looked out and, horrified, saw Craig chasing Adam, brandishing a stick like a horse whip. What horrified me was not the imminent act of violence about to be committed against my own flesh and blood (that was a daily occurrence at the time with those two, all in good faith, and equally given and taken). No, what horrified me was that stick was my maple tree.
I went out and reclaimed my tree. I scolded Craig and told him he was ruining my landscaping, for which I had paid a substantial sums of money. Then I replanted my stick, this time in the back yard, where four-year-old boys were less likely to mistake it for weaponry, and to make my point I hedged it’s base with a ring of stones.
What happened next — and by nextI mean not that day but soon, in a few seasons — astonishes me still. The maple tree grew. It grew and grew. Within four or five years, I had to trim it back, way back. Now, thirteen years later, it looks exactly like the photo from the catalog — reaching to the sky, stretching the horizon, all summer tossing a gauze of shadow across the yard, every fall flaming red before it casts its truckload of leaves onto lawn and garden. Last year, in a vicious windstorm, a third of it fell off, a great twisted mass of boughs and leaves crashing to the earth. I bucked the deadfall up with my chain saw and, just this morning, fed the last piece of it into my fireplace. The tree itself hardly skipped a beat, and came back the next summer healthier than ever.
Trees would be miracles except we witness them daily. I know embarrassingly little about them. I can always tell an arbutus at a glance, hide or grain, but so can anyone. That tree, its gnarled shape, its waxy leaves, its skinlike texture, its sinewy wood, is so weirdly distinctive that you’d have to be the worst kind of city slicker not to see it once and know it forever. And cedar, as a broad genus, I can spot it at ten yards and, failing that, smell at three. But I get stumped, no pun intended, telling the difference between a spruce and a fir, and some trees that I know instantly from the outside — the difference between a brilliant-white birch and a dirty-white poplar — I’m less sure about when it comes to the inside.
And that is just dealing with the simplest and most obvious things about trees — their size, shape, color, bark, texture, hardness, softness, stickiness of pitch, knottiness of wood, suitability for burning or building, for making floorboards or floor joints, doors or doorframes. These are the things anyone with eyes to see can see.
The deeper things about trees — their molecular makeup, the ratio of cambium to bark in any given tree, the depth and breadth of their roots, the soil in which they thrive or struggle, their symbiotic or antithetical or parasitic relationship with other tree and animal and insect species, the miracle by which they breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, the alchemy by which they capture light in their leaves and brew it into sap — all this I have either zero knowledge about or as close to zero as one can get before qualifying for absolute ignorance.
But I’m trying to change that. I’m disciplining myself to convert ignorance into awareness, and that into fascination, and that into knowledge, and that into better stewardship. I’m doing this for at least two reasons. The first is that trees are inherently marvelous. God pulled no stops when He made this part of His creation. The sheer variety of His inventiveness is staggering. Something God invested such extravagant creativity in making I ought to invest a little more time in knowing.
But the second reason is the seasons. Trees, especially where I live, grow seasonally. Cut a tree — and we do all the time, for building houses and furnishing them and heating them once they’re up — and you notice things right away. The first thing you notice when you sidecut a tree, down its length, is its grain — right and uniform or sweeping and random, and everything in between. But the first thing you notice when you crosscut a tree, through its circumference, is its rings. The breadth of the stump, usually (depends on the species), a shaft of hardwood smack-dab in the middle, surrounded by concentric circles of deadwood. These circles, these rings, vary in size — some as thick as my thumb’s width, some thin as paper. You can count the years the tree’s been around by counting these rings, from the heartwood to the skin or the other way around. (It’s a sobering thing to burn wood that was on this earth before Columbus came ashore.)
Trees grow seasonally. That’s my point. They don’t grow steadily. They don’t grow in season and out. They grow seasonally, ring by ring. The line that marks the ring is the boundary of that season’s growth. It’s the scar of that year’s dormancy. It’s the epitaph on another death, the obituary on a brief life.
And then, impossibly, life starts again. So those rings are also trumpet blasts of resurrection. They’re stones rolled away.
So my growing interest in trees is the trees’ sakes. But it also for our sakes. My discovery is not revolutionary, but feels so anyhow. It’s simply this: spiritually, we’re trees. We grow seasonally, too — spiritually speaking — and each season of flourishing is marked by another death, another dormancy, and then another resurrection.
As I have been learning about trees, I have become fascinated (though not enough to quit my day job) by a branch of science call dendrochronology. Dendrochronology combines history of climatology with botany. It is the study of history and climate change through the minute examination of annual growth patterns of trees in a given area. If the tree is still living, its growth is examined through core samples, a thin plug of half of a tree’s diameter. A special tool bores sidelong into the tree, right to the center of its trunk, through its heartwood to its pith, and then cleanly plucks a taper of the tree. The shaft shows the the tree’s ring stratum, its annual life and death cycle. If the tree is already cut down — maybe it’s used as the roof beam of a house or meeting hall — then it can be studied by making a clean crosscut at the timber’s end (though to preserve historic sites, core samples are also taken from deadwood).
Here’s how dendrochronology works. Each ring varies in width. The width is a clear indication of the growth rate in a given year. If the tree is still living, the age of the tree is easily calculated, just by counting the number of rings from the outer ring to the inner one. Then each ring can be dated. Ring 34, for example, would be, as I write, 1974. Suppose it is significantly thicker than the next two rings on either side of it, 1972 and 1973 and 1975 and 1976. It means that 1974 was much more favorable for growing than those other years, at least in the area the tree came from. That fact can be laid alongside other facts known about those years in that place: climate records, crop records, even things like electrical bills (more or less air conditioning or furnace heat in a given year), soft drink or sun tan lotion sales, all that.
This makes it sound trivial, a lot of dogged sleuthing to uncover the obvious. Where it becomes other than than is in the study of places and times for which we have little or no written or archaeological record— ancient civilizations hose artifacts and written documents (if they had any) have largely vanished or exist only in rubble and fragments, or recount only the feats of kings and the like. Dendrochronology can show that, a thousand years ago in the desert of some part of North America, a hundred years of fertility were followed by fifty years of drought, and from that all kinds of deductions can be made — that populations grew rapidly, and mostly lived peaceably, in the hundred years of bumper crops, and then became imperiled during fifty years of scarcity, turning to bloodshed and cannibalism as the situation became desperate, an entire generation losing faith in dynastic leadership and sponsored religion (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [New York:Penguin, 2006], 136-56, esp. 138-39). And much else besides.
Where am I going with this?
If our spiritual growth is treelike, seasonal, a cycle of living and dying, then some years, even decades, are bound to be better than others. Some springs and summers are going to have the right combination of sun and rain, heat and wind, good soil and good climate. Other springs and summers are going to be cold and dismal, tundra-like, or dry and scorching, desert like. So the ground will be stunted, no matter how much you wished it otherwise.
If a dendrochronologist were to take a core sample of my trunk, she’d find certain years — 1997 comes immediately to mind — where the growth ring would be as thick as an arm. And she’d find other years — 2006 comes right to mind — where the growth ring might require a magnifying glass to see it at all.
But now we come to an irony. What marked out both of those two years, one of surging growth, the other of choking survival, was personal pain: in the first instance, a crisis in my marriage that impelled me to marrow-deep soul-searching and ruthless resetting of priorities; in the second, the death of a friend, Carol, that plunged me into a climate that was soul-withering and created a sense of futility in the very idea of priorities.
I’m not exactly sure why similar seasons produced dramatically different growth rates. Indeed, I’mdisturbed by it. Looking back, on both years, I note some differences between them that partially explain why pain was a good environment in one instance, almost inhospitable in another.
One difference was that in 1997, I was just launching my writing career. That was exhilarating— the much-dreamed-of, little-expected moment when someone was actually going to pay me to write a book and was going to all the trouble themselves to make it snazzy and profitable. It sounds petty and vain — it is petty and vain — to be so easily pleased, but there it is. All writers I know, despite their protests to the contrary, long to be published and to sell well, and not all for the right motives, either. At any rate, in 1997, I was on the cusp of all that, so my pain had a happy companion, a circumstance that could usually cheer me up just by thinking about it.
In 2006, I was writing my fifth book (this is my sixth), and it met with disappointing sales, and though I didn’t know that at the time — that it would disappoint — I knew in my bones, and didn’t much care. Writing a fifth book — and a sixth, if you want the truth — is much like having a fifth (or sixth) child (I imagine): you love it, are committed to it, but you’re so very, very tired. And in 1997, we were just moving into a season of rapid growth at the church where I pastor, and making plans to build a bigger building. Again, sounds petty and vain, and likely is, but that pleased me, too. But in 2006, the church where I pastor — same church — was carrying a cumbersome debt for the building we built. And, besides that, I had a lot of people unhappy with me. I remember (vaguely) an elders meeting in which one of the elders looked at me, told me not to take his remarks personally, then told me he felt our church was adrift in a fog, going nowhere and likely to end up on the rocks.
And all I thought was, “Yeah. So. Tell me something I don’t know.”
So the climate was different. The crisis of 1997, in retrospect, seemed a patch of wild cold weather, an unseasonal ice storm, in what was otherwise was shaping up to be a lovely spring and long hot summer. The crisis of 2006, in retrospect (of which, at this juncture, is brief), seemed like a prelude to a long dark winter, like waking up one day in September to a chillin the air that bodes a storm, and you know summer is decisively over and autumn will be short.
What’s your dendrochronology?
If someone took a core sample of your soul, what years would have a thick girth of meatiness, which a papery thinness? It’s not a bad exercise to take stock of that. I learned a few valuable lessons comparing those two years — lessons about the nature of pain, and the power of circumstances. But the best lesson I derived from my reflection is the lesson of sustainability. It’s so important, that the next chapter’s devoted to it.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
A core sample of your soul, it is truly not a bad exercise to do on yourself. For we, Christians , are commanded to do so —
“Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Don’t you understand that Jesus Christ is in you? Unless, of course, you fail the test.”
2 Corinthians 13:5 CEB
We are commanded to “examine yourselves” from God who used the Apostle Paul to write. It is just like taking a core sample of your soul. However, God does not see what humans see. People are impressed with the things you do, but God goes way beyond that. See the prophet Samuel being astonished by the choice God makes in anointing David as the next king:
“The LORD said to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have found my next king among his sons.” “How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!” “Take a heifer with you,” the LORD replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the LORD.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.” Samuel did what the LORD instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked. “Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the LORD. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well. When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the LORD’s anointed right in front. But the LORD said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.” Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The LORD hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the LORD hasn’t chosen this one.” Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?” “There is still the youngest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.” “Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.” So Jesse sent and brought him in. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. The LORD said, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The LORD’s spirit came over David from that point forward. Then Samuel left and went to Ramah.”
1 Samuel 16:1-13 CEB
Ok, I am trying to make a point here. What turns out to be good in our own eyes (my 4 four years of preparation to be one of the best youth or student pastors out there; in fact I got first place in 1986 Assemblies of God Northern New England Summer Camp for preaching), could suddenly be flipped on its head where God is less impressed with your feats although it is in His name. Or God could let you go through something where it seems like there is no possible way it works, where you go through frustration, anger, pain, misery, and depression and suddenly “work all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28 CEB).
It is not to hard for me to think of times that have been hard: the time I thought if I could make three dollars an hour more over what I was currently getting for doing what I was working for now, then that would be wonderful. And it’s not like I didn’t consult God on the matter because I did. I went up for the interview, and I got the position. However, there was a two week waiting time before I was tested for health. Now I have been a type 1 diabetic since slightly before I turned 13, so I knew how to manage my diabetes well. Yet this one instance, I was waiting a long time and glucose in my blood started to go down (normal is 80-120 mg/dl), yet mine was lower than that and it caused me to be shaky inside and you don’t act right when you have a low blood glucose. And it turned out that I didn’t get the job because of my failing grade on the testing of my health.
I was severely disappointed so much so that I barely could keep up with my regular tasks of taking care of myself. I grew a beard in order to hide my face. And my wife was sarcastically questioning me as she was dealing with her own problems at work — they put on her many other hats than the job that she was hired for giving her a 2% annual raise. During that time I was praying prayers to God sometimes angry and sometimes depressed. But that is not the story that impacted my life, although it was devastating.
But I wanted to bring you back to a little bit after my graduation from high school and my eighteenth birthday. In fact, twenty-five days after my high school graduation and eighteen days after my eighteenth birthday — I got into a major car accident on the highway coming home. I will let you read it; it’s Running With Christ. . . I’ve dedicated a page to it, so you know it is tough out there fulfilling Christ’s last command of “Go Into All The World” and fervently teach the Gospel. For it is tough out there going around fervently teaching the Gospel for Christians who don’t have disabilities that they’re dealing with, but I have several “disabilities” and I am trying to fulfill Jesus’ last command to:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.””
Matthew 28:19-20 ESV
Yet I don’t want to come off that this Christian life is easy because it is not. In fact, Jesus tells us it’s going to be hard. Take a look at Luke 9:23-24 —
“And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (ESV)
Or, 1 Peter 2:21 which says —
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
That doesn’t negate you taking a core sample of your soul and see if your rings are deep and hearty or paper thin. Just remember to look at it from God’s perspective and not your own.
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~