How to Be a Tree

These days I think of myself in terms of tree-ness.  Trees have somehow waylaid me—gotten into my blood, wormed their way into my dreams, planted themselves in circles around my mind. These curvaceous sirens of scent and sap and flagrant wildness can get to you in whatever shape or form. Who can resist a spreading acacia, a flowering dogwood, a purple Jacaranda? Who does not swoon at the sight of a weeping willow? Or be captured by the fairy-tale magic of the ceibo tree? Not to mention the come-hither sway of a languid palm. You know you can’t resist. They stop you dead in your tracks. In fact, I often try to imagine being a tree, and how wonderful it must feel to be still and stately and beautiful and so very rooted in the earth.

It’s good to think of yourself in terms of tree-ness, and I’ll tell you why: Trees are the guardians of the earth, standing watch over creation in clusters or alone, in winter or summer—barren or blooming. They just stand. But it’s an active kind of standing. Change defines the tree’s very existence: a cherry blossom here, a ripening plum there, a new bud, a green sprout—even the gnarly trunk grows gnarlier with age. And one cool morning, a verdant leaf, quite used to basking in its silky green softness, wakes up to find itself brittle and golden—and barely hanging on.

And all of these goings-on happen in the surest of all knowledge that change will continue, unrelenting.  Even in the tropics where I live now, the trees never quit moving within their stillness, growing barren and stoical in the dry season only to become giddy and emerald and fruit-bearing during the rainy season. All this change means that life is not easy for the tree. There will be droughts or floods or worse, lightening, the ax, or—heaven help us—the conflagration. Bad things do happen to trees—ask the Lorax from Dr. Seuss, he’ll tell you. But despite all these facts of life and death, the trees of the world still stand as monuments to stillness-within-change, a moving magnificence, and who would not like to be just that?

But don’t think it’s all for show. The tree doesn’t just stand around looking pretty. Creatures on two legs and four depend on it for breathing—for the very oxygen of life; high up in its leafy branches, a robin delivers fresh worms to open-mouthed young; a blackbird sings opera from a bouncing twig; a sulky child climbs its trunk seeking refuge from the world of adults; in summer heat, an old cow luxuriates in the tender mercies of its shade; young lovers roll together under its discreet canopy; monks and seekers and Buddha himself find enlightenment under its boughs.

And all the while the infinitesimal changes of the tree burst forth—a democracy of countless explosions of energy, alive and swirling together into a singular burgeoning beauty.

The tree is a noun within a verb, a gerund of perfect equanimity—and that is one reason to be a tree, a very good reason when you think about it. Who doesn’t crave a little equanimity? You can take any tree you want, any season, and simply be that tree. The whole key to being a tree is what you do not see, that is, what lies beneath in the loamy darkness below. It’s roots burrow down deep for nourishment and stability, for here in this dark and restful place peace reigns, even in the painful season—even when winter’s cruelty strips all its leafy loveliness away. During those stark times, when life on the surface has left the tree vulnerable and fruitless, the invisible roots speak to it of spring in the nurturing voice of Julian of Norwich: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  

So many people these days only believe in what they see, as if only the surface of things really matters. They live in the forgetfulness of roots. They forget Helen Keller who found peace in the depths of total darkness, in the rootedness of herself and in the embrace of an invisible, dark, loving God. For the dark richness of a rooted life brings out one’s soul, one’s spiritual moorings. When I was a young minister in a Gothic-style church with congregants awaiting some message from my unsteady voice, I was saved into confident equanimity by the Tree of Life tapestry hanging over the sanctuary door, reminding me of my purpose and my roots. Without that tree to root me to the floor, to the pulpit, to my message, I might have fainted straightaway.  Even now, I write with a the tapestry of tree above my writing table, for without it I might never have the courage to write a single word.

Every great religion and philosophy and mythology holds the tree dear—a sacred symbol for the interconnectedness of all life.  But do we think enough about the roots? How they go deep and wide and connect to other roots even when, on the surface of things, the trees seem impossibly separate and starkly alone. Perhaps, from time to time, we could be persuaded by Gerard Manley Hopkins “freshness deep down” and simply rest quietly in the nourishing darkness of our roots.

One breath is all you need to be a tree:

Breathing in, “I am a beautiful tree”

Breathing out, “I am rooted in peace.”

You see it all in one breath—your tree-ness, your magnificence, and your rootedness in the mysterious web of life. And if you do this often enough, if you breathe yourself into a tree, something wonderful happens. Your colorful, changeable, surfacy life of wind and rain and sunshine and sorrow gives way to your quiet, deeper self within the nourishing womb of the earth. Here, peace awaits—whether we name it God or Christ or Buddha or Tao or Heaven or Allah or Mother Earth or simply Peace. Peace, says Alfred North Whitehead, is that “Harmony of Harmonies, which calms destructive turbulence . . .” and “enlarges the field of attention.” (Adventure of Ideas, 285). In the dark embrace of Peace, everything goes wide, and we know that we are no longer alone.

This is what it means to be a tree: to know ourselves as beautiful in our particularity, but also to know that we are part of something deeper and wider—and loving. Especially loving. To know our tree-ness is to know that we are a part of the bark and the sap and the sprouting and the soil; it is to know that we are made up of the same ultimate stuff as trees—quivering flashes of purpose and beauty and unrelenting bursting-forths of fresh possibilities, one right after another.

If we can practice being a tree, it is inevitable that we will fall hopelessly in love with trees, and not only with trees, but with the birds and cows and monkeys and everything that finds refuge in or under a tree. Maybe this is the beginning of something—something more than mysticism and symbolism, more than even our own equanimity. Maybe this is the key to saving the trees and the air and the rivers—and even ourselves. Maybe it starts with simply being a tree.

**You can also read this essay with photos (see a ceibo tree!), as well as peruse many other multi-media essays at:  Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism: Process Thinking for a More Hospitable World

Blessings and Peace,