Kathy and I heard a sermon about the Sermon on the Mount this morning. Jeremy Duncan talked about the meek and the poor in spirit. Jesus was upending the power arrangements of the world as we seem to have them. There is a different way! He was saying that the meek really are those who are trodden upon, who have lost their place. God, he said, is for them! Poor in spirit are those who are spiritually bankrupt. The confused. Those who have no clue. God is for them! Even if we remain confused our entire lives … God is for us. There is nothing conditional about God’s embrace. God is near us, even if we never, ever ‘get it right’. And that, he said, is enough.
Maybe ten years ago or so, our friends, Charles and Cindy Petkau were moving back to Bolivia. They stopped in to see us in Calgary and dropped off two little spruce trees, each about 18 inches tall. A kind of babysitting arrangement for a couple of little seedlings. They didn’t want them back but we also knew we didn’t have a permanent spot for them on our limited urban yard space. Spruce trees become big and we already had 4 trees taking up significant room on our yard so we planted the two little toddlers on the front yard, not far from the healthy, loud, established and assertive 40-foot-tall Spruce already dominating that part of where we live.
A few years later, Kathy got me a Christmas gift. A book called the Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wohlleben. I had no idea. I know pretty much nothing about trees except that they grow, provide shade, food, shelter, beauty, oxygen; so initially I thought the idea of a hidden life inside and among trees and other plants … a bit whoozy. Trees don’t talk to each other!! Plants are cells and molecules banded together to whatever their DNA destines them to be. Right? But Wohlleben writes about communication. Community. Trees make room for each other. They look out for a weaker one among them. They have an intuition about which of them need to do well in an area, how to resist pestilence and disease … . They grow up in communion with each other?? Sap travels. The root systems send out signals and the community takes shape accordingly. I found all this a bit of a stretch. A farm boy from the 50s and 60s in Saskatchewan, I understood plant life pretty much as vegetation to be planted, managed, harvested. Wild brush and forest … well, mostly there to be tamed … enjoyed, yes … and maybe harvested.
When we moved into our house in Calgary, back 23 years, the older Spruce was already about 30 feet tall. Right beside it, the previous owner had planted a kind of willow bush. Not tall, but bushy. It took up room, almost underneath and into the side of the Spruce branches. Eventually the Willow became a bit much and we cut it down. It was then we realized that the Spruce had shaped itself around the Willow, giving the Willow room to develop. To that point we hadn’t really noticed the formation. The branches of the Spruce, rather than simply push their way through the Willow, which is what I had expected them to do, had shaped themselves in large halfmoons around the Willow. Kind of like a 20-foot embrace. Removing the Willow had left a gaping void on that side of the Spruce. Not pretty. But only four years later, the Spruce branches have moved into that gap, so that by now the Spruce looks pretty good and the void is almost entirely filled in.
But back to our little spruce toddlers. The one didn’t do well and a couple of years after planting it, I dug it up and shredded it. The other one is now about 7 or 8 feet tall. It’s in excellent health, but since returning home a month ago after being away for most of the spring and summer, I’m noticing that the branches on the side facing the tall, older Spruce are becoming woefully short and stunted and what had been a pretty well-rounded and full set of branches is rapidly becoming a bit of a lopsided-looking tree. The smaller tree is not pushing its way into the bigger tree. It’s pulling back. The older Spruce is also pulling back, away from the younger one. What is fascinating is that they know to do this without actually touching each other. Like they’re talking to each other.
So … does any of this matter? Trees and how they cooperate? I’m an amateur. Well, not even. I don’t know anything about trees. But if this little dance on our front yard among a Willow, a giant well-established Spruce and a newcomer Spruce is any indication of what happens in any forest or orchard … then we live in a much more interesting, far more intelligent, more compassionate and more connected world than I had thought.
And if trees and other plants intuitively communicate with each other and look out for each other for the better health of the larger forest, how odd then that we who are thinking and conscious human beings go to such great lengths to write rules and policies, build walls, stockpile guns and other weapons … wrecking havoc with the lives of our neighbors rather than profitably making room for each other. Most people, whether secular or in any faith group know this. Plenty of political and even religious leaders don’t seem to, but our human and divine DNA craves the goodness of a caring community. Jesus calls all of creation to himself, is all about creating space and safety for newcomers and strangers, and is for the meek and the poor and those who don’t quite have it together. ‘That’s the Gospel’, said Jeremy Duncan!! Even trees apparently get this!!