Forest, Interconnectedness, John Muir, Rev. Kathy Manis Findley, Smithsonian Magazine, Trees

Our Enchanted Forest

A large limb fallen in our backyard, blown to the ground by heavy winds.


This is the time of year for celebrating trees as they put on their autumn display. Enchanted forests transform into even more magical places in this season. It can be pure glory to watch the vibrancy of fall. So I’m thinking about trees today, but I’m thinking of them with a bit of nostalgia. Several months ago our landlord had my favorite tree cut down to the ground—all the way with nothing left but a stump and an ugly, sawdust-looking mess. I was angry. I still am. The problem was the tree’s roots endangering the foundation of the house.

For me, the peril of the house’s foundation was not a significant concern. My concern was simply losing a “friend.” When we first moved into our house in Macon, I began photographing the tree, almost every day for a year, to capture its fascinating life cycle. I took photos of the leaves and the limbs and the bark, and found the tree’s transitions to be fascinating. In that time, I became attached to my Chinese Tallow tree with its beautiful leaves.

Scroll left to see a brief slideshow of a few of those Chinese Tallow photos.

Just a few months after I lost my tallow tree, a large limb in our enchanting backyard forest succumbed to heavy winds and fell to the ground, just missing our house. Behind our house, by the way, is a small forest. The forest is dense, with very large, tall trees providing a lush canopy, smaller trees providing a shorter canopy, and even smaller shrub-like trees and bushes filling in the rest. Sunlight peeks in through small areas of the thick canopy, but not enough to breach the dense foliage underneath. The forest provided shade for us, cool breezes in that part of our yard, nesting birds and small creatures, pleasant forest noises of rustling leaves and creaking limbs—natural beauty.

So, back to the limb that fell down in our forest. The landlord arrived with a small work crew to remove the limb and clean up. The small crew created big chaos in our little forest. The landlord asked them to go ahead and cut down the entire huge tree that had lost the one limb. Down came that tree. And another, and another, and another, leaving behind scarred, dusty, devastated earth. It hurt my heart. I could not look at it for several hours, as my husband described the desolation of our once-enchanting forest. Eventually, I went with him to the backyard. I could barely look at it. A lump rose up in my throat followed by anger that asked how humans dare to cut down large, living trees that may have been alive for a hundred years or more. Who gives us humans the right to do that?

I know that plenty of things (and people) harm trees. Lethal threats come in many forms: windstorms, ice storms, lightning strikes, wildfires, droughts, floods, a host of constantly evolving diseases, swarms of voracious insects.

Tender young seedlings are easily consumed by grazing mammals. Hostile fungi are a constant menace, waiting to exploit a wound, or a weakness, and begin devouring a tree’s flesh. But there is one predator whose acts are unforgivable. That predator is a human who is intent on cutting down breathing, oxygen-creating, life-giving trees.

Research tells us that the trees known as “mother trees” are a vital defense against many of these threats. When the biggest, oldest trees are cut down in a forest, the survival rate of younger trees is substantially diminished.

For young saplings in a deeply shaded part of the forest, the network of trees is literally a lifeline. Lacking the sunlight to photosynthesize, they survive because big trees pump sugar into their roots through the network.

At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Suzanne Simard and her grad students are making astonishing new discoveries about the sensitivity and interconnectedness of trees. Her research described the concept of “mother trees,” which she describes as the biggest, oldest trees in the forest with the most fungal connections. She says that the trees are not necessarily female, but she sees them performing a nurturing, supportive, maternal role. With their deep roots, they draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings. They help neighboring trees by sending them nutrients, and when the neighbors are struggling, mother trees detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, especially if what I’m saying sounds unbelievable to you. Instead, I point you to an article published in The Smithsonian Magazine website, where I gleaned the scientific information for this blog post.

Journalist Richard Grant begins his article in The Smithsonian Magazine with an intriguing question: Do Trees Talk to Each Other? The controversial German forester, Peter Wohlleben, says yes, and his ideas are shaking up the scientific world.

Richard Grant writes, “My guide here is a kind of tree whisperer. Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, has a rare understanding of the inner life of trees, and is able to describe it in accessible, evocative language. Wohlleben has devoted his life to the study and care of trees.”

Grant goes on to explain . . .

Now, at the age of 53, Wohlleben has become an unlikely publishing sensation. His book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, written at his wife’s insistence, sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany, and has now hit the best-seller lists in 11 other countries, including the United States and Canada. 

— Richard Grant

“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web,’” says Wohlleben. “All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

Grant continues . . .

Wohlleben takes me to two massive beech trees growing next to each other. He points up at their skeletal winter crowns, which appear careful not to encroach into each other’s space. “These two are old friends,” he says. “They are very considerate in sharing the sunlight, and their root systems are closely connected. In cases like this, when one dies, the other usually dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other.”

– Richard Grant

One can only be mesmerized by this botanical research that gives a “human quality” to trees and makes forests even more enchanting to us.

. . . majestic crowns approaching one another make a glorious canopy, through the feathery arches of which the sunbeams pour, silvering the needles and gilding the stately columns and the ground into a scene of enchantment. —John Muir*


Enchanted forests, trees that talk with one another, connectedness between trees—is it science or fantasy? Scientists are only just beginning to learn the language of trees. They admit that most of the time they don’t know what the trees are saying with pheromones. They don’t know how exactly how the trees communicate within their own bodies. They don’t have nervous systems, but they can still feel what’s going on, and experience something analogous to pain. Another plant scientist, Allen Larocque, says, “When a tree is cut, it sends electrical signals like wounded human tissue.”

Perhaps I should just end with these provocative words by John Muir:

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

— John Muir


*Photography by W. Toman; http://hdr-photographer.com/

Aging, anxiety, Awareness, Beauty of Nature, Bishop Steven Charleston, Change, Faith, Forest, Grace, life, Life Journeys, Living Hope, Pondering, Spirit

Pondering a Soul in Transit

“A soul in transit.” What does that phrase even mean? It sounds a bit ominous to me, like something bad couched in flowery language. Maybe like words of a poem that make little sense because they point to something otherworldly. Perhaps it means something related to a soul that lives, gets old, and dies — in transit from birth to death and beyond. Pondering!

I’m not up for those thoughts right now, because I am in the troubling place of feeling old sometimes. It’s something like aging anxiety, I think. Feeling old should not be so surprising to me since I really am kind of old. But sometimes I feel old in a bad way, the way that sends negative thoughts through my mind. Thoughts like . . .

I can’t do much anymore,
I don’t feel well most of the time,
my joints hurt,
or even, I may die soon.

It is not helpful for my soul to entertain such thoughts, even though some of them are downright truth. Pondering! You have probably heard that “getting old is not for sissies.” It holds some truth, I imagine, for those of us who have come face to face with normal aging, aging that feels not so normal at all. But what about the great juxtaposition? What about the positive exercise that puts thoughts side by side so that we can see what is life-giving instead of what is troubling? For instance . . .

I am old. — I am wise.

I feel weak. — My spirit is strong and still vibrant.

My back aches when I exert myself. — I can still move.

So much for pondering juxtaposed thoughts. They may not be all that helpful, although re-imagining so that we recognize what is spirited and sparkling about ourselves can be very helpful. Still my words on this subject are pretty empty. I think I need assurance from someone else’s words, and I can’t help but turn to a very wise and insightful spiritual guide, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose thoughts are captivating, enlightening and filled with wisdom. And on top of that, the wise bishop is the one who offered up the phrase, “a soul in transit” in the first place.

We will not grow old, not in spirit. In mind and body, yes, we will age as all things age, all making the pilgrimage through time to find the place of sources. But in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience. It is what we were sent here to be and to do. Our spirit, a soul in transit, has a life outside of time. It will not grow old because it is on loan from a source more ancient than time itself.

Bishop Steven Charleston

Still pondering! I see more clearly that the “soul in transit” has “a life outside of time.” Eternal! That is what our faith has taught us for generations, for ages, always. But it is a truth that we can barely fathom, much less find comfort in. It’s not so easy to accept a truth that ultimately represents death, even if it includes that timeless and stunning place that is called eternity. The introductory words of 1 Peter give us a most glorious glimpse of eternity, a living hope.

May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

— 1 Peter 1: 2-5 NRSV


Pondering still as I ask, “what does it all mean for me, the words, the images?” I feel much like the Psalmist who said, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1) And yet, I do search and struggle with the thought of aging, of what it means for me and of what comes next. I hear the words:

“. . . in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience.”

I hear the words, and the spirit of me understands, even if my mind does not. When I write, I ponder deeply. In my pondering this day, I am compelled to admit that I definitely feel the sting of aging. I am very human, after all! But I can usually move from anxiety to a good kind of awareness. That good awareness shows me that it is comforting to hold on tightly to the thought that the spirit is eternal, that my spirit is eternal. Dwelling on aging isolates me, but knowing in my heart that my spirit is eternal is a grace-gift that sets me free to really live.

I know from experience that pondering can be hurtful, leading me through all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But sacred pondering, the kind that allows one’s faith to sit with a problem until it seems acceptable, can open the mind and heart to the eternal and empower us to see the plans for good that God has for us, “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

So, after a time of sacred pondering, I am blessed with a fresh awareness. I can see more clearly God’s truth that my spirit will remain with my grandchildren, always. My spirit will hold on to the sweet love I have known. My spirit will immerse itself in the beauty of nature that has always been present. My spirit will run through the fields like a young person, and through the forests, it will love the trees I have always loved.

My body will do what bodies do, but my spirit will not die and will not grow old!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Contemplation, Courage, Darkness, Discovering, Fear, Forest, life, Lostness, Nature, Spiritual growth

Finding Ourselves Lost

C61646A1-BE50-4157-A898-E77F1FF191AABecause I have no sense of direction at all, I have an irrational fear of getting lost. Do not tell me to go north or south. I will have no idea how to do that. You must instead say something like, “When you see McDonalds on the right, go past it. Then go past Wendys, Burger King and Barbaritos. Look just past Barbaritos, but on the other side of the road, and you’re there.” It’s a convoluted way of making sure I don’t lose my way. And if one of those fast food places were to close down, I’m lost. 

So as I am contemplating the fear of being lost, I find in my email this morning a meditation by Richard Rohr entitled, “Practice: Being Lost.” I wanted to slip right past that meditation, as I do not need or want to practice being lost. But something held me there, captive to this bizarre meditation that described being lost as a spiritual practice.

Psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin* highly recommends wandering in nature and experiencing the great gift of “finding ourselves lost.” He calls it “Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche,” and he means that we should find ourselves lost both literally in nature and metaphorically in the midst of life’s changes.

His words remind me that at least four conditions contribute to finding oneself lost: density that conceals paths, obstacles in the pathways that force you to detour, cluelessness about direction, and darkness. I would not like finding myself in a dense forest with boulders blocking some of the pathways, hopelessly lacking any sense of direction after a few detours, and knowing that the sun is setting and darkness will make everything even worse.

And yet . . . finding myself lost as a spiritual discipline seems to be beckoning to me to enter. As a lost wanderer, I might just learn to look deeply into the face of my aloneness and discover what truly gives me life and what doesn’t. I could discover inspiration, belonging, strength, resilience and wisdom in my own company — all by myself — not knowing which way to turn. Knowing only that God will meet me there and that I can “be” who I am, right where I am, lost in a discovering moment.

As David Whyte writes:

When wandering, there is immense value in “finding ourselves lost” because we can find something when we are lost, we can find our selves . . . 

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.*   

I would like to be brave enough to give it a try in some spring wood where the verdant trees form a deep, dark canopy of privacy over my soul and where aloneness takes over my psyche. A place where God will meet me, where I can fully embrace finding myself lost, and where I might just find a few sparkles of light along the way.

I have to admit that this is a terrifying prospect for me. Darkness in a dense forest, alone, lost and scared . . . I’m just not sure about that. So maybe I should settle for the swing in my yard that’s just on the edge of the woods. Safer. More acceptable. And God will meet me there, too.

*Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library: 2003), 234, 248-249, 263.

*David Whyte, “Fire in the Earth,” Fire in the Earth, Many Rivers Press: 1992, 8.

 

 

 

 

Beauty of Nature, Discovering, Forest, Inspiration, Light, Nature, Ocean, peace, Serenity, Transformation

Beauty. Serenity. And a Spark of the Divine

4C981E9F-B1F2-4849-81D2-C7BA782BCDEE
Loon Park on Arkansas’ Lake Maumelle. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk. Entitled “Beauty. Serenity.”

In the middle of the natural beauty of Arkansas, my friend took a photograph and entitled it “Beauty. Serenity.” It prompted me to ponder that for a few moments.

Beauty. Serenity.

I wondered what in my life brings beauty and serenity to me and to those around me. The questions trickled through my mind slowly as I tried to place qualitative and quantitative strictures on beauty and serenity. (As if one could really quantify the whole of what beauty is or see pure serenity through a human lens.) My quest to try to interpret beauty and serenity went on into the night and into the rise of a new day. Still I could not nail it down. It is as elusive as a butterfly in flight, defying explanation.

As for beauty, it seems to be something I can see, something I can look at and see what lies beneath shapes and colors and texture and form. It is when something I see takes on life, and in it, I see a spark of the Divine.

To truly see beauty, I must intentionally expose myself to it and to its full potential. The blossom of a flower. The trees in a verdant forest. The ocean waves moving gently upon the shore. The sparkle of a flowing stream. The majesty of a range of mountains and the vibrant green of a valley.

In each of these visual images, I might very well see a spark of the Divine. But I must first look, and see, and linger before such beauty long enough to see its depth. I must look into a blossom and into the leaves of a forest. I must gaze upon the glory of a mountaintop and walk slowly through a valley of green. I must sit at the edge of the sea and watch the waves greet the shore.

And then there’s serenity, the state of being that always seems to escape me. Serenity is the peaceful sense of calm that envelops a person’s soul and spirit. But I must first allow it, embrace it, and welcome it. When I can do that — and I readily admit that I seldom can — the spark of the Divine I will see most clearly is the light of the spark within myself. I love the wonderfully positive affirmation written by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

We have in us a divine spark that you can see. It’s a Light that shines in the human being. It’s our direct access to truth, our direct access to God. The purpose of all the spiritual practices that exist are to awaken that spark, to give it life, to give it energy, so that it can transform you. 

God, I would be transformed. Awaken that spark within me, so that its light will become a part of my very soul, Enliven in me the spark that brings transformation to every part of me that yearns for your Divine impulse.

The spark of the Divine is beauty and serenity all at once. It is in the moments that stop us in our tracks that we can truly see the beauty around us and within us.

It is in those unforgettable moments of life’s splendor, when we allow serenity to fully embrace us in gentle arms of peace, that we finally know deep rest.

It is when beauty and serenity link arms to surround us that we can truly know the spark of the Divine within. I recognize that spark, ever so often, in just a handful of my best moments. Even for that seldom-experienced grace, I am most thankful. 

So I wish for you the same kind of grace, that you might see beauty, know serenity, and visualize, within yourself, the spark of the Divine. The blessing I leave with you is best expressed by the 14th Century Persian poet, Hafiz.

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty of Nature, Forest, God's presence, Silence, Trees

Silence and Solace

Enlight34

Sometimes all of us need a way to escape the ordinary day. Sometimes we need silence and solace. Sometimes we need the shimmering colors of a forest and the scents that waft through the trees. Sometimes we just need to leave behind all the concerns that hold us in bonds.

I imagine that my place of solace is in a forest. It’s only my imagination, mind you, because I never ever enter a forest. It’s a shame really, because I think I would be nurtured and comforted in a forest. I think I would find inner renewal and refreshment. I think that in a forest, I might very well hear God in the whispers of the branches.

Regrettably, I can only imagine. I will probably never make my way into a forest. Too many, bugs, poisonous plants, and creatures. Still I imagine spending some quiet time in a forest. I recently read a piece written by Ishmael Beah that said “The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer.”

His words confirm that perhaps the forest is a place I really do need to visit, and maybe even to hold hands with the trees and bow my head in prayer. It would be a lovely escape, a life-giving escape. It would be a place that would call to me to forget the things that worry me and hold me fast.

Patricia Anne McKillip is a creative author of fantasy and science fiction novels. One of her novels, Winter Rose, expresses the way I feel about the notion of an escape into silence and solace. This is what she wrote:

I did not want to think about people. I wanted the trees, the scents and colors, the shifting shadows of the wood, which spoke a language I understood. I wished I could simply disappear in it, live like a bird or a fox through the winter, and leave the things I had glimpsed to resolve themselves without me.

I’m off to find a forest. Before spring breaks through, I just might find silence and solace in the whispering branches of the towering, bare trees. I might even hear God.