I am a literal tree hugger, and my husband can vouch for it. I’ve embarrassed him often by curling my arms and cheek around a gnarly old trunk. My favorite trees are the sprawling, ancient live oaks that grow where I grew up. We planted one in our backyard a few summers ago, a tiny little sprout of a thing, and it gives me inordinate joy to think that it could be alive to meet my great, great, great grandchildren in three hundred years. Or so.
There’s an ecologist named Peter Wohlleben who has written extensively about trees, and as you might expect, The Hidden Life of Trees is on my nightstand. Trees are every bit as spiritual and alive as I’ve ever imagined.
It’s been almost a year since the pandemic hit my corner of the world, and grief is coming for me.
Structure matters quite a bit to a tree, apparently. The roots of a mature tree are just as orderly as its trunk (and even deeper and wider), and the tree’s crown is symmetrical, with strong arms reaching to heaven. This combination of strong roots, trunk, and crown allow the tree to withstand extreme winds, heavy, beating rains, and snow.
“If there is a weak spot anywhere in the tree,” Wohlleben says, “it will crack.” But strong, symmetrical trees are stable enough to grow very large and live for a very long time.
Trees don’t grow like this without a thought. In fact, stability is something trees must learn. Here’s Wohlleben again:
“The process of learning stability is triggered by painful micro-tears that occur when the trees bend way over in the wind, first in one direction and then in the other. Wherever it hurts, that’s where the tree must strengthen its support structure.”
It’s been almost a year since the pandemic hit my corner of the world, and grief is coming for me. Towards the beginning of it, in my baby pandemic optimism, I wrote about how the shaking of the pandemic could be both revealing and a gift.
And this last year has, indeed, been revealing. But please dear God close the curtains already. It’s revealed structural and systemic weaknesses, weaknesses in others, and (especially) glaring weaknesses in myself.
When my oldest was 18 months old, he developed a limp. It went like this: call to the doctor, visit to the doctor, xrays, an initial diagnosis, another doctor’s visit, a visit with a specialist, the final diagnosis. In the end, it was Perthes disease, and we were very fortunate. No medical interventions, just monitoring. Eight years later, and his hips are largely healed. You would never know.
But it rocked me to my core as a parent. Despite my obsessive focus on what my son ate, and how he played, and all the other things first-time mothers obsess over, I was shocked by how little I could protect him. I realized that my job as a parent could not be to protect him from life; I could only hope to prepare him for it.
In Mary’s Magnificat, the tiny, fiery Miriam (Hebrew for Mary) calls herself blessed. I am struck by how little her life appeared blessed. The eye of God on her—and on John the Baptist, the apostles, and everyone else close to Jesus—meant trials and hardships and much suffering. Blessing from a holy God did not seem to mean for them what it seems to mean for me.
Little by little, through my son’s diagnosis and the pandemic, and a thousand other small, shaking winds, I am released from the idea that a blessed life is one which does not encounter difficulty or tragedy.
While God certainly does protect, God as a parent in scriptures seems less inclined to shield his children from life as he does prepare them for (and walk with them through) all the winds that blow so devastatingly.
“The Mighty One has done great things for me,” says Mary.1
May I learn to sing this song, too.
1 Luke 1:49