See how the trees
Reach up and outward
As if their entire existence
Were an elegant gesture of prayer.
See how they become the breath of spirit,
In all its visible and invisible forms.
See how the roots reach down and outward
Embracing the physical, the body and bones
Of its own soul of earth and stone,
Allowing half its life to be sheltered
In the most quiet and secret places.
From “To Be Like a Tree” by Carrie Newcomer
Trees are the lungs of the earth, I read recently. This is why deforestation is so deadly to the health of our planet.
Richard Ford’s novel The Overstory is about eco-activists who attempt to disrupt tree cutting. It’s a very long book, and a lot of it is devoted to the science of trees. I found that more interesting than the actual plot, to be honest. I had not known that trees communicate with each other, warning of disruptions in the eco-system. As the messages are passed on, trees are actually able to protect themselves from disease.
This is in a forest environment, to be sure. Urban trees that are cut off from the eco-system are more easily prey to blight and pest damage because they are unable to get the message.
All of which brings me to the poem by Carrie Newcomer and the spiritual significance of trees.
I just learned of this poem this morning in a contemplative prayer group. My first thought was that not only are the trees reaching out as if in prayer, but also reaching out to other trees. However, they can’t do that if they are not rooted “in secret places.”
And so I thought of human beings like myself, being rooted in the Divine in order to be able to reach up and out to other humans on Earth, our island home.
Because everything I experience seems to be connected, this brought me to an experience I had on Monday in Boston.
I had driven a friend to Mass Eye and Ear for an appointment that ended up lasting three long hours. That meant I was in and out of the hospital a few times so I could have a cigarette. (Okay, I know some people think smoking is a moral issue as well, but it’s not one I’m going to address now.) Of course, one has to make oneself as small and insignificant and hidden as possible when one smokes. I was doing that and just about to light one up when a man came around the corner to my hiding place and lit a cigarette. He said hello to me and leaned over with his lighter to light mine. After, he reached out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Michael.” I shook his head and said, “Hi, I’m Cynthia.”
He then shared with me that he was waiting for a ride home to place that sounded as if it might have been a long-term shelter or halfway house. He asked me if I knew of it. No, I admitted, I’m not from around here. I’m from Western Massachusetts,” I said. “Ah, Worcester?” he asked. I laughed because most people in Boston have no idea how far west Massachusetts goes. “Nope, farther.” “Springfield?” “Keep going,” I said. “Orange?” I relented and told him that I was from as far west as you can go, on the border of New York. He was impressed.
“Wow, you came a long way! And now you’ve gotta go all that way back!” We chatted some more and then he said, “Well, I gotta go see if my ride is here. You take care and drive carefully.”
I thanked him and finished my cigarette. Then I walked around the corner to go back in the hospital.
“Hey, Cynthia!” a man’s voice called. It was Michael. It had only been five minutes or so since we’d parted, but he sounded as if he were greeting an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. “Hey!” I said. And then his van pulled up. He told me again to be safe driving home and we waved even as his ride was pulling out.
Such encounters have been happening to me since I was in college and out in the world, chance meetings with strangers that have made me feel as if I might have met an angel unaware. They’ve happened in other countries and in places where I’ve been warned not to go such as Harlem. They’ve happened in women’s bathrooms in bars, on buses and subways and in the grocery store and the laundromat.
What does this have to do with trees? Well, it is my firm belief that we can only solve the problems of our world if we feel we have a bond with other human beings. Like the trees, we need to be rooted in our hearts in something greater than ourselves that encourages us to reach up and out. Each time I have such an encounter, I feel blessed to be making such a bond, even if one so brief. And I feel that these encounters give each of us the ability to reach out again and again.
It is also interesting to me that the majority of these encounters have been with people one might call marginalized. I used to ponder what they could see in me that was marginalized also. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a sort of loneliness and homesickness for a place I’ve never been, perhaps a place where everyone is welcomed and embraced and loved. The place where all tears are wiped away and all the storms and pains of human existence matter no longer. I call it the Kingdom.
Above all, I believe it’s all part of the plan. I am blessed.