“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—there are consequences.”Robert G. Ingersoll, American Free Thinker
I love trees. I have lived in and among them for well over thirty years. I love the “official” discovery of forest therapy, that spending two hours in the woods has a positive impact on your psychological disposition for up to a month. And yes, this is a real thing, now established by legitimate scientific research. Perhaps I should credit the forest with keeping me reasonably sane for the last three decades of my life! My spouse would attest to the woods’ overall good influence on me, I’m sure.
But the forest is not just a spiritual, psychological, and emotional tonic and booster. It’s a parable, a symbol, a home, a macro- and microcosm all rolled into one.
We all know the saying, “(S)he can’t see the forest for the trees,” and its converse, “(S)he can’t see the trees for the forest.” It’s all a matter of perspective, a question of being where you are and seeing what is there right at that moment. “Mindfulness” is the new buzzword for a very old practice.
I’m not a certified forester or a trained arborist by any means, but over the years I have learned something about the trees I find in eastern Ontario, where I live, and am always interested in those I find on my travels, wherever these have taken me.
I suspect that for most Canadians and even most of the earth’s human inhabitants, trees are just a vegetative part of the natural landscape to be assumed—or perhaps noted by their absence, or lamented because of the human propensity for over-zealously cutting them down and (ab)using their abundance. According to National Geographic and treefoundation.org, just about 50% of the earth’s land surface was once forest-covered and just under 50% of that 50% has now been cut down by human exploiters.
I’m not among those who decry all tree-cutting as evil. I’m not a tree-hugger and I use a chain-saw when necessary. Trees are like every other living thing – they are “born” (“germinate”, as plants), they grow, they mature, they die over time. Some have shorter and some have longer life cycles. Some die early because of disease or injury, some are misshapen and deformed and therefore not strong enough to survive through a normal life cycle. Some are just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nature culls its own “problem children” and careful human herders cull the deformed, sick, and old of their flocks. Natural events such as tornados, hurricanes, fires and floods wipe out vast expanses of forest without any human aid (although humans cause about half of all forest and bush fires now). For humans to use trees to provide shelter and fuel is not an evil thing. Animals of many kinds use the trees to live and we do not proclaim them evil exploiters. Some even cut or rip them down (e.g. beavers, elephants). But only humans can choose to wantonly destroy and use the gentle giants of the plant kingdom just for pleasure and luxurious overconsumption.
If we take a walk in the woods or forest, or camp out in the wilderness surrounded by these majestic plants, most of us hardly give a thought to the idea that each of the trees we find around the lakes, rivers, streams, and mountains is an individual entity. Of course, as far as we know, they are not a self-aware, conscious sort of being with a personality and with which we can form a mutual recognition, like we can with many animals, but they certainly have an individuality, an individual history, a species-character that differentiates them from other kinds of trees. A spruce, pine, fir, poplar, birch, maple, apple, ash, oak, elm, or ironwood (all varieties I find readily close to home, plus many others) are not the same. You tell them apart by what they look like, how they grow, what they produce, the character of their wood, etc. – very much like we do with animal species and, dare we say, human beings!
And there are multiple varieties (sub-species) within each of the sorts of trees mentioned above, just as people of one ethnicity can also widely vary, or dogs of one breed.
But we can only carry the analogy so far. Aside from their majestic beauty, the quality of trees that most impresses me is their steadfastness, their dependability, their sturdy life-force, their continuing presence. They won’t run away because storms come up and hard times set in. They hang in there and stick with the role and the job they have been given by the Creator, or “Nature” if you prefer.
If I can have a plant-friend, trees are it. They have been with me and my family for decades. I have learned to recognize them and value each species regardless of its being coniferous (evergreen, “softwood”) or deciduous (leaf-bearing in season, “hardwood”). I have also learned something about how to cull.
When culling (cutting them down), they need to be treated with respect. They are not tame. They can hold secrets—even dangerous secrets—that can suddenly jump out and lash you, even imperil your very life. There are lots of stories I could relate—mine and those of friends or relatives—on that score.
You may not live in the woods or forest, but I’m sure you can find many parallels in life and nature to this our human role on the amazing and miraculous planet we inhabit. As well as to the forest of your relationships among the most amazing creatures of all—your fellow human beings.
On the one hand, we all just kind of happen—come into the world unbidden by the coming together of two cells in a reproductive act. Even plants have to cross-pollinate (most of them, at least). At that level, it all seems random, just “the luck of the draw”. But on the other, each of these entities is so miraculous and special, it is a miracle just in its being alive at all. And there is so much incredible variety and, still, each person is unique, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable. That person is there instead of a virtually infinite number of possibilities of others that could have been instead.
Think about that the next time when you’re relegating someone to the dustbin of your life as “such a jerk, a bother, a nasty person”, etc, or, on the other hand, when you’re appreciating them as so wonderful and special. You did nothing to deserve to exist, nor did they, but there you are. Both of you and all of us are here by the pure and simple grace of the Creator. Even if you believe we are all just random evolutionary outcomes, you have to be blown away by what you see and find, out of all the incalculable possibilities!
To me, and most people, it takes a heap more faith to believe that you and I and the trees and all the rest were just spit out by the Big Bang in some sort of totally chance + time defiance of all probabilities than to see what seems so clearly the design and act of a Presence and Being wanting it all to be. My friends the trees constantly remind me of my proper place in the big-scale of things