The wisdom of trees


Nature is fascinating. I learnt recently about the natural phenomenon of crown shyness this week. This is a phenomenon observed in some tree species, in which the crowns of mature trees do not touch each other, therefore forming a canopy with channels and spaces between leaves and branches. A forest can be densely populated with trees, but still the trees have adapted to give each other space. There are different kinds of hypothesis around this adaptive behaviour. Is it to inhibit the spread of certain kinds of insects? Have trees adapted this way to avoid crashing into each other in high winds? Or, a more popular theory, is crown shyness linked to light sensitivity?

I, ever the creative dreamer, really love the concept that crown shyness may simply be nature’s way of showing us we need to share our space. When we lay underneath the branches of mighty trees, trees that may have lived longer lives than ourselves, and we observe the rivets and pathways in the canopy of green how can we fail but to ask ourselves why it is that trees can cooperate and yet humans often fail to? Our arboreal friends seem to have adapted in a way that models to us humans how much better things are when we allow each other room to grow and thrive.

Our planet, our home Earth, is a place of aching vulnerability right now. We depend on this fragile spinning sphere in space for own survival and for the very air we breathe. To reach their full maturity and enormousness trees depend on a complicated web of relationships, alliances and kinship networks. Trees can only reach their full potential with the support of the soil they are rooted in and the interconnection with the natural world that surrounds them. Growth is grounded in dependence. Often, as human beings, we separate ourselves from nature. Yet, we are just as reliant on the natural world for our existence as the trees that soar above our heads. The violent nature of our changing climate – storms, cyclones, floods and droughts – reminds us that we do not have the kind of control we sometimes like to think we do.

This week in Ethiopia, a record was broken as more than 350 million trees were planted. This country-wide action was taken to counter the effects of deforestation and climate change. All We Can has been working with local organisations in Amhara, Ethiopia for a long time that have a focus on reforestation. In November, I spent time with a small group of farmers passionate about restoring a depleted watershed area in their community. They spoke about their relationship with the land with such rich language. Demetaw, one of the conservation collective, said:

“We observe the bare land, there is not forest here now. The land needs clothes too – it needs a forest.”

Often, people living in some of the world’s poorest communities, are more acutely aware of the problems that are arising from our disharmony with the natural world. Climate change is being experienced by every country on every continent, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events drives people from their homes, jeopardizes livelihoods and separates families. In the last month, we had the hottest day on record in the UK and devastating flooding in the north of the country, Artic fires continue to burn in Siberia, Alaska also dealt with intense blazes, as the state’s dry spell fanned 58 fires, and communities in Southern Africa continue the long and painful recovery from the damage caused by Cyclone Idai and Cyclone Kenneth earlier in 2019. However, in some of the world’s poorest communities, communities like the one I met with in the valleys of the Amhara region of Ethiopia, climate change is not just an occasional threat, but rather a growing and undeniable daily reality. Ever unpredictable seasons jeopardise food security and mean crops that once thrived now fail.

We could learn a lot from trees. As John Donne once famously wrote, ‘No man is an island entire of itself.’ No man, or woman, is an island. We belong to each other – and as Christians we often believe we should also be stewards of the environment and the land that sustains us. Yet, painfully, we squander God’s precious gift of our home planet and the spaces we create can become divisions and borders rather than room to grow and thrive together. Matured trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar, they give them life, and in the natural phenomenon of crown shyness they allow them to grow and to take their place in the full glory of the sunlight. The trees that fail to thrive in nature are often those young saplings that drink too excessively, chase-light selfishly and crowd other trees or leaf-shed too quickly.

One of my colleagues, Francis Njuakom, the Director of CDVTA, one of the local organisations All We Can supports in Cameroon, once described to me the wisdom of older members of the community as a canopy under which we all sit. In many of the countries All We Can works interdependence with each other and the natural world does not need to be explained, it is inherent in culture and the daily patterns of life. In Southern Africa, the concept of ‘Ubuntu’ (a Bantu term) is translated as ‘I am because we are’ or ‘We are in our humanity together’. Our world faces many challenges, perhaps the greatest of those being the climate crises facing us, but it is in our togetherness that we create spaces for solutions to emerge and it is in our unity we create a canopy of wisdom under which we all might sit, learn and find hope.

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