Trees of Life

A few weeks ago, I went on a pilgrimage to a tree. Yes, a tree. A single, extraordinary tree named Pando. I’ve loved trees my entire life – their height, shade, spread, and grandeur, the distinctive beauty of each one. When I was little, I drew hundreds of pictures of trees. Despite their uniqueness, each individual tree looked remarkably like the others – a thick brown stick with a green cloud-like puff at the top. One tree, two trees, three . . . sometimes I would draw an entire forest of these trunks and leaves.

Pando lives in Utah, some five hours north of Las Vegas, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, on the edge of an isolated lake. Until I journeyed there, I thought of trees in much the same way I had since childhood. A tree. A dozen trees make a grove. A hundred make a wood. A thousand a forest. But Pando is a tree. A single tree. Pando is a quaking aspen that covers more than a hundred acres. While it appears to be 47,000 trees, these are the stems of one root system. What looks to be individual trees are not. They are connected. They are one. And Pando is the largest, heaviest, and oldest living organism on the earth. A single tree.

As I quietly walked on and through Pando, the leaves seemed to welcome me to its mystery: “I am life. The tree of life. We are one.”

When the gunman killed eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue, my heart seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces. So many months of racism and bigotry and hate-inspired violence. And the last week—with the bombs, the shooting at the Kroger, and then the mass murder at Tree of Life—has felt emotionally harder; perhaps our sadness has compounded like interest on pain, ache on ache on ache.

Much of our recent political discourse has been more damaging than mere divisiveness—it has been brokenness. Broken hearts, broken relationships, broken families, broken communities, broken dreams, broken lives. I have several clergy friends who have been fired from their jobs for preaching discomforting sermons; my own brother cut off communication when I challenged him in the wake of Charlottesville. I’ve heard hundreds of such stories since November 2016.

Yet, as I reflected on Tree of Life, the whisper of the Pando aspen haunted me. The breeze in the delicate leaves, like the heart-flutter of the forest, spoke: “We are one. We all are one.”

The most obvious lesson of Pando is clear: We are connected. My friend, retired Episcopal priest Ed Bacon, says that Pando embodies what a score of spiritual leaders, mystics, and moral teachers have always proclaimed:

Dr. King often described the human condition as being “caught in a network of mutuality so that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Thomas Merton, just weeks before his death on an Asian journey, had told a gathering in Calcutta, “We are already one but we imagine that we are not.” Frequently I [have] knit together King and Merton with Mother Teresa’s analysis of our world’s ills: “We have forgotten that we belong to one another.”

Pando is a living illustration of that oneness, a real tree that brings the symbolic Tree of Life to life.

But something else is happening at Pando as well. It is in trouble.

The pilgrimage sponsors have written:

Pando is now under threat from human activities — from cattle grazing, an exploding deer and elk population (due to the elimination of predators), misplaced development, and the impending prospect of radical climate change. Marvelous in its beauty, astounding in its age and extent, Pando is a fitting image of our common life together, now under threat, and our ability to endure.

Paul Rogers, Pando’s lead scientist and fellow pilgrim, was quoted by The New York Times: “It’s been thriving for thousands of years, and now it’s coming apart on our watch.”

When hearing the news from Tree of Life Synagogue, I knew what I was feeling. We are connected, yes. But, somehow, on our “watch” our connections appear to be “coming apart.”

In Utah, committed scientists like Paul Rogers are doing everything possible to restore Pando, to heal it, and help it thrive. If that is true for the tree, we, too, must do everything possible to tend our communal Tree of Life and cultivate the connections that make for a just and compassionate society.

If you are feeling tired, frightened, worried, sad, or hopeless, think of the Tree. Remember we are one.  Tend the forest.  Plant kindness, joy, and justice today.   We can do this.  We can save this tree.  Together.

Visit Diana Butler Bass’ website here.

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