Following a Conversation with a Tree

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18 NKJV)

On a recent hike in our city’s Arboretum, I came across a small plaque. It showed the picture of a log cabin, built in the early 1800’s, that stood in that spot until the 1940’s when the Manhattan Project swept almost all the local homesteads away. The plaque told the story of the family that lived there, and the fortunes of its young sons, most of whom died in the American Civil War. It continued their saga up until the time of the cabin’s destruction. It was a story that, no doubt, rhymed with those of other families in the region, with but varying details. The plaque’s purpose, however, was to draw attention to two young oak trees in the photo, standing near the cabin. Those same oaks now stood, some 200 years old, as silent witnesses of all that had passed in the lives of that family. The photo, I thought, gave the trees a voice, a chance to speak of all they had seen.

I had another such experience recently while watching a program on the plight of the American Chestnut. They once comprised about a third of the Eastern forests in America, but were nearly driven to extinction by a blight brought in on imported trees in 1904. The forester in the program noted a few unharmed stands, and the slow efforts to nurture a blight-resistant tree. He noted, off-hand, that he fully expected the Chestnuts to return to something of their previous position over the next thousand years.

Both of these experiences made me think of “tree years,” to consider how the world looks to the slow vision of something that lives for hundreds, even thousands, of years (I was, of course, reminded of Tolkein’s Ents). In a world of 24/7 consumer-oriented “information,” it is difficult to see anything in long, slow, terms. We are increasingly more like mayflies and less like trees.

My grandparents were born in the 19th century, and witnessed the vast changes of the modern landscape. They were country people, largely occupied with farming and such, and were very slow to adopt technology as it came along. Indoor plumbing was quite late for one set of grandparents. I recall watching one grandmother continue to do her laundry outdoors in a set of washtubs (probably procured from a Sears catalogue) even after the plumbing was installed. They never seemed to be caught up in the news of the day or to give much attention to the “wide-world.” They were trees, recalling years of poverty, war, depression, and the constant blur of fashions, while remaining planted where they were, and steady.

The providence of God is far greater and deeper than a tree-story. The gold that we value so much and use in so many ways, was forged somewhere in the supernova of a dying star, eons before our own planet was formed. It is but a trite example of the whole of our existence. We live at a point in time that is but the crest of a wave that has been unfolding for over 13 billion years (at least that’s what they say).

That same notion struck the Psalmist, who wrote:

“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3–4)

The work of God’s providence surrounds us at all times, though our hearts are frequently out-of-tune with the eternal hymn of its working. We are deeply aware of every offense against goodness, every tragedy, every rumor of evil, while we constantly ignore how we are preserved in health, delivered from danger, and overshadowed by God’s brooding goodness. In the math of good and evil, the miracle of our very existence seems to be factored as a zero.

There is a great gulf that separates us from the Psalmist. He saw the heavens, and knew only the vaguest evidence of their wonder. At the same time, he lived in a world where infant mortality would have approached 30 percent, and 50 years of age would have been thought of as well-preserved. He would have lived in a world whose dangers, at every moment, far exceed anything that touches our lives. He was, nonetheless, certain that God was mindful of him, and visited him.

I have come to think that the doctrine of divine providence is more readily seen by the old than by the young. For the old, most of life is “in the rear-view mirror,” while, for the young, it rushes towards the windshield at ever-increasing speeds. In hindsight, the hand of God seems clear, and, mostly, unmistakable. It is a mysterious working, particularly when I see good come out of seeming evil.

When most of the Fathers wrote about the divine energies, it was God’s providence they had in mind. St. Gregory Palamas defended the teaching that the energies were sometimes perceived directly as the Uncreated Light. As a young man, I longed to see what St. Gregory described. As an old man, I realize that I too long ignored that vision of the divine energies marveled at by the Psalmist. It is that vision that unfolds most completely for us when we give thanks always and for all things.

The voice of thanksgiving is, without exception, the sound that we can utter that is itself in harmony with the song of the universe. It is filled with tree-knowledge and star-wonder, confounding the lies of the enemy and those who would drown us in darkness. The Uncreated Light manifests itself in the created light, and in all creation that is light, some of which has slowed down enough for us to walk on.

Glory to God who has brought us from non-being into existence and set our feet on the path of praise. Glory to Him in all created things that sing His glory. Glory to Him in tree-friends and star-songs and the wonder of all things.

Photos: At the top – Unknown monks in an unknown tree. At the bottom – Myself and my grandson, Eli, sitting by one of the tree-witnesses mentioned in the article.

34 comments:

  1. WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
    by Mary Oliver

    When I am among the trees,
    especially the willows and the honey locust,
    equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
    they give off such hints of gladness.
    I would almost say that they save me, and
    daily.

    I am so distant from the hope of myself,
    in which I have goodness, and discernment,
    and never hurry through the world
    but walk slowly, and bow often.

    Around me the trees stir in their leaves
    and call out, “Stay awhile.”
    The light flows from their branches.

    And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
    “and you too have come
    into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
    with light, and to shine.”

  2. BE PATIENT LIKE A TREE
    by Rainer Maria Rilke

    Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterwards summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast… patience is everything!

  3. Cursed is the man who puts his hope in man, and who will strengthen the flesh of his arm in him, and withdraws in his heart from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert. He shall not see when good things come, but shall dwell in salt lands along the sea and in the desert, in a salt land where no one dwells. But blessed is the man who puts his trust in the Lord, for the Lord shall be his hope. He shall be like a flourishing tree alongside the waters which spreads its roots toward the moisture. He will not fear when the burning heat comes, for He shall be like the root in a grove in the year of drought. He shall not fear, for he shall be like a tree that does not cease yielding its fruit. (Jer 17:1-4)

  4. Yes, Fr. Stephen, thanksgiving places us in harmony with our Creator and with His creation. I enjoy the rearview mirror of the old, also. Are there things I would have done differently? Undoubtedly. Yet I can only praise God and give Him thanks for the innumerable blessings that I see scattered throughout my life and in the lives of family and friends. I’ve seen and felt the ancient bristlecone pines and giant Sequoias. Ancient wonders. Yet they are impermanent and will one day be no more.
    My oldest sister was placed in hospice yesterday. She could pass from this life at any moment. Her outward person is perishing, as you note above, but her inner spirit is still being renewed even while at death’s door. She is dying a believer and that makes all the difference. She is getting ready to put aside the old tent and be clothed with light and immortality. She lived a life of thanksgiving and gratitude. Thank you sis for your faithful life and witness. Glory to God for your life and for all things!

  5. Thank you for this holy guidance. What worries me the most is the existence of evil and human suffering (i.e., the suffering of innocent people )

  6. i live in near urban Kansas. In the section of land my house is on(my wife has owned this land and the house for many years, 8 other people live. Just north only 4. Yet east and west of me many more and a casino is only a couple of miles away. The trees on my wife’s land are all dying. Short-lived varieties but persistent in regrowing. The land is much older of course but nothing in the created universe is really old. Nothing compared to the deep wisdom of God. It is a reality that I have been blessed to encounter primarily in the eyes of both my late wife and my wife now. My late wife lost a lot of that due to sickness and circumstance, yet I have a prayer rope she made near the end of her life. A 50 bead rope. Each bead so precisely made it would take a micrometer to tell the difference in size. Each bead has nine knots in it. Then there is the cross on the bottom cosisting of six more beads. She prayed continually while she made them as prescribed by our tradition and the manner in which she learned the craft. That still shines with the love of God.

    My living wife, whom I married 12 years ago, I married because her eyes shone with the love of God. She was received into the Church shortly after we were married. Her eyes still shine with God’s radiance despite the pain that afflicts her almost constantly.

    That is not the uncreated light, but it is closer to it than any tree and far older and far more real than even the earth under my feet.

    Oh, and then there is the overwhelming reality of Pascha that we are one again approaching, the trampling down death by death so that “whosoever believes in Him may have everlasting life”. By God’s grace, I know my late wife is in that realm despite all her struggles or maybe because of them. She, who managed in the midst of those struggles, to craft such a testimony to our never ending communion with our Lord as we pray and give thanks:

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. As we do, if we do, His mercy flows and eternity beckons. No matter what we suffer or what trees fall. I see it every time I pick up my late wife’s prayer rope or look into my living wife’s eyes.

  7. This post touch you deeply too, Esme. Whenever I see a stand of trees which in Southwest Florida is unfortunately a rapidly disappearing pleasure, The Orcs of development a re rapidly destroying what is left of an already fragile ecology. But while reading Father’s beautifully poetic essay, my despair is quieted and I am succinctly reminded all things are in God’s good hands. As Fr Damick wrote last night, Great Lent is a good time to read some Tolkien. Thank you Father for your graceful and blessed writing

  8. I remember reading Tolkien as a young whippersnapper of a teenager and marveling at the Ents…so slowww they were to talk and make decisions. Yet their wisdom is unparalleled in Middle-Earth.

    Peace never hurries, and all is accomplished.

  9. I know this is getting into the weeds of your post, but I’d like to bring attention to something.

    “There is a great gulf that separates us from the Psalmist….At the same time, he lived in a world where infant mortality would have approached 30 percent, and 50 years of age would have been thought of as well-preserved.”

    According to Psalm 89 (LXX), our lifespan is 70-80 years, with the Psalmist noting that it is longer in some instances. The Psalmist appreciated his life more than the modern man, and attributed it to God, who preserved him through his proper attention and focus, but I don’t think he lived any less. We are no further ahead, we have modern medicine, but also modern diseases, from the modern diet and modern lifestyle.

    In general, I appreciate your posts and prefer to remain silent, but there’s something about the modern myth of progress, that somehow people all died young and it’s thanks to modernity that we can live past the age of 50, that really irks me. Why would the Psalmist say otherwise? And if it was untrue, why preserve his account?

    Forgive me if I’m taking what you said out of it’s intended context.

  10. Michael,
    I’m sorry that you found that paragraph irksome. I’ve got several thoughts in response:

    1. The Psalm (89) is referencing “life span” which is not the same as the average or common age at death. Human life span (“three-score years and ten, and perhaps four score”) has not changed over the centuries. That’s still an expected “span.” However, disease, accident, and other health factors can significantly shorten how much of his “span” a man actually lives. It is demonstrably the case that more people live out their span than ever before. This is particularly true in the case of infant mortality.

    2. I daresay you’ll not find anyone who has written more critically of the ideas associated with modernity than me (at least among Orthodox authors). But, that said, it is not the technology of our age that should be faulted. Modernity is a set of ideas, largely created in the late 18th century and beyond. Along with those ideas has been a massive “sales” campaign. That campaign is full of falsehoods, one of which is that modernity should be credited with vast technological improvement that would not have occurred with modernity’s philosophies. That is simply not true. What modernity did with technology was to figure out how to monetize it. Pretty much all of the technological advances of the past 250 years have been in pursuit of profits. That is also a real problem. However, in the critique of modernity that is entirely appropriate, I find that the criticism of technology is a false strategy. Attack the ideas, and deconstruct the false claims. Technology is a hallmark of human life from its earliest times and is not the enemy.

    3. I do not think it to be the case that non-modern people, or people within the time of the Scriptures, were healthier and long-lived. The New Testament seems to give evidence to lots of poverty and disease – paralytics, lepers, blind, and plenty of beggars. Archaeological evidence does not support the notion of a healthier, long-lived population. Again, there is a big difference between life span, and actual average years lived.

    Thus – I would say that you’ve misconstrued Psalm 89. But, I have my pet peeves as well and things that irk me. God give us peace!

    Of course, the point of the paragraph was to note that our easier lives and technology seem to be met with ingratitude. God give us grateful hearts for all things.

    BTW. Here’s a link on ancient mortality rates.

  11. Blessings Father.
    A real masterpiece. You write as if it were your last, your swansong. Perhaps it is. If so, you enter into a blessed rest, and go from a world of madness to sanity.
    Peace and health, and preservation here for our sakes is what I wish for you.

  12. Shannon,
    By God’s grace, it’s not my last. I am aware of aging and have had a heart-attack in the past. I take decent care of myself, but mortality is a given. I think about dying – because we’re supposed to. But I have ever-so-much to live for, and will likely continue writing until I no longer can. It is a joy.

  13. I love the trees; they can have great age or short lives as Michael mentions concerning the trees in Kansas. Living here in the Sierra Nevada foothills in central California, I am a short distance from some of the oldest (and largest) trees in the world. Every time I am near them, I marvel at God’s creation and its wonderful diversity. See you Father, near a tree with your grandson, reminds me of a picture that I took of my granddaughter Anna standing at the foot of the General Grant tree (2nd largest in the world) where she is totally dwarfed by the immensity of the tree. I wish that I could post that picture here. Glory to God.

  14. Fr. Freeman,

    I know what I’m about to say probably won’t contribute much of anything. But it’s becoming clear to me that Creation Ex Nihilo is not really part of our imagination. I think the reason is that our view of Providence in America, shaped mainly by Calvinist construction, though it affirms creation from nothing, makes it imaginarily impossible to believe it. What I mean is, you don’t experience existence itself as a miracle, if it is really a given. In the imagination we really believe in an eternal universe, though we deny that. The universe is God’s mind and in our imagination everything that has happened or will happen has already happened. It is a given. And this imagination creates difficulty with really anything miraculous, because miracles only seem as such, if they happen deliberately in response to/as the outcome of a decision in God. When God practically has/makes no decisions, but just is, and when whatever happens just is, existence is a given, not a gift. If you were a pantheist, and I don’t know how to imagine really being a pantheist, I wonder if existence would be a gift or not. I assume it would be more a given. I have come to realize that there is no conceptual way of affirming free will in God or us under Christian views of providence where it ends in conceptual pantheism. And I think St. Palamas understood this is where the EE denial led.

    So, to conclude, at least conceptually, real freedom in God, seems quite necessary to have an imagination where existence is a gift. Our imagination, and I almost always argue in this realm, the imagination, is ruined by views of Providence where it is a given, it just is – because God has been reduced to something and is no longer Someone. The language of Scripture constantly denies such a view. God works, is working, moving, knitting, calling, rescuing, redeeming… The affirmation that God governs history never takes away from being personal in the Scripture. Things are usually always described as inter-activity/action. Even Genesis is this interactivity between the Persons of the Trinity and the host of heaven. The static God is nowhere to be found in the Bible. I just find for myself, that to create a proper imagination, I have to have my malformed imagination deconstructed.

    Thank you for your effort and stimulation..

  15. jacksson, Kansas has few indigenous trees. My grandfather with my Dad homesteaded in eastern New Mexico starting in 1905. No trees there to this day. Scrub mesquite and grass. My Dad often told the story of how his Dad almost died when he traveled in winter the half days journey to get wood one winter. Coming back my grandfather got snow blind and almost did not make it back.
    Both of my parents had formation stories in which their identity and interelationship with The Creator centered on the expanse of the prairie and the almost infinite horizon.

    So the horizon and the earth herself, fecund in almost infinite variety has a much stronger place in my heart than any tree. Trees get in the way.

  16. Finishing up… The non-factor of existence in the calculation of good/evil (Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds is a math problem after all) is to blame I think on what I just mentioned. It has no effect on the math because in the end, it just was. On top of this though, in the math problem, the end – since it too is synonymous with Will must be exactly what God desired. The result is assumed and then the problem is created. Like 332= x + t + etc. All terms in the equation will be a given. Honestly, it feels quite evil to me describing God in this manner now. This synonymous nature of God’s decisions/actions/creations with God himself and with matter itself and whatever happens, all being Will/Willed, makes existence a given. I think that is the easiest way of putting it Will/Willed are the same thing. It is Essence/Energy being equated. If existence = E then when you add E into the equation, it’s function/value has already been determined by the result. But this means all values added before the result are also equally meaningless as the end determined them all. It all adds up.

    The only antidote to this thinking, and I’ve told you I was Reformed so I’m more prone to this – but when shootings happen or tragedy and the first thing out of someone’s mouth is God took them home/it was their time – it shows the social imaginary is very Reformed in my mind — the only antidote is a regular presentation of God from the Scripture/Tradition that shows God is Active Persons and a strict adherence to the rule that “secret things belong to the Lord.”

  17. I could have said equally meaningful, but the result is the same in the end. When everything is either equally meaningful or meaningless – having no real bearing on the result – what difference does it make? Sorry to go on..

  18. Matthew,
    Thank you.

    Exactly why the “process of Evolution” has such a strong hold on our imagination. The ” billions upon bilions of stars” are somehow greater than the Incarnate Creator that only speaks in the still small voice within and out of the seemingly barren desert. Pagans like the Druids worshipped trees. I have always seen a bit of that mindset in the description Tolkien gives of the Ents. I have never been a fan of them.

    My parent’s testimony to His intimate presence in seeming vastness revealed Sagan’s unctious arrogance and deep ignorance instantly apparent long before I was Orthodox. It still makes me almost physically sick.

    We do not live or come to being by process but by the mercy of our Incarnate Lord.
    Everything else is subject to death as we are reminded by the Church during Lent “But Sunday’s comin’ ”

    Blessed Lent and Pascha to you and forgive me, a sinner.

  19. Michael,
    Yes, pagans worshipped trees (at least some of them). It must be remembered the central role given to trees in the Garden. I see in that misguided pagan worship, an echo and a longing that would, at last, be revealed in the tree of the Cross. We do not worship trees – but, like the womb of the Virgin, trees participate in our salvation, having offered one of their number to the Lord as the Bed of our salvation, His throne of glory.

  20. Should have said “Who only speaks” not that. Ah, the proverty of my soul revealed in small things. God forgive me.

  21. Father, good reminder. I don’t think I said anything in opposition though. The obedience of Creation is deeply significant.

  22. … and of course the Troparian of the Nativity:…”those that worshipped the stars were taught by a Star to worship you, the Son of Righteousness…”

  23. Thank you Father, as always. I am an iconographer and a chief joy of this praxis is that it affords me many opportunities to reflect on , give thanks for, and be overwhelmed with awe for the beauty of creation. Recent scientific discoveries show that the miracle of gold on earth is even more miraculous than you suggest (formed by a star that has gone supernova). It was formed by the collision of two neutron stars — the likelihood of which is estimated in this article as happening once every 100,000 years! Gold is considered a noble metal, meaning that it is chemically stable and will not corrode. You could say it is eternal (at least, compared to us). That the death of two stars and their unlikely collision produced the gold that I use to gild haloes to represent the glory of God gives me chills. Indeed: Glory to God! https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/origin-of-gold-found-in-rare-neutron-star-collisions/2013/07/17/a158bd46-eef2-11e2-bed3-b9b6fe264871_story.html

  24. As a result of this conversation, I really looked at the trees in my parish icons particularly the icons of The Nativity, The Baptism and Crucifixion. There were several trees that resembled an three bar Cross. Others that seemed to have a Trinitarian symbolism. The only tree in the Crucifixion is the Cross.

  25. Yes. The Cross transforms the tree does it not. Given the sermon on seeking transformation and holiness by our assistant pastor, that seems to fit.
    I had never really looked at the trees in the other icons before. Some are there, I think, for artistic reasons but others clearly presage the Cross.

  26. Christ Is Incarnate!

    Yes, trees in the Bible and iconography are quite interesting. I am working on a liturgical garden (including the classic Cedrus libani, Cupressus sempervirens, and Pinus halepensis) and am trying to fit the [sycamore] fig in, but I’m not sure how it fits. Is it the 4th wood of the Cross somehow, or did the cursing preclude that? It sure pops up a lot, from the middle of Eden to Zacchaeus’s little adventure. Always more mystery!

  27. David, I know almost nothing about Milton and only a smattering about Arianism other that St. Athanasius’ Treatise On the Incarnation. The Michael Bauman of whom you speak is much more knowledgeable that I am.

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