We pass them daily, here and there, occasionally awed by the showier of their number but mostly taking them in subconsciously, as background to the more mobile elements of our world.
We cut them down by the millions for chairs and tables and newspapers and junk mail. In life and in death, they serve us in every conceivable way. They sacrificed themselves to allow us our earliest accomplishment, the prehistoric campfire that gave us warmth and kept the blackness of the night at bay. They provided the most precious symbols of our religions: the Ark of the Covenant — made from acacia. The Bodhi tree — the sacred fig under which the Buddha received enlightenment. The Burning Bush. The Cross. From this lofty station they have served, and all the way down to toilet paper. At birth we are laid in a cradle made from their yield, and at death, into a coffin of the same. Our lives are intertwined as much as any two life forms’ could be, never mind how lopsided the relationship has thus far been.
Some among us appreciate them. Some have made studying them, saving them, or planting them their lives’ work.
But perhaps most significantly, we use them as symbols of ourselves. We plant them to commemorate births, and deaths, of our own kind. This is done out of a vague recognition of the nobility that planting a tree is an act that will outlive us, and yet, even if it is a long-term investment, it nevertheless is one that can be appreciated in the seasons of one’s own life.
But I am deeply suspicious that there is more to this habit of planting trees to commemorate birth and death, a deeper connection. It is as if we recognize at a gut level that a single tree is a physical reminder of a single human being, that over and above the fact that our lives are so inextricably linked, the tree is a silent stand-in for a human soul.
Consider. Though most are larger than we are, they nonetheless exist on a more-or-less human scale. They have arms, and occasionally legs. They have personality — stately or gnarly, thorny or fruity, and infinite combinations of all these and other traits. And, like us, they have individuality. Though they have classifications and varied types, they each are unique specimens. No two are the same — the patterns of their bark no less unique than a fingerprint.
These connections and similarities seem to be more than coincidental, more than a convenient metaphor onto which we can project certain features of our own nature only to cast them off when the metaphor no longer fits, latching on to some other object in nature or science.
No, rather, I believe that the relationship between humans and trees is deep beyond anything we can imagine, that it is profound, the similarities infinite, and the parallels, divinely designed. Here is what I mean.
The universe, by definition (“uni”) is one, a single thing. And yet, insofar as the human experience is concerned, it seems to exist in two parts, like two sides of a coin. It is unified, a single thing, as a coin, and yet has two vantage points, two distinct experiences. One part is material, the other spiritual. A suitable metaphor for these two worlds, which are nonetheless one, is that the material world is like the earth under our feet, while the spiritual world is the air around and over us. One is solid, tangible, and obvious — you can stomp on it; the other is invisible and subtle, but no less real and certainly no less essential to life. They are distinct, but linked.
Everything in this material world is a reflection — an analog — of something in the spiritual world. Some have said that the physical plane is merely a reflection of the spiritual plane, or is something akin to shadows being thrown from light and objects in the spiritual realm. Another way to state it is that the physical world is an emanation of the spiritual world, that the whole universe itself is simply an emanation of the Mind of God.
In the material world or world of nature, one poignant sign or symbol of God is clearly the sun, which created the Earth by first donating a part of itself and then continuously sustaining every organism on it through its constant flow of matchless energy. (Perhaps this explains why primitive man, with his more childlike, simplistic view of the cosmos, so often worshiped the sun as God Himself, his young consciousness not yet able to grasp the metaphoric nature of the physical world.)
If one sign of God in nature is the sun, then the corresponding sign of the human spirit in nature is the tree. Consider: The tree is rooted in the material world, and yet, as it grows toward the sun, it becomes ever more glorious, reaching out to the sun, into the heavens above its earthly and earthy beginnings to fulfill its potential, the destiny written in its acorn, its intrinsic majesty. When its lowest branches, the ones closest to the material world, are pruned away, its energy and nutrients are forced into the higher branches, and as the tree grows taller, closer to the ultimate source of its life, it grows inestimably more majestic than even it was in the wild.
The tree can never be the sun. Indeed, it can never even touch the sun. It will always be a tree. But the closer to the sun it grows, the more perfect and glorious a tree it will be. It can never attain a station greater than what it was created to be, but it can attain perfections within that station, and this is what its Creator must have intended.
The physical and spiritual worlds are different in one respect: one is obvious and easily observable, the other, largely mysterious to our limited perceptions. But if the obvious physical world and the mysterious spiritual world are reflections of each other, then it stands to reason that we could use the natural world to unlock the mysteries of the unseen spiritual world. We can use nature as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decode the subtler reality that is the spiritual world. Growth and decay. Light and darkness. Morning, afternoon, and evening. The cycle of the seasons. The parallels between the single organism and the collective species. All of these broad phenomena have their spiritual parallels, or more likely, are themselves merely illustrations of spiritual realities, physical conditions that are built on a mind-boggling scale and over a cosmic timeframe for our benefit that we might learn from them.
In fact, nature seems to have been created for two purposes, one following the other like a launch rocket followed by a booster. In the first place, nature has arisen and proliferated in diversity in such a way that it has, finally, produced a being capable of relating, in some small way, to its Creator. And each creature, no matter how bizarre or seemingly disconnected to us it might seem, nevertheless has played and is playing a part in the vast and subtle web of life to which we owe our existence.
Now that spiritual consciousness has arisen in the form of the human, we can see that these creatures also can be seen to exist as living metaphors for us. I believe the web of life, whether we see a given part of it or whether that part remains in isolation, never glimpsed by the eyes of humans, nevertheless exists that we might grasp its metaphors and employ those to our improvement. The web of life is a book that has taken thirteen billion years to write, the last four billion on earth, so that we now might have the honor and the duty of reading it. (And, it should be added, this thirteen billion years represents only the latest edition, and the local edition, for, if the universe is an emanation from the mind of God, it follows that the universe can have no beginning or end, either spatially or temporally.)
Consider how the nobility of the horse or the steadfastness of the dog or the majesty of the eagle inspires us to strive for our higher nature. Who is to say these magnificent beasts were not created for that very purpose?
But let us not wax sentimental about a postcard, arm-chair version of “nature,” glossing over how brutally indifferent it can appear. Nature also puts on display for us the gluttony of the pig and the foul, opportunistic viciousness of the gila monster, all perhaps, to warn us away from our lower nature by the revulsion they elicit in us. These too are reflections of the spiritual world, stand-ins for parallel spiritual realities. Nature exists not only for the positive examples, but for the negative examples it yields. While nature in and of itself cannot really be bad, there are behaviors and phenomena we witness that trigger feelings in us of disgust, pity, fear, revulsion. The nature of the condor, the lion, and the blue whale is also the nature of the maggot, dung beetle, and mole rat.
Isn’t this a bit egotistical, anthrocentric, that everything was created simply to facilitate our appearance on the scene and then to aid in our spiritual education — the entire cosmos as an audio/visual aid? Perhaps. And yet, what is the alternative explanation? If our physical world does not exist to serve to build, then inform, then astound consciousness, what function does its creation serve? We have yet to hear an alternative answer, other than the deeply unsatisfying “none.” And why would we have been given the instinct to search for meaning if, at the end of the trail, none were there to be found? Even a naturalistic, evolutionary worldview argues for the existence of ultimate meaning, because we’ve obviously been given an instinct to seek it out, and evolution itself tells us that instincts don’t develop for no reason.
Creation is an emanation from the Mind of God. And it seems to exist for two principal reasons: as a platform from which spiritual life eventually would emerge and as a virtually infinite pool of metaphors to further inform that spiritual life.
If we accept these premises, then a vast reservoir of spiritual knowledge awaits us. So let us turn now to the business of decoding the spiritual truth about ourselves by considering more closely the life of that organism that is the natural world’s sublime reflection of the human spirit, the tree.
The Tree is available here.
Table of Contents
1 The Tree ……………………. 1
2 The Acorn…………………..13
4 The Pruninghook……………..27
5 The Arborist…………………37
6 The Forest…………………..43
7 The Orchard…………………63
8 Tree of Life…………………..79
9 Greater Heights……………….85
Epilogue: The Sister City of Our Souls . . . 91
A Note on the Source of Ideas ………99
Seven Steps to Heaven on Earth ……101
Science, Religion, and the Patterns
of Creation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
From Barbarity to Civilization:
The Transitions of Societies . . . .135
The Meaning of Life ………………145