We are excited this week to have author Amy Julia Becker—her most recent book is White Picket Fences: Turning toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege—reflect on what some scientists are telling us about trees and how that can inform our faith. Enjoy! – Drew
Nine years ago, my family moved near a few thousand acres of protected forest. Hiking the nearby trails has become a weekly practice. Over the years, as I’ve followed the blue blazes, I’ve begun to pay attention to the trees. I’ve noticed the ones that are still alive along an eroding hillside even with their roots exposed to the air. I’ve marveled at the ones whose limbs have grown together. I’ve wondered at the mushy pulp of ancient stumps that seemed ready to become part of the soil again.
As I noticed the trees outside my door, I soon began to seek information about them, beginning with Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. I learned that some trees have lived for over 4,000 years. Others grow as wide as a small house. I listened to TED talks with scientists who explained that trees communicate to each other through their roots and through their leaves. I also read Matthew Sleeth’s Reforesting Faith, where I learned that, “other than God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living being.”
Recent scientific discoveries about trees fascinate me because of what I learn about the intricate interdependence of ecosystems. But unlike so much of modern life, trees also populated the world of the Bible, and they populate the pages of Scripture. Learning about trees has helped me understand my backyard. It also has helped me to understand how to remain nourished and connected to God.
Trees and the Spiritual Life
The opening image of the Psalter is that of a tree planted by streams of water that produces fruit in season. Jeremiah picks up on the same image. Pretty much every significant moment in the Old Testament occurs near a tree. (I credit a podcast series from the BibleProject for convincing me of this point!) Jesus tells a parable about followers who put down their roots into the Word of God. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that his readers would be “rooted and established in love.” And in Colossians, Paul prays again that they would be “rooted in Christ.” Taken together, this imagery invites us to imagine ourselves as trees with roots that go down into the soil of God’s love.
Biblical writers chose trees to describe the spiritual life, and that image is only enlivened by recent discoveries about the significance of roots to the life of a tree and the life of a forest. The root system of trees has three main functions. Roots nourish. Roots anchor. Roots connect. Similarly, when we are rooted and established in the love of God, we draw our nourishment, our stability, and our communal life from that love.
Nourished and Anchored
We are invited to be nourished by God’s love. This nourishment begins by contemplating passages of Scripture about the love of God (see Psalm 136, John 15, 1 Cor. 13, Eph. 3, and 1 John 4, to start). Paul also writes that we should turn our attention towards whatever is true and good and beautiful (Phil 4:8). We can receive the nourishment that comes from love in the conversations we have. In the shows we watch. In the books we read. In the way we spend time and money. With our roots in the love of God, we begin to receive nourishment from God’s love rather than from the shallow and arid “soil” of entertainment, consumption, and instant gratification.
We are also invited by Paul to be anchored in love. Tree roots are intended to grow both deep and wide. When a storm comes, those roots hold the tree in place so that it does not topple over. Similarly, in our spiritual lives, the love of God anchors us even in the midst of a storm.
- A recent New York Times piece describes Suzanne Simard’s work.
- Or hear Simard explain it herself in this TED talk.
- German forester, Peter Wohlleben, reveals The Hidden Life of Trees.
- For those who prefer film, you can learn more from Simard and Wohlleben in Intelligent Trees.
- Here is that BibleProject podcast series about trees.
- The founder of creation care ministry, Blessed Earth, Matthew Sleeth has written about Reforesting Faith.
Over my desk hangs a photograph of a tree in a grassy meadow in the autumn, with a blaze of orange leaves against a clear blue sky. And as lovely as that scene is, it nevertheless conveys a tragic vision. Trees are meant to grow in forests around other trees. Suzanne Simard has spent her career demonstrating the interconnected fungal networks that hold up a forest and connect trees to one another through their roots. As Ferris Jabr explains in his portrait of Simard for the New York Times, “Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest—even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals, and hormones can pass from tree to tree through subterranean circuits.” Similarly, humans are meant to grow in the soil of God’s love in relationship with other humans who are similarly nourished and anchored by that love. Which leads to the third purpose of roots. Roots nourish, they anchor, and they connect.
Tree roots that go wide connect and intertwine with other roots. As a result, the trees begin to anchor one another and hold one another up. God’s love anchors us, but when we connect with other people living in the love of God, we find that they will carry our burdens so that we do not weather storms on our own. Similarly, as we experience storms, we are supposed to look to other believers to help hold us up. As Simard and others have begun to demonstrate, the fungal networks allow tree roots to share nourishment: “What one tree produces can feed, inform, or rejuvenate another.” Along the same lines, Wohlleben explains how two trees that are close to one another in space but who have different soil conditions nevertheless can grow at the same rate. Those shared roots hold each other up and nourish one another.
Recent scientific discoveries about trees have only amplified the richness of the metaphors that the biblical writers employed when they compared human spirituality to trees. When we connect to other people who know the love of Christ in their own lives and begin to practice giving and receiving that love, we can hold one another up and share nourishment with one another. Together we can become like trees, planted by streams of water, whose leaf does not wither, who never fails to bear fruit.