Birds flying from trees
Franciscan Spirit Blog

Seeing the World as Kin

Apr 21, 2021
Seeing the World as Kin | Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Through the eyes of love, we see a tree as kin to us, a fellow God-made creature,
with its own dignity and its own right to live and grow.

I love trees. Our home is nestled in the rolling woods of southern Indiana, so I have plenty of opportunity to spend time among these woody companions. Though I have but scratched the surface of what can be learned from and about trees, they constantly amaze me.I’ve come to believe firmly that trees, like all of the natural world, are a sacrament of God’s being and a model for the possibilities of what human life could look like, well-lived.

From their deep roots to their skyward-reaching branches, they bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Healthy forests, as forest ecologists have increasingly proven, are so interwoven among and across species that it is probably more accurate to think of a forest as a single organism. In sharing nutrients, in working together to moderate microclimate and to ward off pests, they show us what a healthy, diverse, pro-social, highly cooperative human community could be.

Trees create immensely strong structural material out of water, sunlight, a few minerals, and thin air—all the while, sequestering carbon and building up topsoil. Doing so, they rival any manufacturing process ever conceived. In their elegant, solar-powered design, they make our human engineering seem utterly elementary and crude.

Healthy forests model frugality, resilience, and adaptation as they weather adverse conditions. At the same time, they are generous and hospitable, providing homes, food, and plenty of other benefits for countless other creatures. And in all of this, they are patient on a scale that we humans can hardly fathom. A year or even a decade is a blink to an oak that can live centuries or a redwood that can live millennia.


A Learning Journey

But good things don’t necessarily come to those who wait. Over the last few months, our rural electric co-op, as part of a project of relocating power lines to a more convenient location along our rural highway, has cut down scores of trees. Beech trees and sycamores a century old, healthy cedars, shagbark and slickbark hickories, oaks, maples—all of them got the death penalty for the mere crime of being in the way of human plans.

Whenever I think of it or drive along our stretch of highway, my heart hurts. Lest you think that I’m overly romantic or impractical, I should admit that in more than two decades of heating exclusively with wood, plus some selective timbering, I’ve logged plenty of hours with a chainsaw myself. It has been a journey for me to come to appreciate trees as much as I do now, to see them as creatures with their own intrinsic worth, rather than simply as scenery or as board-feet of lumber or cords of firewood.

On some level it has been a learning journey but, really, it has been a journey of affection and love, of allowing my heart to be gradually opened, much as it has been in my marriage, to the beautiful, particular reality of another creature—even nonhuman creatures like trees.

It’s that journey that has helped me to begin to doubt the myth of progress that is behind what happened on our highway. The natural world is disorderly and dangerous, goes this myth, so we need to bring all of nature under our control, ensuring and increasing our comfort, convenience, and safety—and generating plenty of profit in the process, as we turn natural resources into money. Nature may be nice, but the priorities of human beings shall not be thwarted. If you want a power line to go in a certain place, you cut down the trees that are in its way.


What If?

More and more, I think that myth is just plain wrong. What if, instead, we realized that control, comfort, convenience, and safety are not the be-all and end-all of a good life, and that in pursuing them so maniacally, we’re actually guaranteed to end up with the opposite? What if we began to place our faith in a different sort of progress, whose markers are the diversity, health, and resilience of both ecological systems and human beings? What if we stopped trading community for commodity? What if we directed our collective intelligence and willpower toward integrity, patience, and gentleness, rather than efficiency, speed, and power?

Here is my prediction: We would be quite a bit happier, and our planet’s oceans, atmosphere, forests, prairies, creatures, and topsoil would be in far better shape. We’ll learn this new faith by starting to look with eyes of love, which is the only way we’ll truly see the beauty and mystery and wonder of God’s creation.

Through the eyes of love, we would see a tree as kin to us, a fellow God-made creature, with its own dignity and its own right to live and grow. So when we did cut trees, we would do it with respect and reverence, cut no more than we absolutely had to, cut no more old-growth primary forest, waste nothing, and try to make of those trees something at least as lovely and useful as what we took.

Treating the world with this kind of loving care will probably mean that we end up with fewer material goods than we’re used to, or less convenient access to our power lines (or, egads, fewer power lines and less power). But on the other hand, maybe we’ll also end up with true beauty instead of mass-produced ugliness, true community instead of loneliness and isolation, true meaning instead of addiction and endless entertainment. For us Christians, maybe we will end up truly following Jesus, who pointed our gaze toward the lilies of the field rather than the power of Rome or Jerusalem. It doesn’t seem like a bad trade at all.

In the video below, I discuss the splendor of the world around us. Enjoy!


Wed, 04/21/2021 - 12:39 PM
What a beautiful reflection! Kyle is a terrific writer.
Wed, 04/21/2021 - 01:00 PM
As children, my Dad gave my siblings and me a great love of nature. He was forever growing anything and everything in his huge garden. Many nights after supper, my younger brother and I would follow Dad around the yard as he checked on recently grafted apple and pear trees, watered and fertilized the garden, and marveled at the trees, flowers, sunset and the clouds in the sky. His love for natural beauty and God's gifts truly became his gift to all of us kids. Thanks, Dad. And thank you, God for the beauty that makes up our beautiful world. May we learn to care for it more deeply every day. P.S. I too am saddened when so many trees (some of which are old growth and still very much thriving without any disease) all in the name of progress. It's not progress. It's a huge mistake that, unless remedied, will have negatively impact our future and those of generations to come.
Wed, 04/21/2021 - 09:00 PM
Though i agree that trees have intrinsic worth, we should never forget that animals, who are sentient creatures of God, do so too. Other mammals and birds should not be used merely for our momentary p!easure. This means we should not eat them, experiment on them, use them for target practice, and otherwise abuse them. Unlike trees, they have nervous systems similar to that of humans. To disregard their suffering for our pleasure indicates a selfishness that is sure ly not pleasing to our Lord.
Thu, 04/22/2021 - 03:55 AM
Hello Kyle, Great article, I pray I may encourage you to engage in a dialogue regarding the premise in your piece. Growing up in the Great Depression I look at our level of recycling and acquisitive nature as abusive on its face. Unfortunately, the clerical teaching(s) we have been receiving has led our spiritual actions in an inappropriate direction. I currently work in a lumber mill and have a wood ministry at my church. I supply wood for those who still cook and/or heat with wood. We have a wood shed on our church campus and I try to keep it stocked and those in need take as needed. No names, no paper work, no megaphone in our bulletin. I pray to hear from you (and others). Love, hank ([email protected])
Fri, 04/23/2021 - 04:25 PM
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Kramer in his appreciation of trees. I have lived on some wonderful properties with trees I considered my friends. I could be called a "tree hugger" and be proud of it. I'm afraid some of this sort of thing becomes political. Any reference to trees as sacred is attacked as whacko. But people like Thomas Merton have referred to things in nature as "saints:" trees, lakes, mountains, birds, etc. All are praising God. Amen.
Fri, 04/30/2021 - 06:42 AM
When I recite the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven", my mind always goes to what is possible with our cell phones when you click the function 'restore factory settings'. How majestic and beautiful the earth would have been in its pristine, original form, when all of nature, what biologists call ecosystem, was really a system of complementarity and growth rather than one of superiority, class struggle and decline in our sense of connectedness with nature as efficiency in production lines increased. kyle's writeup calls for a paradigm shift. It captures the yearning of many hearts. it's a campaign I am totally in agreement with. It's the path to wholeness. It is...., it is...., it is..... Thanks for sharing.

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