Franciscan Spirit Blog

Seeing the World as Kin

Bee on a flower | Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

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.

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