This is a milestone year for me: In this lovely month of May, I reached the half-century mark. As I enter into my sixth decade, I’m trying to take seriously the invitation to “fall upward,” as Richard Rohr, OFM, puts it, into the second half of my life. Hoping that I will be given a generous length of days, I want to live fully and vibrantly into my later years, growing in faith, wisdom, and generosity.
It was with this in mind that I made a resolution to visit an old-growth forest this year, for the first time in my life. I intuited that I might find in an ancient forest some sort of guidance for growing old gracefully.
Embrace the Quiet
I recently got my chance to make such a visit a few months ago, when I was leading a retreat for priests in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. After the retreat concluded, I took time to hike about seven miles through Albright Grove, one of the finest stands of old-growth cove hardwood forest in the Eastern United States.
The first thing I noticed was the quiet. It was a three-mile spur hike to get to the grove and, by then, all the sounds of human artifice had faded away. I heard only the wind, the creak of swaying trunks and branches, the babble of mountain streams, and my own footsteps and breathing. I’m used to silence from decades of contemplative prayer and meditation, but rarely have I experienced quiet that felt so alive, so comfortable and comforting. It wasn’t a void that needed to be filled; it had its own beautiful completeness.
Never once, in all those hours of hiking, was I tempted to listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook; that would have felt like a sacrilege, like blaring a boom box in Chartres Cathedral. As I age, I hope to live more and more into this kind of silence, such that whatever words I speak emerge from silence with the kind of gravity and the feeling of being grounded that I experienced in Albright Grove.
These trees and this forest have patience on a scale that I aspire even to fathom, much less emulate. What is a century to an oak that can live nearly a millennium—or to the Appalachian Mountains, which existed before any animal species lived on land? And yet far from being passive, this patience felt purposeful and powerful. As Lao Tzu reminds us: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
As I took a moment to rest at the base of a massive tulip poplar, which was easily seven feet thick and likely alive before the founding of this nation, it felt a little easier to take to heart the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s sage advice to “trust in the slow work of God.”
I’m coming to realize that anything worth doing in this life is something that will take longer than your own lifetime to accomplish, whether that’s the building of a cathedral, the work for racial justice or ecological repair, or the healing of intergenerational trauma.
This is patience on divine timescales. I hope, in this second half of my life, that I can embody more of it, as I plant trees under whose shade I’ll not live to sit.
Resurrection and Redemption
Albright Grove also taught me something about age and beauty. I had a picture in my head that “virgin” old-growth forest meant something perfect and pristine, untouched by human destructiveness. But Mother Nature deals plenty of disaster in her own right, and almost all of the oldest trees have blown-out limbs, lightning scars, and other signs of damage and decay. They are beautiful, but theirs is a beauty not of unblemished perfection, but of brokenness, wounds, and scars. These grandmother trees stand fast, even as they succumb to rot and wind and all the many wicked wounds of time. What a gift to know that as the years similarly have their way with us—and who can possibly evade the blows of time’s hammer?—we, too, can stand in our own bruised and battered beauty.
Finally, Albright Grove bequeathed an essential lesson of elderhood: the paradoxical combination of heartbreak and hope. Less than five percent of the original old-growth forest still stands in this country—and less than two or three percent in the Eastern United States. We humans are, at this adolescent stage of our evolution, a terrifyingly ravenous species. That I had to drive several hours and then hike several miles, just to find some small, isolated remnant of such ancient sylvan magnificence, is a sad testimony to our stewardship of God’s creation. There are no adequate words for the grief I felt—and feel—at what we’ve done to this land we Americans call home.
I can’t begin to understand it or explain it, but among the trees of Albright Grove, surviving so stubbornly the ravages of nature and of humankind, I felt some confidence and hope that things will be all right, in a way and on a scale that far transcends me and my lifespan. I still hold out hope that our species will finally learn to live peaceably among our nonhuman kin, rather than extinguish ourselves because we have failed in that learning.
But, either way, the trees will flourish—life will flourish. In time, cutover lands will become old-growth forests once again, and the broken and damaged webs of life will reweave themselves: Resurrection and redemption will happen. Creation will not hurry. Yet, as life thrives and evolves, God will accomplish everything.