LEARNING FROM TREES

June 2, 2019

 

Judges 9:6-17

 We have more to learn about trees than we realize. Indeed, we have more to learn from trees than we realize.

Some twenty-five centuries ago the story-teller Aesop told a fable about some trees and an ax-wielding forester. One day a forester went into the woods wielding a metal ax head with no wooden handle. A friendly old oak tree noticed the forlorn woodsman and asked if there was any way he could help. The man replied, “I need a handle for my ax. I could use any piece of wood.”

After consulting with his neighbors, the beeches, the cedars, and maples, the trees offered to the man a young ash tree from which he could fashion a handle. After using his knife to carve a new handle from the ash tree, the man fitted his ax and began chopping down the noblest trees in the forest. The old oak, watching the destruction of all the trees around him, spoke sadly, “We thought that by providing the woodsman with our little neighbor, the ash, we would satisfy him. Instead, our foolish failure to protect the weak has given our enemy the way to destroy all of us.”

Nowadays we consider Aesop’s fables, such as this one about talking trees, to be cute stories for teaching morals to little children. The story about trees giving up their little friend to appease an enemy, who later turns on all, is much easier for children to remember than memorizing some moral from the story, such as “We have only ourselves to blame when we trust our enemies.”

In his day and age Aesop had, however, more in mind than amusing children through telling stories about talking trees. Aesop offered advice to kings, ambassadors, and political leaders through cleverly crafted stories that contained lessons on diplomacy and governance in the guise of story lines we might use for animated cartoons. Through Aesop’s anecdotal stories about talking beasts and trees he addressed political controversies. Fables have at many times provided a way to address serious subjects in disarming and amusing stories.

Take, for example, the story Jotham told about some talking trees. Jotham faced an extremely threatening political problem. His step-brother Abimelek had murdered all their other brothers and was plotting to become king. To thwart his brother’s political ambitions, Jotham told a fable, a fanciful tale about talking trees. As we heard from Judges 9:8-15, one day the trees wanted to select a king. They approached an olive tree, who turned down their offer. Next they approached a fig tree, who also turned down their offer. Then they approached a grape vine, who likewise turned down their offer. Finally they approached a thorn bush, who warned them that if their offer was not sincere, they would get burned.

Aesop’s story about the ax murderer and Jotham’s story aimed at his murderous step-brother both feature talking trees. From our vantage point we tend make light of the notion of trees talking and focus, instead, on distilling morals from such stories. We dismiss the outside husk of the talking trees to concentrate on the kernel of the story, the moral of the fable. But we are being too hasty, for we have more to learn about trees than we realize. Indeed we have more to learn from trees than we realize.

According to recent scientific studies trees actually do have ways of “talking,” not with words we can hear, but they do communicate in their own ways. For example, if a giraffe starts to munch on the leaves of African acacia trees, the leaves that are being eaten will give off a scent, a warning gas called ethylene. Soon thereafter, downwind, other nearby acacia trees will take note and will likewise release the toxc gas out of their leaves, with the result that the giraffes will move far enough away to avoid the obnoxious odor. Somehow the acacia trees communicate through scent, in a sense they “talk” with one another about the danger of leaf-eating predators.

Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia has discovered that trees also “talk” with one another, if you will, through chemical signals that travel from one tree to another through fungi around their roots. The fungi cluster and form a network around the tips of interwoven tree roots. When one tree senses danger from insects, it sends electrical messages down to the roots, which in turn send to nearby trees warnings via chemical signals transmitted through the fungal network, which scientists call the “wood wide web.” Then the roots transmit the message through electrical impulses that travel up to the leaves at the slow speed of a third of an inch per second. It takes some time, but eventually the message reaches the leaves who release foul smelling toxins to ward off hungry insects.

We ought to know already that trees can communicate through scent. Every spring when beautiful blossoms emerge from trees, they send out beautifully performed invitations for us to admire them and for friendly insects and birds to visit them. The wafting aromas invite the birds and bees to gorge themselves on the delicious nectars contained in the flowers, and in the process carry away pollen on their wings and feathers which in turn sheds off into other flowers. Thus, before we dismiss the fantasy about trees talking in make-believe fables, we may want to redefine what we mean by communicating. We have more to learn from trees than we realize. 

We heard earlier in an excerpt from one of Jesus’ sermons a passing reference to trees. In a long sermon about forecasting the end of time, Jesus advised his listeners to draw inferences about predicting the conclusion of history by look at the fig tree and all other deciduous trees. “When trees sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:29-31).

When people read Jesus’ sermon, they tend to focus on deciphering the esoteric knowledge he encoded about calculating the end of time. In our concentration on his prophecies, however, we overlook the ordinary knowledge he had about trees. He knew that when deciduous trees, like the fig tree, sprout leaves, summer is coming, and presumably he also knew that when trees drop their leaves, fall is coming. From watching the leaves on the trees Jesus, and we, tell the passage of time on a seasonal basis. But that prompts a related question: how can trees tell time?

Scientists sense that trees tell the time for sprouting leaves and shedding them by discerning changes in temperature and the length of daylight. In the case of fruit trees, somehow they keep track of how many warm days have passed and after a sufficient number have passed, the trees start to sprout leaves, thus insuring that a short January thaw does not trigger their buds. Other trees somehow calculate how long day light lasts. Beech trees start growing leaves after sun light lasts for at least thirteen hours.

These skills make us wonder if trees can somehow count, since they evidently keep track of the number of hours and if trees can somehow see, since they have to recognize sunlight. Do they have a memory for tracking day lengths and counting warm days? Somehow trees know when to sprout their leaves and when to drop them.

We have more to learn about trees than we realize. Indeed we have more to learn from trees than we realize.

Over a year ago Paul Wicht, Orlando Montalvo, Jr., and I planted two rows of arborvitae trees on the parsonage property. Over the past 15 months some of them have grown more than a foot higher. This growth rate came to me as no surprise, for I assume that young trees grow fast, same as little children grow so fast.

A few years ago an international team of scientists collected data on more than 700,000 trees from around the world. When they analyzed their data, they came to a surprising conclusion. They expected to confirm what I had suspected, namely that young trees grow faster than old ones. They actually found the opposite. Older trees grow more than young trees. By old trees they meant trees with trunks at least three feet in diameter. Trees above that size and age generated three times as much biomass as trees with trunks less than one-and-one-half feet in diameter. Old trees were more productive and generated more energy than younger trees. The research showed the importance of protecting the oldest trees for maximizing the effect of trees on breaking down carbon dioxide and thus combating climate change.

I also interpret the research about aging in trees in a personal way. Getting older does not mean I stop growing up. I and all my peers who are  eligible for Social Security can still be growing, still be productive. Rather than look at aging negatively as a regression, I can see it positively as forward progress, as is suggested in Proverbs 16:31: “Gray hair is a mark of distinction, the award for a God-loyal life” (The Message).

We have more to learn about trees than we realize. Indeed we have more to learn from trees than we realize.

Back in the 1300s educated people in Europe became fascinated with reports written by travelers who had visited the distant lands of India and the Middle East. You may recall from high school history classes, for instance, how Marco Polo’s descriptions of remarkable sights he had seen in the Far East has spurred interest in learning about those exotic lands. Two other travel reports claimed to have seen in India a remarkable tree. Travel memoirs supposedly written by an English knight Sir John Mandeville and another travelogue by an Italian friar Odoric both attested to the legendary Vegetable Tree of Tartary. This tree produced fruit shaped like gourds, which contained tiny lambs, genuine flesh and blood lambs.

The reports of the lamb-plant went viral throughout educated people in Europe. Leading botanists claimed to have seen the Vegetable Lamb Tree, some even wrote that they had cooked and tasted its succulent meat.  For the next three hundred years botanical guides contained descriptions of this hybrid cross between a plant and an animal.

As you might have suspected, there never was such a plant. But reports the remarkable plant persisted for over four hundred years until 1683 when a Swedish naturalist, Englebert Kaempfer, acting under royal orders conducted a systematic and extensive study which proved that the reports of such a tree were false.

The story is more than a relic about so many gullible people believing fake news simply because it had been repeated so many times. People from medieval Europe were not the first, nor will they be the last, people who wholeheartedly believe fake news. One travesty of the story about the Vegetable Tree of Tartary is how people misaligned the meaning of tree.

The origin of the English word tree goes back centuries. An old Germanic root word DERU meant firm, steadfast, or solid. One form of the word eventually passed into Old English as the word treow, which later came to be pronounced “tree.” It is easy to see the connection. A healthy tree trunk is quite solid, it firmly holds up the canopy of the tree, and stays steadfast in place season after season. Trees are reliably steadfast predictors of time, for leaves reliably sprout in the spring and consistently fall in autumn.

Along with the English word tree, the Germanic root word DERU branched into other English words, all bearing connections with being firm and steadfast. DERU became the basis for the word trust. I can see many reasons why a tree was a physical symbol for the idea of trust. We can count on a healthy tree to sink deep roots and stand firm against practically any storm. We can rely on a healthy tree to keep us aloft when we climb into its branches. We can trust a healthy tree to stay put.

If you listened closely you may have perceived another common word derived from the Old English word for tree: truth. Both ideas of trust and truth come from the qualities of a tree. The connection is clear: in the same ways we can trust a tree to be solid, we can trust one who speaks the truth to be solid. Or to put the connection in a negative way, we should not trust someone who fails to speak the truth. Putting trust in whomever claims to speak the truth should grow slowly, as slowly as trees grow.

The story of the so many people trusting over so many years fake news about the Vegetable Tree of Tartary is an affront to the virtues of trees. It also warns us to be careful in deciding whom to trust. We have more to learn abouttrees than we realize, such as how trees “talk” and how they tell time. We also have more to learn from trees than we realize, such as how they grow the most when they are older and how they are trustworthy. May God help us take to heart the truths about trees.