By Rev. Anna Blaedel
There is a big, old spruce tree right outside our bedroom window that I love dearly. I cannot wrap my arms entirely around it, though I enjoy trying. This tree has withstood so many storms–thunderstorms and blizzards and ice and derechos. I do not know how old this tree is but I know it is old, and has seen and survived so much. Someday it might not. Some day it will not. Recently, when storms were raging in my life, I stood by the tree for a while, nestled my feet between roots pushing through the earth, placed my hands on its rough bark, then my forehead, then the tip of my nose. I noticed the particular marks left by woodpeckers, the discarded shells of sunflower seeds tucked into bark by the squirrels who delightfully feed at our squirrel-proof feeders, the countless tiny webs woven by countless tiny spiders. I have told my closest circle not to hold it against the tree if it comes down in an overnight storm, taking me with it. I love this tree dearly.
How many trees do you know? I don’t mean identification–species, taxonomy–but the knowing born of encountering, lingering, relating, aligning?
Poet Ada Limón has written an entire (small, beautiful) book, Shelter, that is a love letter to particular trees. “To talk about trees,” she writes, “is also to talk about each other, the ways we are attached to what is living and how much we want it to go on doing just that for as long as possible. It is never only trees, but what binds us together, the trees, the roots, the eternal part of us that is both the seed and the tree.” The first form of meditation Limón learned was what she calls “looking at trees.” The meditation practice, simply: “Look, I’m looking at trees.”
A 2012 article in Scientific American reported that 3-5 minutes spent looking at trees can begin to reduce anger, anxiety, and pain. I believe anyone who spends time studying trees–and by that I mean simply looking at trees, being with trees–knows this with no need for a study.
There is a website–tree fm–that allows you to listen to trees, and the aliveness surrounding them. You can tune into forests near and far, and upload sounds of a forest near you. I have enjoyed listening to a different forest each day, but it is not quite the same as walking, day after day, among the same trees that root into the soil here, that reach up into the sky we share.
Last December, as the students I chaplain were in the anxious intensity of final exams, I took them on a mini-retreat, a walk through the trees. We looked at trees, while I read poems written to and for and about trees. Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is the Japanese version of an ancient practice that crosses contexts and continents. Sinking into the forest. Taking in the trees with our senses. Communing with them. Simply being, and being in sensual, sensory connection. Bound together. Belonging together. Breathing in the phytoncides, a gift from trees, an offering we inhale. Chemical compounds that help plants protect themselves, and offer protection to us.
Time slows in the trees, like the rhythms of our breathing, and our beating hearts. Trees, I swear, metabolize trauma. Cup our grief and absorb our tears and compost our despair and offer back breath. Shade. Shelter.
I recently learned a story about a man named Jakob Silberstien, who hid from Nazis in a hollowed out stump of a birch tree and survived. The tree stump was on the small farm where Jana Sudova lived with her 3 year old daughter, Anna. Her husband was a prisoner of war. For over six weeks she sheltered four Jewish refugees who escaped from the genocidal death marches. Eventually the Nazis forced their way into Sudova’s home, and forced her to host them. Silberstein went into hiding in the trunk, remaining there for over ten hours. He later recalled Jana saying, simply, “In the Bible it is written that when someone needs help, you must help them.” Sacred solidarity. Bound together, roots and seed and tree.
Trees reach for each other underground. They share wisdom and resources, whisper warnings and coordinate rhythms of growth, and rest. They help; they mutually aid.
Tree-sitting can get you charged with domestic terrorism, though. Or worse. Defending the Weelaunee Forest, 300 acres of trees that allow Atlanta to breathe, got Tortuguita murdered by the police last month. Tortuguita–Little Turtle–the same nickname we’ve used for my littlest niece. They were a trained medic, described by those who knew them as a loving partner, dear friend, tender heart, brave soul. A lover of trees, a lover of life and aliveness.
The Weelaunee Forest was stolen from Muscogee Creek peoples in the 1800s and turned into a plantation. In the early 1900s, it became a prison farm where inmates were forced to perform unpaid labor; slavery shifting into for-profit prison labor. The Atlanta Police Department currently uses this forest as a firing range, and wants to cut down the trees for a movie studio and $90 million police training facility. I wish we could hear testimony from the trees, how they feel about being violently replaced by a center that trains in intimidation, fear, and death. Tortuguita and the other forest defenders heard the call to help. Investing in the police, in incarceration and militarization, is a divestment from life. “Get involved in whatever ways move you,” invite the Atlanta Forest Defenders. “Take a walk in the forest with your friends.”
A friend recently invited me to a winter tree walk hosted by our local university. I responded with an easy and immediate Yes. We live in a state that is divesting from life. Divesting from public education and public health, investing in pipelines that destroy land and water and prairies and people and trees. Divesting from trans survival, investing in hatred, fear, and death. It is always a good time to walk in the trees with your friends, but sometimes it is a matter of survival, paying attention to, as Limón notes, “the ways we are attached to what is living…what binds us together.”
Storms are intensifying, and trees offer wisdom we need to survive this season. We are dust, and to dust we will return. We are stardust, and stardust we are becoming. We are alive, and to life may we align. We are soil, and to soil we shall return. We are forest, and water, and earth, bound together, and forest, and water, and earth, and each other we must defend. We are trees, and with trees we can become.
Anna Blaedel (they/them) is co-director at enfleshed, where they tend to the theopoetic intersections of spiritual, academic, and activist engagement. Anna chaplains University of Iowa students, and is a doctoral candidate in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division on Religion. Waking before dawn, lingering in poetry, being an aunt, retreating to the woods or their basement woodshop, tending the garden, sharing silence, and feeding people delicious food are some of Anna’s favorite things.