Since beginning my work at a retreat center in west Michigan, I have found a particular solace in trees. I have always enjoyed trees, their beauty and solidity, their timeless air and seeming unconcern for the matters of humans (even if we force our matters upon them), the way they shed beauty in Autumn and pull it back on in Spring. It wasn’t until I began my daily routines at the retreat center, however, that I started to fully appreciate the tree in what I can only call a spiritual way.
I recently spent three hours alone in a cabin called Rosewood on the retreat center grounds. I had with me several books, some snacks, and coffee. The books I brought were about trees, I was surrounded by trees, and I had a fallen log from a tree burning in the fireplace as I read. Even the pages of those books are trees, altered to pass along knowledge and wisdom. A more tree-centered experience would be hard to find.
I have, in my life, been a mixture of skeptical and intensely curious about spiritual development. I have a mind that is rational, but that craves magic. I want to know how something works, and love the mystery of not knowing. It’s a paradox. Coming to the retreat center with this mindset is grounds for thought and conflict, but I don’t find much conflict. Rather, I find new ways to learn about myself with both rationality and spirituality. It’s a surprisingly good match.
A tree, in simple terms, is a system of roots, a trunk, and the branches that flow outward from it. Root, trunk, branch. That’s simplifying it, like saying that a human is just a brain with a spine attached, but it’s only the beginning. Each of these points bears symbolic weight. The roots ground a tree, keep it attached firmly to the ground in much the same way family members can keep even the highest of egos down to Earth. The trunk serves as the connection point between sky and dirt, a strong pillar of eco-togetherness. The branches reach, yearning for sunlight and dazzling us with beautiful leaves and flowers, forever growing in their efforts to reach the sun. Without a trunk, the branches would float away and burn up in the fiery stars. Without roots, the trunk would topple and lie broken on the plain. Without branches, the roots would burrow into themselves and never see the world. It’s a system, ancient and perfect, and humanity could benefit from paying attention to that perfection because I’m not the first person to proclaim that trees might just save the world.
It is this perfection that I have come to see every time I look at a tree. I see something strong, something that is both incredibly real and an incredibly real symbol. I feel stronger just looking at a tree, like it’s secreting some secret essence that makes a human a better human (and there are some scientists who postulate that trees are doing just that in a process known as allelopathy).
That I am surrounded by these wonders every day of my life now is incredibly therapeutic. In reality, those of us in Michigan are surrounded by trees all the time, even if the density or number varies. There are not many places in rural Michigan far from a tree (and within 6 miles of a lake!). I can touch or even hug a tree whenever I feel the need. I can see them always, as long as I have a window and eyes to see. I’ve even begun to plan pilgrimages to holy places, the Redwood forests of California, or to the White Mountains of Inyo County to find Methuselah, the oldest tree in existence (that we know of and whose location is kept secret for fear of vandalism), or even to the champion trees of our very own Michigan (a champion is a tree who has been measured to be the largest of its species in crown, trunk height, and diameter). To stand next to a tree reaching 300 feet into the sky or to touch bark that is almost 5000 years old must be akin to standing and touching God.
For now, I can relate one experience that I’ve had that felt uncommonly spiritual, and it happened in the most unexpected of situations. I was at a wedding with my girlfriend that took place on the grounds of a tree nursery. I enjoy weddings, but don’t enjoy large groups. At some point in the night, slightly tipsy from the open bar and full of much good food, I wandered outside into the rainy evening. I’d heard rumors of a massive bur oak tree somewhere nearby, the second oldest bur oak tree in Michigan. The night was dark, and away from the multitude of wedding lights, I could see very little. I wandered among paths full of small trees, either stuck in pots or jammed into ball-shaped bags, themselves each a potential champion tree. Eventually, I despaired of finding my quarry, and moped back towards the crowd. As I neared the greenhouse where the guests were all dancing and singing and enjoying life, I saw a massive, leafy being, basically where I’d started my wandering. That I thought this tree would be tucked back somewhere in the woods, waiting to be discovered like Excalibur, is testament to my whimsical and romantic nature. It made more sense that the nursery was built next to this titan for anyone driving by to see.
I approached the tree hesitantly, like I was seeing a dinosaur, and marveled at its height. I don’t think I’ve ever stood so near to a tree so tall, and it felt like standing next to one of the cathedrals in France. I still remember the awe I felt in front of Chartres, and the sort of reverse vertigo at gazing up at something that towered so high above me. This felt like that, only this wasn’t cold stone, but living wood. I immediately understood ancient Celtic tree worship because had I approached this creature in a darker, more superstitious age, I would have fallen to my knees and hailed it as God. It took an effort of will for my slightly addled brain to resist the urge to do just that. Eventually, I reached my hand out and touched its bark, felt the age against my fingertips and breathed in the aura of it. As I was doing this, someone greeted me from behind. I was oblivious to my surroundings and jumped at the sound, which made this man laugh and introduce himself. He was the owner of the nursery, and we started talking shop. He told me how he’d fought to keep the county from knocking the tree down and putting in a highway. I told him about how I was trying to clone willow trees at a retreat center in west Michigan. I think he could tell how much I loved trees from the brief conversation we had because a while later, after I’d gone back to join the melee of wedding guests, he found me. He called me out, “Hey, tree guy,” he said, and he handed me a paper bag. Inside was a sapling, potted and healthy looking, and he told me that the bur oak tree out front was always sprouting these things, and that I could have it. I was taken aback at the unexpected gift, and told him that I would plant it somewhere special.
I haven’t planted that little bur oak yet. I don’t think it’s big enough to be out there on its own, despite its advanced genetic composition. At some point next year, when the weather is fine, the ground soft, and the feeling right, that little tree will find a home near to me, and hopefully it will flourish under my guidance. If my study of trees this year has done nothing else, I hope it has given me the knowledge to care for this tiny being who has the potential to become a god. That certainly feels like spiritual development to me.