Happy Birthday to the Trees!
“Consider a tree.” — Martin Buber
“The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we know how to ask.” — Nancy Newhall
“Try to understand the smallest and the greatest of G!d’s creatures. Examine carefully those which are hidden from you.” — 11th century Spanish Rabbi, Bahya Ibn Pakuda
This month’s full moon marks our tradition’s celebration of trees known as Tu b’Shevat. In Torah it’s the new year for trees. They also say it’s their birthday (cue The Beatles). Why do we do this? Aren’t we all abogut the book? Our rite of passage isn’t going into nature or touching a bear (unless you’re named Sam G.). It’s reading an old book!
Biblically, we had to know how old trees were to make sure we weren’t taking fruits from trees younger than three years old for our annual tithes, so there was the simple issue of stewardship of the trees.
One might say that’s the pshat (i.e., the surface or conspicuous meaning), or as the Zohar would say, it’s the garment of the holiday (just learned that through my Kabbalah Experience class with Sue Parker Gerson!). But if you’ve been tracking any of my blog posts, you know I like to go deeper than the bark, so to speak.
Recently I thought trees are like Torah, seemingly impenetrable on the outside, but full of flowing life inside. I thought I was all wise and insightful only to find that the kabbalists had already thought of this centuries ago. According to Dr. Miles Krassen, in his translation of the kabblaistic Tu b’shevat text Pri Etz Hadar, the kabbalists viewed nature as fundamentally sacred, and the mysteries of the cosmos and inner workings of the Divine hidden in Torah could also be learned through contemplating nature. Natural phenomena, like the growing patterns of trees and the habits of birds are all aspects of a divine epiphany. As Mary DeJong (not a kabbalist as far as I know) says, this is the theophany in the great “flaring forth” (in the words of Thomas Berry).
Rabbi Jill Hammer points out that our midrash (stories and interpretation of our tradition) says that each branch of the tree of life (in Eden) is like a complete world. Maybe William Blake read midrash?
As we understand more about The Hidden Life of Trees, we’re seeing that trees thrive in community. They care for each other, sharing nutrients through an underground, connected network of roots and fungi and “communicating” through chemical signals emitted in response to pests. Communicating? Strange? Not to our tradition, which says that all trees converse with one another and with us and provide fellowship for us mortals.
The intricacy of the connection within ecosystems is no less wondrous to me, the more I know. I can’t resist sharing my new favorite factoid that I learned about the Albert’s squirrel as I prepared to help with a Tu b’Shevat event at Congregation Beth Evergreen (thanks, Reb Jamie). There are nine subspecies of this black, tuft-eared squirrel that live in Ponderosa Pine forests. I love Audrey Dellena Benedict’s description of them in The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies, “jumping from branch to branch leaving in their wake an image that seems all ears: two inch-long exclamation points framing a face full of surprise.” The different Albert’s Squirrel subspecies are specific to the subspecies of Ponderosa Pines in the Rockies because the cambium of the Ponderosa Pine subspecies differ in chemical composition. The squirrels eat the cambium, particularly in the winter, and evidently they have quite a discriminating palate. They’re foodies!
We are also specialized. We have our own particular way of relating to nature that is our “birthright,” according to Jon Young, naturalist, mentor and teacher. If we understand it and act in its fullness, we experience what he describes as a power that moves into us, that’s called…connection.
And if we’re truly connected, and we open and empty our hearts, what comes in is love. Again don’t take my word for it. Dostoyevsky said it, “Love every leaf…love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things…And you will come at last to love the whole world with an abiding universal love.”
Bill Plotkin suggests writing a love letter to a tree (or plant, or rock, or vista). Strange? I think not. This is how we practice a generative love. Not one of need, but of giving, nurturing, healing.
So by engaging with trees and nature, we engage with the Divine. We open to entire worlds. We engage with ourselves, our hearts, our own particular ways of connecting with others and the world. We even engage with Torah.
So go tell a tree Happy New Year. Give it a birthday card. Sing it some Beatles. Thank it for all the life it supports. And see if your heart feels fuller and you feel a little more in your place in the world and the divine scheme of things.
(By the way, depending on when you read this, you may have to give your tree a belated birthday card….my family is used to that from me :-). The tree won’t mind.)