Arboreal apologetics: what we can learn from the wisdom of trees

They were here before us and will be here after us. Here's what we can learn from them.

The world has handed me a microphone and asked me to yell my opinion at it, please. As a raging egomaniac, I gladly oblige. So here you are, and here I am. What should we talk about?

There’s no lack of options. My peers on the site have fascinating things to say about happiness, productivity, the nature of wellbeing.

I think I’m going to talk to you about trees for a while.

Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves all come from trees.

The Khasi people of India shape the roots of living rubber trees into bridges.

The earliest tree fossils date back to the Middle Devonian period, 385 million years ago.

I once tried to repot a bonsai tree my mom had owned for longer than I’d been alive. It died.

Trees have a theoretical maximum height of 430 feet. The tallest currently known specimen is a Coast Redwood in California named Hyperion that is 380 feet tall.

Legend says that Cativolcus, Celtic king of the Ebirones, killed himself with a poisonous derivative of the yew tree rather than submit to Caesar’s conquest.

In 1913, Willa Cather said “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” Also in 1913, Joyce Kilmer wrote “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” 1913 was apparently a big year for trees. But then, isn’t every year?

The word tree comes from the Middle English tre, which comes from the Old English trēo, which comes from the Proto-Germanic trew? , which comes from the pre-Germanic dréwom, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European dóru, which comes from somewhere we don’t know.

Hura crepitans, also known as the sandbox tree, possumwood, hura, jabillo, and monkey-no-climb, is a tree native to tropical rainforests in North and South America. Its sap is traditionally used by the Caribs to poison the tips of arrows. Its trunk is completely covered by defensive spikes. It spreads its seeds in a process known as explosive dehiscence or ballistic dispersal. Mature seed pods burst violently open along strategically weakened axes, launching seeds as far as 330 feet away at a speed of 160 miles per hour. The noise created by this process is quite distinctive and has given crepitans a final appellation: the dynamite tree.

When I was a kid, we had a small stand of young pine trees in our backyard. I once ventured out into them, armed with a pocketknife and the iron determination of childhood. I spent ten minutes carefully sawing through the base of a six-foot pine. The bark peeled off in smooth long strips, revealing the wood beneath. It was silky, beautifully alive, and so pale it almost hurt to look at in the spring sunlight. I trimmed the branches, rounded the ends, placed the discarded needles almost reverently where the tree had stood in a gesture of respect or conquest or serendipity. I still remember the stickiness of the sap, the way its sharp, clean scent drifted with lazy intention through the air.

In the great state of Utah, about a mile southwest of Fish Lake on Utah State Route 25, there is a sudden burst of yellow leaves punctuated by elegant lines of white—a grove of male Quaking Aspen trees. The grove has been confirmed through genetic testing to all be one enormous clonal organism, connected through a sprawling root system. The organism is called “Pando,” latin for “I spread.” Pando spans 43 hectares, or about the area of 2016 double-decker buses parked next to each other. It is the heaviest single organism in the world, at an estimated six million kilograms. Some have placed its age at a close to a million years. Pando germinated in an era of glaciers; scientists currently believe these were crucial to its germination and speculate that its last successful flowering was 10,000 years ago. If you ever visit, you can lie on the ground in the midst of this ancient titan and simply stare at the blue of the sky through pale trunks and leaves as yellow as a preschooler’s dreams of school buses. Recently, Pando has begun to die. We have no concrete idea why.

So. That’s 633 words on trees. We’ve covered the arboreal. What about the apologetics? You’ve just spent some fraction of your rapidly dwindling time on this earth reading a column that many would call unnecessary at best and vacuous at worst. And while you, in a lot of ways, handed me the microphone, I, and I alone, am ultimately responsible for what I’ve said into it. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously. So how can I justify using my platform like this?

The trouble with apologetics, theological or arboreal, is that they try to bridge the everyday and the extranormal with words, a task that is as inherently noble as it is consistently fruitless. Let me suggest a different approach.

Deviate from the course of your regularly scheduled day for a minute. Best do it now, before you forget. Find a good tree; I’ve found that one can usually be found in the course of a five minute walk. Walk up to it, brushing aside foliage as necessary. You might feel foolish; you might attract the gaze of concerned strangers. Ignore this. Notice the lines the branches make against the sky, the gentle tracing that the veins of the leaves make, the subtle living strength of something that inhabits a special, slower world. Press your hands to the trunk, whether rough oak or supple magnolia or peeling parchment birch.

Close your eyes.

Originally published at

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