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What Trees Can Teach Us About Weathering Pandemics

A tree is an icon of strength and fortitude, always enduring, and always finding some way to yet again burst forth into new life. In short, it is a survivor. As we navigate life in the age of COVID-19 and grieve our loss of normalcy, what can we learn from the strength and resilience of trees?

It’s been two months since the coronavirus reared its ugly head, throwing you and your family into a completely different way of living and working. You may be grieving the loss of a job or retirement savings, a long-planned wedding or a child’s highly anticipated senior prom. You miss going to the ballpark, the community festivals, and hanging out with friends after work. You long to hug your parents or grandkids, and your heart aches to visit a loved one in a nursing home or hospital. As you sit at your makeshift home office or the kitchen table you share with your kids as they attend school from home, nothing seems to make sense.

I recently found myself unable to concentrate on work, and my aimless gaze settled on the large tree in my backyard – a tree I have seen day in and day out for years. As my gaze became more focused, I realized what a grand old tree it is. I found myself staring in wonder, as if I’d never seen such a thing before. This marvelous intricate composition of nature framed my view of the sky, with roots anchored in the rich earth and tips reaching to the high heavens. I decided to sit for a bit and ponder its presence, looking for any wisdom and strength it might have to offer.

I thought back to how this tree reliably marks the seasons, continually changing its clothing to suit the weather. I’ve seen it sparkle with ice, pirouette in the breeze, bloom in foliage, rustle with life, put on a show of color, and then gracefully let go, allowing everything to be stripped away until its underlying structure is fully exposed. It endures year after year, its gnarled and twisted branches bearing witness to its age and power. It seems content to let the scars and ravages of time be displayed as badges of honor. 

Beyond its obvious strength, the tree gives of itself without even trying, simply as part of its nature.  Swarms of birds fly through every available opening, sometimes alighting for a moment’s rest and sometimes taking up residence. My family has often relaxed in its shade, and taken pictures of its beauty.  As the tree processes the carbon dioxide it needs to live, it releases pure oxygen into the air, free for anyone to breathe in fully.  When eventually it dies, it will provide firewood in abundance. 

On uncommonly windy days some of the tree’s branches, especially those that are weak or dying, blow to the ground. Yet the tree holds fast, even when the wind is joined by a driving rain in a furious storm burst. It is an icon of strength and fortitude, always enduring, and always finding some way to yet again burst forth into new life. In short, it is a survivor. 

I am aware of the tendency of humans to anthropomorphize other living things, and I realize I’ve come perilously close to assigning human emotion and will to a tree. A tree, after all, simply does what it was created to do.  It doesn’t need to wonder what type of leaves it should sprout, or whether its branches should grow in this direction or that. We creatures with a brain have the more difficult task.  We have to evaluate, choose, question, and risk. Yet there is a web of connectedness between all living beings, and lessons worth learning.

A few questions I ask myself:  

  • How willing am I to be flexible, to change even what I believe is pretty good in response to what the situation demands of me?   
  • Can I let go of my weaker branches and even my outer appearance when necessary, or am I too concerned about hanging on to everything at all costs?   
  • How astute am I at understanding ways in which the world is changing, and preparing myself for an unpredictable future? 
  • Do I cling to the pretense of always “having it all together”, or am I willing to admit my fears and weaknesses, even willing to show my scars and wounds to others? 
  • Do I give by my very nature? How am I supporting those that are suffering far greater than myself, without judgment or exclusion? 
  • Am I grounded and confident enough to withstand storms of doubt and criticism in order to do what I believe is right?   

The questions could go on and on. If only the answers were quite so apparent. Yet as my life continues to change in ways I never would have imagined as this year began, I am determined to pursue them, in hopes that I can become as strong and resilient as this worn and weathered old tree. And perhaps, if I take on the challenges with grit and purpose, I might emerge from this crisis a little wiser than I was a few short months ago.

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