Walk out and look up
February 16, 2022
Today I’d like to share the secret to life.
Where might I have found this great wisdom?
Dr. Phil? Nope.
TikTok? Definitely not.
No, I found this great wisdom by doing something very simple: walking out and looking up at the winter trees.
How could trees—let alone dead, lifeless, winter trees—hold the secret to life?
To grasp this great truth, the first thing we need to do is to get off our human high horse. We aren’t all that, especially when you compare us to the world of trees.
Trees have lived longer than we have. In fact, trees are the oldest living organisms on the planet. Trees, mold, and jellyfish are older than human history. The oldest tree is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California that scientists date at around five thousand years old. That is Tigris and Euphrates, early Mesopotamia, Bronze Age stuff. Its name, appropriately, is Methuselah.
Trees are also smarter than we are. In the book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” German forester Peter Wohlleben shares some astonishing discoveries.[i] He talks about trees as social beings and explains how they actually communicate with each other, give warnings to other trees in the forest, share food through their root systems with their own species, and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. Why? Because one lone tree is vulnerable, but a forest offers strength and safety. In short, trees nourish community.
If only human beings could learn that simple lesson.
At least the writers of the Bible realized the importance of trees. In fact, there are three things the Bible mentions more than anything else: God, people, and trees. The Bible speaks of the great cedars of Lebanon and tells how Moses used acacia wood for the ark of the covenant. Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree, and Jesus’ followers are described as oaks of righteousness. David crafted his musical instruments from the wood of a fir tree. A branch from the olive tree signified safety after the flood. A tree formed the wooden manger, and a tree formed the cross.
The writers of the Bible realized the importance of trees. In fact, there are three things the Bible mentions more than anything else: God, people, and trees.
Trees are an intimate part of the holy narrative, but they’re even more than that, because out of all creation, God chose trees for self-revelation. We see this in the beautiful passage Isaiah 41:19–20, where God recognizes the suffering of the people and offers them a sign: “I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this” (NIV).
God chose trees—the myrtle and the olive, the fir and the cypress—to reveal God’s self, making trees the sacred keepers of holy wisdom.
This brings us back to the secret of life, which, in my humble opinion, is to be found in trees. Specifically, it’s in winter trees.
The day I walked out to look up at the trees was dim and dreary. The trees, leafless and bare, formed an almost lace-like pattern against the gray winter sky. To a brief passerby, they probably appeared lifeless, dead even.
I think we all know how that feels. Sometimes everything in life can feel and look bare and brittle, lifeless, even dead. However, there is way more going on under the surface than we realize.
Consider those bare winter trees. Inside their seemingly dead branches and trunks, a magical transformation is happening. Months before, in the fall, the trees dropped their green leaves in order to conserve water and centralize and focus their energy. I think of a tree in this stage as being like a sprinter in a quiet, motionless crouch before a race. All energies and focus are drawn down into that moment before the runner springs into action. What appears in winter to be a quiet time of death for those trees is, in fact, the combustion engine of life.
We always think of the season of spring as the beginning of life, but in fact, spring is not the beginning. It’s the manifestation of the transformation happening inside those great trees right now, in the winter.
In writing about wintering trees, author Katherine May explains in her book “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Time,” “The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. . . It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly.”
We think of the season of spring as the beginning of life, but in fact, spring is not the beginning. It’s the manifestation of the transformation happening inside those great trees right now, in the winter.
We see the same pattern in human life. William Bridges in his book “Transitions,” talks about the passages of life, such as those that take place in a job, a relationship, a move, or another life change. He explains that all transitions are composed of three things: an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning.[ii] The ending is when we let go of the old. The neutral zone is that time of unknowing when we listen, focus, think, and wait. Then, eventually, the new beginning gleams forth. The key is that it all starts with an ending.
The problem is that unlike trees, we humans tend to fight this truth. We want to focus only on the new beginning. We think that to figure out our plan, to make our choices, we have to get going. If we aren’t producing something, who are we? Endings are seen as unpleasant, and the neutral zone is seen as unproductive. It’s also scary.
When we’re in the neutral zone, we stand bare, like the trees in winter. It’s a time when we can no longer hide our truth behind our agendas, lists, or busyness. Who are we without our leaves? We humans hate asking that, but vulnerability is the place of greatest beauty.
In a tiny, wonderful book called “Trees at Leisure,” written in 1916 by Anna Botsford Comstock, the author talks about the beauty of winter trees: “In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it.”[iii]
The true secret to life lies in the deep wisdom of trees, the place where God chose to reveal God’s self. The trees know that spring is not where life is truly generated. Transformation takes place in winter—that time of ending, that quiet neutral zone, that gap that exists when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully formed.
What parts of your life feel like those bare, brittle, lifeless branches? Who are you without your leaves?
While life can sometimes look and feel like a tree in winter, remember that there is more going on under the surface than we realize. Like the energy humming inside those trees, unseen things are happening within us. We are changing, churning, transforming inside.
If you doubt that, just walk outside and look up.
While it may feel like loss, while we ourselves may feel lost, winter is simply a time when our energies are gathered deep into our souls, waiting like a sprinter in a crouch ready to spring into new life.
Biden inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, put it best: “If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown …We are battered, but bolder; worn, but wiser …If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We already are.”
A trial lawyer turned stand-up comic, Rev. Susan Sparks is pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. She is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of five books, including, “Grace-Filled Gratitude: A 40 Day Joy Journal” and “Miracle on 31st Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year—Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!”
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] Peter Wohlleben, “The Hidden Life of Trees” (Mudgeeraba, Queensland, Australia: Greystone, 2018).
[ii] William Bridges, “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” (New York: Lifelong Books, 2019).
[iii] Anna Botsford Comstock, “Trees at Leisure” (1916; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2018), 13–14.