This article is dedicated to my daughter and son-in-law, Hannah and James, as they approach their first wedding anniversary. Below are the words of the address I gave on their wedding day…
Today is a significant step in our collective family trees. So what I would like to reflect on for a moment is just that – trees. I know that sounds strange but please hear me out. We probably all know that trees are alchemists. Through photosynthesis, they create oxygen and glucose— both building blocks of life. Trees are essential to the environment and good for our health. But did you know there’s a hidden life of trees?
That is the title of a recent book by Peter Wohlleben, ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’. For most of his professional life as a forrester, Wohlleben sized up trees and their worth by what profits they could yield. And then he became an arborist, a specialist tree surgeon, in a forest in Germany. This experience fundamentally changed his understanding of trees. One day Wohlleben stumbled across a patch of what he thought was strange-looking mossy stones. Lifting the moss, what he found wasn’t stone at all but ancient tree bark firmly rooted to the ground. He scraped a portion and below the bark was a sheath of green, the colour of chlorophyll—something that can be stored in reserve in the trunks of living trees.
Wohlleben knew the tree had been felled over 400 years ago.
- Can you see what was strange about this?
- How to account for the green chlorophyll?!?
Wohlleben wrote in his book:
“It was clear that something else was happening, this stump must be getting assistance from the roots of neighbouring trees, the surrounding trees were pumping glucose to the ancient stump of this tree to keep it alive.”
With this discovery a door opened in Wohlleben’s mind. Wohlleben now sees trees not as so much wood for profit, nor as stand-alone entities in competition for survival, but as members of an interdependent social network. Just like a family, or a community – trees help each other to live and grow. Wohlleben observed that seedlings in the shade and trees starved of food are helped by receiving nutrients from larger photosynthesizing trees – even of different species. But we don’t see it because this help is hidden below the ground in the intermingling root systems. This is the hidden life of trees.
The book has become an international best-seller and not just among foresters. Many read it as a commentary on human beings. We too are individuals but we are also connected and rely to some degree upon those connections for our well-being.
I believe that principle is celebrated as we come together with Hannah and James on their wedding day. It is not primarily their individuality we are celebrating today. But their relationship and their interconnection with one another and with each of us as family and friends, and how these things may contribute to the health and well-being of all – both today and for the future. Like trees, our interconnections can bring well-being to all. Hannah and James are planting their lives firmly in that vision today as they make their marriage vows to each other.
In many religions there is mention of a ‘Tree of Life’ and in the Christian Bible this is also true. In Revelation 22:2 it says, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” I look at this verse now in a different way as I think of the hidden life of trees. Where will Hannah and James grow from here? I don’t know. But may God bless them and help them grow together, and us with them. This is my prayer and Wohlleben’s book is my wedding gift to them – which some might see as just another gardener’s book. But some may perceive as a manual on the loving and caring connections we can make for the well-being of all – especially those of us who now know about the hidden life of trees…