Hidden Life of Trees

360: What a German Evolutionist Taught Me About a Healthy Church

Hidden Life of TreesThe New York Times nonfiction best seller list typically arrives, stuffed with business titles, celebrity memoirs, and political pulp. So, when “The Hidden Life of Trees” interrupted those clichés, I bought the audiobook. Written in German and narrated with a refined British accent, the chapters describe a world I had never imagined and yet more evidence of intelligent design.

The anthropomorphized trees, moss, fungi, and other woodland inhabitants of the book portray not only a symbiotic ecosystem but also an incredible community. The New York Times’ headline for their review reads, “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too.” Even without the personification, the concepts make total sense. Even though trees don’t literally talk to each other, the science of their existence spoke to me.

Recently, my circle of friends has been growing deeper with each other. My Tuesday night study group, specifically, has been embarking into the kind of conversations you’d expect at a therapist’s office. My encounter with Peter Wohlleben’s book happened as we have been in the process of distilling our DNA to make our culture replicable. Several of my takeaways from the book explain why our circle has functioned with such health—and why it continues to grow.

Our most meaningful connections happen at our roots, not our crowns.

Scientists have proven that trees communicate to each other about predators (creatures that eat their leaves). Most trees send slow, electrical signals that travel from their branches to their roots and then to the roots of other trees. The trees, in turn, excrete chemicals and/or fragrances that repel leaf chompers like giraffes or attract birds and insects that eat larvae and other leaf eaters. It keeps trees alive for a later meal but allows for a safe amount of food for the creatures.

I’ve found that spiritual community forms best away from public spaces like sanctuaries and auditoriums. Accountability grows best in the dirt, the messy stuff—the seasons that stain the knees of our jeans. When I confess my doubts and dysfunction, others gain a freedom to do the same. In so doing, we weave our strands into a strong rope. We help protect each other from succumbing to predators of joy, peace, and surrender.

We have more strength, immunity, and longevity when living in community.

While some species of trees have seeds literally designed to be carried far from their originating tree stand, most fall near their support group. Trees with interwoven root systems prove more resistant to disease and parasites. These trees live longer when they can share resources, not the least of which is up to 40 different kinds of supporting fungi.

The American Dream has crafted generations of independent Christians, people who (try to) will themselves through the sanctification process. That’s not how the church was designed to operate. A large percentage of the New Testament’s commands arrive with “one another.” We’re called to act as one body, salving the wounded and supporting the needy. The movement of God is healthier when we unify and share with others in our ecosystem.

Healthier and more mature trees must share their resources, and every tree takes turns.

Trees divert their own sugars and water to other trees with exposed sections of cambium or severed roots—or even to young trees trying to reach up to holes of light in the canopy. Apparently, there’s mounting evidence of parent trees intentionally shading and feeding offspring trees. Peer trees can take turns providing for the needs of each other at times of differing needs.

That’s the church! Instead of the dichotomy of clergy and laity, we are one body. We need each other. We take turns weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and caring for the needs of the needy. That means we take turns being the giver and the receiver. Even though some are called to be shepherds, the Bible says we’re all sheep. Sometimes leaders need to be led, and caretakers need to be fed.

Mystery is a gift, not a hindrance.

Peter Wohlleben dropped a line early in the book that grabbed me. He wrote that not only in the growing collection of modern knowledge about how the forest works but also in the ignorance we have yet to cure, we’re “richer for having gained a mystery.” In other words, what we don’t yet know about trees should inspire as much wonder as the amazing things we do know (especially after reading this book).

As Christians, we spend a lot of time divining our next step or even the whole plan for our life. We can get paralyzed by the uncertainty of our future, the silence of the unknown. Instead, we should be diving deep into what we do know; and we should be exploring together. Most great scientific discoveries happen in teams, and spiritual breakthroughs occur almost exclusively in community. We find the gaps in our research, when we compare notes. At the same time, the enigmas we can’t solve or haven’t reconciled need to draw us to marvel at a God who is bigger than our imagination.

North Fork Upper TyeI’m writing this post from a boulder next to a tiny, frothing river in a mountain forest. Straight, tall, gray trunks guard the adjacent road, and their collective green canopy hides the sun. For years, I’ve driven up here (ten minutes past cell phone service) to feel God’s presence, to breathe cleaner air, to quiet my soul. From now on, though, I’ll also be visiting to bask in the strength and health and evidence of symbiotic community; and I’ll take this example back to my serving and community groups at church.

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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