On the southwest corner of the medical campus next to where I work, there stand four stately oaks, like sentinels watching over the land nearby. They make up much of the border between the campus parking lot and the homes that lie to the west. The other day, shortly before noon, I took a walk during lunch time. It was a day removed from the governor’s order to stay at home, and scale back life to essential services and needs. As I walked under their towering branches, I stopped to observe what the years had done. Each of them, although sharing in majestic splendor, had unique stories to tell. Whether it was short, broken limbs, bulging protrusions, or branches that extended out in various, uneven ways, it was clear that the years past had worn them in similar, yet distinctive ways.
Despite the wear, they remained beautiful, steadfast reminders of resilience. As I stared up at them, I was reminded that there were some in this world not being affected by the pandemic. A few brown, shrunken leaves from the previous year clung to their branches, rustling in a cool midday breeze. As I walked around the block, raindrops began to fall. Having walked to the other side of the yards adjoining these trees, I found myself still gazing at them from a distance. It occurred to me that beyond the obvious ways in which each trees’ countenance told stories from the years, it was what I couldn’t see that truly had tales to share. Undoubtedly, the varied, inner rings spoke of years of drought and of flood, of harsh winters and blazing summers. The roots once freely given reign in fertile soil now found competition with the blacktop that limited how the moisture flowed. Deep within their boles lie stories of hardship and persistence likely never to be known.
As I continued walking, I wondered just how many in this stand there used to be. Although I had seen these trees countless times, I realized that I hadn’t taken much notice of how they had grown. Yet when they were gone, all of us who had spent any time with them would know. We would be left wondering whether to remain in the space they vacated, or look for another one to provide the beauty and the shade we desired. Yet regardless of what we wanted, shoots would begin to appear in the places they had left, embodiments of a generation past and a generation that would come.
As all of us find ourselves in these unprecedented times, we might consider a few things. One, while we may feel like everything is changing, a simple walk outside reminds us that actually much is the same. Spring just officially arrived (whether we realized it or not) and the non-human aspects of our cosmos are carrying on just as they did before. Two, although we are prone to seek out human stories that sustain and inspire us, stories of all sorts exist around us if we allow our imagination to flow. Although some may see little value in these accounts, I would contend that when we step outside of our own humanistic plight, and consider the chronicles of the world around us, we come to realize that what feels like painful changes may in time become just part of life and growth, ironically linked to a process called dendritic arborization. As one of my colleagues recently told his kids, “You are part of world history being made right now.”
In all of this, I wonder what the trees would say if they could speak. Quietly sitting there, peering out over the busyness of humanity, I can’t help but think they would have the time and perspective to share deeply. Having risen to majestic heights from such a tiny beginning, having spent their life fully exposed to all of the elements—-the brilliant, ambient sunny days and the bitter cold, icy mornings, and even strains of invasive viruses—-at the very least I might wonder if it might be something like this:
Strive to seek the sunlight in whatever way possible and to find the deepest, richest grounding you can be rooted to. Understand that there are going to be periods of cold, dark rain and deep, penetrating sun. Be careful about fretting about, or depending on either too much because the secret to health and longevity is not clinging to or despairing of what is now, but rather growing into what will become. Recognize that people will judge you for what they see, but they will never know all that you have been through and the inner ways you have grown. And that’s okay. Because as long as you persist in just who you are called to be, people will come to admire the ways that you hold yourself up and support others, no matter how imperfect it may be. And most importantly, as life carries on, be careful about pleading for a season to pass because what may seem like an unnecessary hardship to bear may turn out to be an opportunity to dig ever deeper, and grow ever stronger, in ways that will sustain you and bring you joy for what is to come. For as the oldest of us, the bristlecone pines know, the secret to living long is growing slow.