Source: Felix Mittermeier/Pexels
The tree holds a central place in human imagination, from shamanic narratives of the Garden of Eden to the concept of the family tree. Who among us has not placed his hand on the trunk of a tree, felt the roughness of the bark, looked up into the trellis of leaves, and then looked down and noticed the extent of its root system? Some of the pine trees in my neighborhood have grown to such dizzying heights that when I (Gillian) walk past them, they inspire awe. Even in our secular culture, many plant a tree after the birth of a child, or monitor the growth and progress of maple, ash, birch, or poplar in their gardens or in nearby parks. We can measure the periods of our lives by their growth.
For Siberian shamans, the Great Tree at the center of the world connects the underworld, our world and heaven. From this large tree, the shaman makes a drum, which is then used for healing and for finding the lost. The tree is the great backbone that connects all realms together. The tree has its own mysteries and wisdom to offer.
One lesson the tree can share is that growth and thriving, and the fruits that will grow at the right time, require deep anchoring in the ground. This is a perfect example of integrated human development. In contemporary culture, particularly American culture, there is often the implication that full development requires a leap into the unknown and a complete disconnection from the past. Think The Great Gatsby with made-up name and made-up story. However, as we can see in Fitzgerald’s novel, this is a dangerous delusion.
Certainly, one way to root and avoid Gatsby’s fate is to focus on one’s religious, cultural, and family history, as we’ve written in previous posts. When family histories are problematic (and who isn’t to some degree?), there is still an opportunity to identify with positive aspects of traditions and fashion them to work in current situations. One of the clearest ways this has manifested during the pandemic is the return to old family recipes as we all tried to ground ourselves in something solid, familiar and stable.
Then there is also the possibility of anchoring yourself in nature. As Williams writes The natural fix (2017), “Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects not only on mood and well-being, but also on our ability to think—to remember, plan, create, dream, and concentrate.” (11). I suspect most readers don’t need a footnoted research article to convince them of this. We have lived experience that a simple, brisk walk in a forest, by a lake, or by the sea is the quickest way to restore balance, clear your mind, and induce a state of openness and calm.
Another avenue for grounding is the body itself, and many mindfulness classes teach practices for getting back into the body through focusing on the breath. The yoga asanas vrksasana (Tree Pose) is one that has left many of us with the requirement of balancing – staying firmly on the foundation of our feet while stretching our arms overhead. Not so easy. This pose requires an awareness of the moment and a constant search for balance. So there is no consistency – it is an ongoing process of finding the point that allows balance.
In her book Between earth and sky (2008), biologist and lifelong tree lover Nalini M. Nadkarni notes that trees, like us, bear the marks of trauma they may have suffered during the growth process as they respond to the effects of gravity and wind (31). Anyone who has visited the Canadian Shield will have seen the pines constantly flowing in one direction in response to the storms and the weight of the snow they have weathered. Trees do not emerge from their growth process without a trace or unchanged, and neither do we.
So I’m inspired by these great teachers wherever they are – from the I-grow-everywhere, including-out-of-a-rock-wall, jack-pine, to the delicacy of the white birch and the maddening and Norway maple, the hate triggered on the internet. They all have their stories to tell and this is just one of them. It is inexhaustible wonder that, at this point in my life journey, inspires me to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground as I continue to expand and stretch and seek to grasp opportunities.