An ode to trees

You are like a tree,
     planted by flowing, cool streams of water that never run dry.
Your fruit ripens in its time;
     your leaves never fade or curl in the summer sun.
No matter what you do, you prosper.

~Psalm 1:3 (The Voice)

If you think modern Christmas trees are Christian inventions, think again.

The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the new year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.

Hindus, too, revere trees, believing that everything whether living or not living is a form of God. Though I do not worship trees, I can understand how some people might be inspired to. Trees are imposing, like mountains. But unlike mountains, they are living. And they frequently exist longer than we do.

This is nowhere more apparent than in a redwood forest.

That’s my 6-foot-2 husband standing in a redwood forest.

I grew up in an area of Minnesota between the corn belt plains and the northern forest populated mostly with pine trees, though my little town had a wide variety of deciduous trees which dropped their leaves annually. The trees in Minnesota are lovely, but a trip to California drives home the awesomeness of trees.

California’s coastal redwoods, which grow on the northern coast, are among the tallest living things on earth, up to 377 fee tall. They are long lived, due in part to their bark, which can be up to a foot thick. That bark protects a tree from cold and from forest fire.

When we stayed a few years ago at the Ancient Redwood RV Park near Redcrest, California, we were introduced to the Immortal Tree, a 1,000-year-old redwood that has survived a lightning strike (which removed its top), logger’s axe, a 1908 forest fire and the incredible 1964 flood, which wiped out whole towns up and down the coast.

The Immortal Tree is now 248 feet tall, but it was nearly 300 feet tall before the lightning strike.

Walking through a forest of redwoods, breathing in the piney air and feeling the silence as much as hearing it, one is reminded of dinosaurs and is tempted to believe in dryads and wood nymphs. If an enchanted forest exists outside of fairy tales, it’s here. The trees are alive, and they might be smiling or frowning or about to reach out and touch you. No wonder one of California’s stereotypes is of tree huggers. Even a logger’s gotta love a tree like that.

Microscopic people gather at the base of General Sherman.

One of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen in all my travels across this amazing Earth is General Sherman, a giant sequoia which is a genus of redwood coniferous trees found only at a certain elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Sequoias are not as tall as redwoods but can grow bigger around. General Sherman is the world’s biggest tree (by volume) and is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old (other giant sequoia are estimated to be older than 3,200 years). That makes these trees older than Christianity and, quite frankly, most dirt.

Gazing on this majestic tree makes one feel distinctly like a mosquito–an irritating little blood sucker whose life is a blink and whose death is a smear of blood that is wiped away in a single breath. I am reminded I am nothing, and my life, however long it is, passes in a blip. Erasing one’s self-importance and inflated problems is comforting, when you slow down to do it. If nature is a place of worship, the sequoia and redwood forests are cathedrals.

To erect a pine tree in one’s home and decorate it then makes some sense. It’s an attempt to capture God’s grandeur and everlasting nature.

The Joshua tree, standing with with its hands in prayer.

Interestingly, the Bible portrays trees as things that communicate. They clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12), shout for joy (1 Chronicles 16:33), and even argue (Judges 9:7–15). I am reminded of the strange and fascinating Joshua tree we encountered while driving through Arizona. The Mormons named it for what looks like its hands raised in prayer; those “fingers” are almost like Christmas lights. The Joshua tree grows in the Mojave Desert, and once it establishes a foothold among the creosote bushes, it can live for hundreds of years.

As you celebrate around your Christmas tree this season, take a moment to reflect on the tree itself and what it symbolizes: majesty, life and eternal life. Perhaps your tree has something to say to you. Let your meditation humble you.

If you like what you read here, subscribe to this blog for free (scroll down to “follow blog via email.” I post about twice a week on subjects related to prayer, faith and spirituality.

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