spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Tree Wisdom


Habit at Waipoli Rd Kula, Maui/ Forest & Kim Starr
I heard Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.* speak about social justice Friday night. The talk was a lot about trees and the people who love them and relate to them as “I-Thou” rather than “I-It”. Her recently published book Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and 
Tree People Can Save the Planet was a written response to losing a beloved tree in her yard when her neighbors complained that after they built on to their home it blocked their view and needed to come down.  She told us that following many appeals, and while she was away at the United Nations World Conference on Women, the homeowners association felled the huge tree, leaving a stump in the yard.

I admire her for directing her disappointment and anger at the loss of her tree into writing from the heart rather than being occupied by grievances she surely was entitled to feel when the tree became an “it” to the neighbor’s “I”.

Hearing her thoughts about people and their relationship to the plant kingdom, I remembered reading Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison’s article “What it Means to Tend our Garden,” in which he maintains that cultivation and care comprise the essential transaction between Homo sapiens and the garden that is our world. “Our human gardens may appear to us like little openings into paradise in the midst of the fallen world, yet the fact that we must create, maintain, and care for them is the mark of the postlapsarian provenance….” Harrison goes on to say that banishment from the static Garden of Eden, which needed no mulching, no weeding, no watering, is the moment that initiated our true humanity. 

As has been my wont lately, I took the lessons inward to those instances of loss and uprooting that comprise being this person. Like Shinoda Bolen,  rather than blame and regret what was wounding , I can choose to become what she calls a crone who doesn’t whine and get on with finding my “assignment,” the work of the heart that goes out into the world in the name of serving all beings. This care and cultivation of myself and all others fits with Harrison’s notion that the fall from the garden, that place of pre-knowing, sent us into true responsibility for all that is our world.

There is such a cultivated garden in San Francisco, a man-made garden, Golden Gate Park, and within the park the arboretum where, as a docent, I learned how nature takes adversity and makes it rapturously beautiful. An example is protea, leucadendrom argenteum or silver tree. There are quite a few of them in the San Francisco Botanical Garden. When I trained in the garden, I met this tree and stroked the light-reflecting silky silver leaves.  I saw how the silver-grey leaves, covered on both surfaces with thousands of tiny, soft, hairs and fringed with long white hairs gave off a silver sheen. I learned how in hot, dry weather, the leaves are at their most silver. The hairs lie flat to protect the leaves from drying out. In wet weather the hairs stand more erect to allow for free air circulation, yet still shimmer when light touches.

The trees and many docent classes led me to admire the natural world that contains and causes adaptation. I felt in further awe upon learning that petal markings are not to make flowers look pretty but to serve as landing strips for pollinators, so they efficiently find their way to the nectar and continue the cycle of life which is what plants and pollinators are about.

This week both Shinoda Bolen and Harrison were my pollinators. Their messages reminded me to tend the people and the earth around me, to foster an “I-Thou” relationship with the universe, to feel empathy for the neighbors who want their view more than they want the tree, and to love all that is my life, including my shadow elements that beg for attention.  Add these words from Zen teacher Uchiyama: “Everything you encounter is yourself.” Thus all I meet in the world becomes a partnership between “I and Thou” because I will want to do unto myself as I do unto others.

* Jean Shinoda Bolen is a psychiatrist, Jungian analyst, and an internationally known author and speaker who draws from spiritual, feminist, Jungian, medical and personal wellsprings of experience. 


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