In God we live and move and have our being.[i]
Theologically we call this the incarnation – not the idea that God lives somewhere out in space and sends Jesus down to us – but the idea that God is closer than our very breathing[ii] and has always been so. God is woven into the ecosystems of our planet, our life and energy pulsates with and in God.
Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury throughout the 1960s, was once asked how to pray. "I just get down on my knees and hope for the best," he replied. In other words, there is not much that you have to do other than make time for it. For Ramsey, prayer was not the heaping up of pious chatter. It was not a peculiar way of getting things done in the world. Rather, it was about listening and waiting – being attentive.
Prayer is like art; or rather prayer demands the sort of attention that art demands. It takes time. It requires stillness. Trees can teach us how to pray.
This morning, courtesy of the artist Jim Wheeler and the Artis Gallery, Parnell, we have a piece of art here called ‘Regeneration Oak Garden Spade’. The spade – the handle made from wood – I suggest symbolises the impact of humanity on the earth. Out of our need we have cleared the primal forests and dug the ground. Trees were seen as useful objects, sources of fuel and fencing posts, and shade and shelter breaks. The human-tree relationship was understood as master-servant, not one of mutuality and companionship. It was not considered that trees could be our teachers.
Jim’s ‘Regeneration Oak Garden Spade’ though cheekily [and many miracles are cheeky] suggests that human dominion is not the end of the story. That we will, like the spade, get stuck in the muck of dominance - spiritually exhaust ourselves, and the trees will regenerate, offering another chance for human-tree symbiosis.
At their best polytheistic worldviews, like Maori theology, invite us into symbiotic relationships. A number of iwi can recount how in times past tohunga and craftsmen would enter the forest, ‘the realm of Tane’, to seek out a tree suitable for a purpose – say to be made into a waka, and then by karakia discuss the matter with the spirit of Tane, protector of the forest, balancing human need with the need of the ecosystem. For many there was an unspoken understanding that the health of the tribe was dependent on the health of the forest, and that we humans needed to assist Tane as kaitiaki [protectors] of this relationship. This understanding was behind the action of Te Kawerau a Maki who recently placed a rahui on the Waitakere ranges, an action the Auckland Council this week has agreed to enforce.
Trees are living organisms. When we think of a tree as an object, like a rock, we fail to appreciate it is living and has an energy and contribution to the ecosystem. It might be more helpful to think of a tree as more similar to a bird – but a bird that lives for a very long time! Kauris, for example, live for 800-5,000 years.
The most well-known tree in the Bible is the cedar of Lebanon, an evergreen conifer that can reach 40 metres in height. These trees were extensively cut down and used for building, and the forests shrunk markedly. Today they survive in mountainous regions.
King Solomon, in his desire to build a temple, and to centralise both the apparatus of the state and religion, authorised the felling and importation of cedars from Lebanon. One can read the accounts of this project through the rose-coloured spectacles of the authorised religious bureaucracy who hailed the construction of the temple as a wonderful and glorious thing. One can also read these accounts with other spectacles and see the dissent among the common people who were taxed for this ‘glorious thing’, and worse, forced to serve as indentured labour to build it.[iii] It is not a coincidence that upon Solomon’s death there was political upheaval, and the kingdom split in two.
Temple religion became fixed to a locality and fixated with its own needs. The centralisation of God, religion, and royal power tried to impose a theological and ethical conformity across the nation – not unlike the marriage between Constantine and Christianity many centuries later. And in this amalgamation of powerful interests let us not forget the flow of wealth, and the greed that came in its wake.
This centralisation was resisted from within the prophetic tradition, which at its best has always been sceptical of aligning God with any royal figure or policy, sceptical of turning God into a servant of the king, state, or priestly caste, and resistant to overly burdening the common people. There is a ‘song’ within the pages of our Bible, often only faintly heard, a spirited song of a free, wild, undomesticated, liberating God, a song that we can sometimes hear Jesus singing [though sometimes then too it is muffled by the needs of Jesus’ biographers].
I see a connection between the objectification of nature, that text of terrible consequences when God allegedly tells humanity to ‘subdue [the earth] and have dominion over every living thing’[iv], and the centralised amassing of power, and the concomitant greed.
Sometimes fiction holds a mirror up to help us see our spiritual demise. Game of Thrones by George Martin subtlety critiques the warring power games, so beloved of his audiences, with the Weirwood trees. These are ancient old trees, largely chopped down south of the Wall, linked to the old wisdom/theology, and woven into the suffering of the world. When people do things that cause suffering, the Weirwoods cry red tears of sap. And I suspect any salvation for the continent and peoples of fictional Westeros will be connected to the wisdom of these trees. George Martin seems to be suggesting that the suffering of trees reflects the poverty and suffering of the human soul.
There is some interesting research and writing today about trees. The biologist Professor David Haskell’s books The Forest Unseen  and The Songs of Trees  report on long-term studies of specific trees and tree communities. He reports on his exploration of the interconnection in nature, and how humans can succeed or fail in the co-creations of networks of life. He writes, “Life is not just networked, it is network.” He muses on interdependent ecological partnerships between humans and trees. His challenge is couched in the language of spirituality: inviting his readers to listen, attend and reflect, and in so doing develop an “ecological aesthetics” – “a sensory, intellectual and bodily opening to place”. Or in my language, listening to the prayer of trees.
Similarly the German forester, Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees , shares his learnings from managing an ancient beech forest in the Eifel Mountains and research from Aachen University and the University of British Columbia.
He writes: “The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbour trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
He goes on to say, ‘Beeches and oaks form forests that last for thousands of years because they act like families. Trees may recognise with their roots who are their friends, who are their families, where their kids are.’
Wohlleben encourages us to think of trees respectfully, aware of our interdependence, and manage our need for wood with our need for the forest to not only survive but thrive. Indeed the forest he says, like a ‘plant elephant’ has much to teach us.
Recall a significant tree in your life, and how it has affected or changed you.
Does the health or suffering of trees reflect the health or suffering of the human soul?
Can trees teach us how to pray?
[i] Acts 17:28.
[ii] St Augustine
[iii] Indentured labour was in effect making slaves of your own people!
[iv] Genesis 1:28