From the dawn of our existence on earth, trees, one of our greatest natural resources, have captured our imagination in myriad ways. Seen by some as magical, mystical and spiritual, many ancient traditions have revered and prayed to them. A source of shelter and food for numerous creatures, for us they also provide natural beauty, joy and creative inspiration. Folklore around trees is abundant and they have long been seen as living companions perhaps because early humankind intuited that without them we would not be here. It is said that one large tree can procide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people.
In the Yoga tradition, the ancient Rishis retreated to the forest to meditate upon the reasons for human and universal existence and we often practice Vrikshasana or Tree pose on our Yoga mats. The Buddha found enlightenment whilst meditating under the shade of a Bodhi tree. And the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku or forest bathing is becoming very popular. Psychologically we are now beginning to understand the scientific reasons behind the calming impact of being in nature and greenery. Gardening and planting trees are often used as healing therapies in the management of anxiety and depression. And recent findings seem to be revealing to us that trees are indeed as we intuited, sentient beings with their own complex forms of communication, community and consciousness.
A Special Tree
I have always held a love and awe for trees. Sheffield Park National Trust gardens in East Sussex, is home to some of the tallest sequoia or giant redwood trees in the UK. There is one in particular, thought to be around 140 years old that is well known and loved by many. Around ten days ago a bolt of lightening struck this beautiful and majestic tree. That combined with days of heavy rainfall led to this seemingly infallible tree exploding into fragmented pieces, leaving shards of itself embedded in the surrounding earth, decimating its branches and upper canopy. The devastation of such a magnificent, well known tree has drawn a lot of interest amongst the local population and media.
Yet I have been surprised at my own personal reaction to this event. It is true that I have known and felt connected to this particular tree for many years. I have visited it often and always loved seeing it. I have watched the delighted reaction of others to whom I am showing it for the first time; I have visited it at times of sadness wanting to connect with something greater than myself; I have gone to see it just because its magnificence and longevity lift my spirits. Perhaps it is for these reasons, of what it represents to me that its damage has affected me so much. In a world of constant change and instability it is as if this particular tree was a permanent, anchoring, grounding fixture for me. It became like a friend and the damage it has suffered has touched me deeply.
The Wisdom of Trees
We are living in a world of ever increasing challenges. Over the last few years in particular, these challenges seem to be occurring on many fronts one after another with increasing regularity. Just when we think we have come out of one crisis, it seems that we enter another. It is therefore difficult to keep up with our emotional responses to this cycle of events never mind process them. But yesterday I found myself sitting in meditation simply focusing on the damage to this one tree and my surprising responses to it. Perhaps others will not understand why it has moved me so much and that is fine. But I suspect that each time we face some kind of shake up to our emotional equilibrium, some random unexpected act that throws our world in some way, no matter how big or small or irrelevant it may seem to others, we resonate with the impermanence and fragility of all living beings including of course ourselves. Having something to hold onto, to anchor ourselves in times of instability, uncertainty and chaos is vital if we are to weather the storms we face within and without.
So I sat in meditation, grounding with the earth and reflecting on this tree. Often in Yoga we cue our students to ‘let go’. But yesterday I found myself wanting to ‘be with’. To be with the mixed and paradoxical emotions I was feeling. The initial sadness I felt began to be accompanied with a deep sense of gratitude to the tree for all the lovely memories it has given to me and thousands of others. As I continued to sit and recall the times I had spent with this tree in its former state, I began to feel a little lighter. And drop into a quiet stillness. This stillness I believe allows us to regain equilibrium and balance within, to be open to all aspects of the human experience, in short to embody the steadfastness and grounding qualities of trees. This too gave me comfort.
The staff at the gardens are hopeful that the root system of this amazing tree is intact, that it will survive and in time regrow. This gives me hope in the universal power of all beings to overcome adversity. I believe that the fortitude and magnificence of trees may be a wisdom lesson for us all. In the beautiful words of Kahlil Gibran ‘trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.’