by Melissa Tustin
I felt pretty strange describing my sabbatical before I left. I’ve always enjoyed nature but camping and environmentalism were hardly defining interests. These are just some of the things people said: “Why are you so interested in trees all of the sudden? And why Ireland? Didn’t you go there a few years ago? You say, you’re planning to do yard work during some of the time? That’s the last thing I would do during vacation time.”
I can understand why people responded this way. I didn’t know why I craved green things so much. I just did. My body and soul seemed to want green in an almost visceral way. It didn’t seem to matter whether I was gardening in my backyard, devouring books about the science of forests, or biking though the green hills of Ireland.
I’ve returned from my time away with a deep appreciation for green things; not just because of their physical beauty or usefulness, but because of what they teach us about the nature of life. I never realized that forests are comprised of complex networks of organisms which together have an essential role in the climate. For example, did you know that the size, shape and type of trees growing in a given area can determine the temperature and water level? And apparently, huge trees depend on the tiny threads of an underground network of fungi to send and receive information from one another. Different species of trees will actually warn each other about approaching pests and diseases! And some trees work together for years to keep their parent trees alive if they’re damaged. There’s so much more I could say about how incredible forests are. If you want to learn more, check out “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben or “To Speak For the Trees” by Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
You know the old saying: “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” It means not being able to see the big picture because of being overwhelmed by the immediate concerns that surround us and block our view. I’d say that’s a pretty good description of my mental state before the sabbatical. In our chaotic world, with its 24 hour news cycle, it’s been difficult to hold on to hope while tragedy after tragedy arises to demand our attention until we feel utterly surrounded by suffering. It has felt like unbridled self-interest, violence and bigotry have gained the upper hand, especially over the last several years.
Little did I know that the trees could help me find the forest and see the big picture again. Like Hildegard of Bingen, I heard God calling me recognize her in the greenness all around me regardless of what else was happening in the world and to notice that my soul was already returning to its green and life-filled state, like a plant greening up after long-delayed rain.
What inspires me so much about green things is that they clearly demonstrate the benefits of valuing diversity and interdependence over competition and artificial homogeneity. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the oldest, most natural systems on earth resemble the spiritual values of most world religions: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31, Matthew 7:21, 19:19, 22:39, Luke 10). “None of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself” (Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 72). Sounds like a blueprint for diversity and interdependence to me.