I’m bewitched by aspen trees. Have been for years. They are complex, moody creatures. Their dark eyes are windows into watchful souls. And seem to peer into mine. Their quaking leaves respond to God’s slightest breath; their canopies provide sun-dappled, unsmothering shade; their bark produces a natural sunscreen. And their eerie, shifting beauty is matchless, poetic. Remarkably I’ve learned reams about God, myself, and life in and from aspen groves.
I Learned Like Aspens We Are Community
Scientists claim the world’s largest living organism lurks in a forest in Utah. Actually they assert the world’s largest living organism is a forest in Utah–an enormous 106 acre, 13 million pound aspen grove to be exact. It’s named Pando. When all aspen trees in one grove originate from and remain connected to the same root system, an entire forest can be one organism. Each individual tree’s DNA is identical to each other in the grove. Aspens don’t thrive alone.
Neither do humans.
I once dreamed of buying a horse and hauling my teepee into the wilderness in Idaho and living as a hermit. That didn’t happen for many reasons, chief of which is I’m an extreme extrovert. I shrivel up inside without meaningful human interaction. Even introverts, however, need other humans—maybe fewer but some—to survive.
Despite America’s belief in rugged individualism, we are more like those tremulous aspen trees than we care to admit. Feral children, such as the mythical Pecos Bill are just that–a myth. Babies perish when abandoned. Emotional abandonment is equally soul-killing. Point out a person who has struggled alone through the tough soil of life and I’ll show you a person with a heart as cracked and scarred as a graffiti marred tree trunk. The isolation we endured during COVID-19 drove up numbers of people dealing with mental health symptoms. Loneliness increases the risk of dementia, strokes, and heart attacks.
Aspen trees taught me we too are community. Needing others is natural and beautiful.
I Became Aware Like Aspens We Are Stronger Together
More than survive, however, like aspen trees we are connected to one another and thrive when in healthy relationships. We live longer and better physically and mentally when connected with others. Fulfillment and creativity flow from our connections to one another.
Though, we don’t have identical DNA and interconnected roots like aspens, we are spiritually, emotionally, and physically connected. Carl Jung called these mysterious connections the “collective unconscious.” Across time and miles people share in common fears, hopes, stories, and solutions to problems.
Aspen trees send needed nutrients to younger and unhealthy trees thus ensuring the health of individuals and the grove.
C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien gathered together with several other writers for years as “The Inklings” sharing their ideas and support. Incredibly beautiful and influential writing grew from that group.
As I wrote here the Bible is filled with stories and admonitions for living life together.
I Discovered We too Are More than Clones
But we misunderstand what this life together looks like. Individuality and uniqueness have always been high values to me. To a fault. If something became popular I shunned it. Even if it was a good thing.
My brain simply works differently than many others. Thus I struggled in school. And in the church!
“You’ve had trouble in the church, haven’t you?” one of my seminary professors guessed.
I nodded my head. “How’d you know?”
“Your scores in creativity. Churches don’t like creativity, especially in pastors. They like uniformity.”
Fortunately, like aspen trees we are more than clones. Despite their identical DNA, each aspen tree is unique. Go stand deep in a grove and look. Until researchers discovered how aspens clone, no one would know the trees were identical twins, quintuplets, and even metatuplets. Aspens are queens of diversity. Height, diameter, number of branches, and the expressions on their barked faces all differ. And their leaves, like hearts, beat to God’s heart in different rhythms.
I Saw Close Community and Strong Diversity Exist Together
These unique trees model the truth that there is a tension in the very nature of creation: close community and strong diversity exist together. Each of the seven billion humans alive today reflect a common rootedness in God. But we express that image of God in billions of diverse ways. No two alike. No one loved by God more or less than the other.
Unfortunately this is how we differ from an aspen grove. Our neighborhoods, churches, social networks, and friendships reflect little true diversity. We cluster in groves of sameness.
And many people mistakenly believe how the image of God is reflected in them is better than in others. Aspen groves foster diversity, supporting plants and animals of many species in their ecosystems.
I’m learning to live in and love the tension God created between uniqueness and connectedness.
I Learned We Are Fearfully, Wonderfully, and Organically Created
Aspens, and according to Peter Wohlleben in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, all trees offer us a lifetime of mentoring. We have much to learn from trees and all creation.
By nature aspens are organic. Obviously. We are as well. But we don’t view ourselves as such. The waning Industrial Age and now the Information Age have given us false lenses into ourselves. We are not machines. I once had a man in my church call a surgery he was scheduled for “parts replacement.” He did not ask for prayer.
Efficiency nor knowledge have eased our pain or lessened our struggles. As a matter of fact, many of the thorny issues we are struggling with in our families, churches, work, and government stem in large part from a mechanical, institutional structure laid over an organic living thing. We try to mechanically fix our problems instead of understanding and nurturing each other (and endangered nature) back to health. And honor programs and institutions over people. We pass laws to control rather than developing relationships. Wohlleben discovered trees in stress communicate with one another and reach out to one another. We would do well to relearn this lesson.
I’ve learned reams about God, myself, and life in and from aspen groves. I never tire of wandering in their classrooms and learning their lessons. You may not have these magnificent, pale, quaking teachers near you. But God has given you other natural professors to learn from. As David wrote in Psalm 8:
“Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.”