Since beginning my work at GilChrist, a retreat center in west Michigan, I have found a particular solace in trees. I have always enjoyed trees, their beauty and solidity, their timeless air and seeming unconcern for the matters of humans (even if we force our matters upon them), the way they shed beauty in autumn and pull it back on in spring. It wasn’t until I began my daily routines at the retreat center, however, that I started to fully appreciate the tree in what I can only call a spiritual way.
I recently spent three hours in solitude in a cabin called Rosewood on the retreat center grounds. I had with me several books, some snacks, and coffee. The books I brought were about trees, I was surrounded by trees, and I had a fallen log from a tree burning in the fireplace as I read. Even the pages of those books are trees, altered to pass along knowledge and wisdom. A more tree-centered experience would be hard to find.
I have, in my life, been a mixture of skeptical and intensely curious about spiritual development.
I have a mind that is rational but craves magic. I want to know how something works, yet I love the mystery of not knowing. It’s a paradox.
Coming to the retreat center with this mindset is grounds for thought and conflict, but I don’t find much conflict. Rather, I find new ways to learn about myself with both rationality and spirituality. It’s a surprisingly good match.
An ancient and perfect system
A tree, in simple terms, is a system of roots, a trunk, and branches that spread outward. Root, trunk, branch. That’s simplifying it, like saying that a human is just a brain with a spine attached. Each of these points bears symbolic weight. The roots ground a tree, anchoring it in much the same way family members can keep even the greatest of egos down to Earth. Without roots, the trunk would topple and lie broken on the plain. There is a tap root that digs deep, starting a conversation that lasts well into the night, and lateral roots that spread outwards, finding friends and providing diversity. The trunk serves as the connection point between sky and soil, can absorb more than 50 gallons of water for storage in a day, and is a network conveying information from the subterranean to the celestial. Without a trunk, the branches would float away and burn up in the fiery stars. The bark of that trunk keeps the roots and branches from becoming infected with diseases, like defense mechanisms that we put in place to protect our more delicate emotions. The branches reach, yearning for sunlight and dazzling us with beautiful leaves and blossoms as they perpetually strive to reach the sun, symbols of hopes and dreams and longing. Without branches, the roots would burrow into themselves and never see the world. Branches also make up the canopy, a neighborhood where creatures can make homes in the protective ecosphere. It all forms a system, ancient and perfect, and humanity could benefit from paying attention to that perfection because I’m not the first person to proclaim that trees might just save the world.
It is this perfection that I have come to see every time I look at a tree. I see something strong, something that is both incredibly real and significantly symbolic. I feel stronger just looking at a tree, like it’s emitting some secret essence that makes a human a better human (and there are some scientists who postulate that trees are doing just that in a process known as allelopathy).
Surrounded by trees
That I am surrounded by these wonders every day of my life now is incredibly therapeutic. In reality, those of us in Michigan are surrounded by trees all the time, even if their density or number varies. There are not many places in rural Michigan that do not lie within a stone’s throw of a tree (or six miles of a lake!).
I can touch or even hug a tree whenever I feel the need.
I can see them always, as long as I have a window and eyes to see. I’ve even begun to plan pilgrimages to holy places, like the redwood forests of California, or to the White Mountains of Inyo County near Death Valley to find Methuselah, the oldest tree in existence (that we know of, and whose location is kept secret for fear of vandalism), or even to the champion trees of our very own state (those measured as the largest in crown, height, and trunk diameter of their respective species). I imagine standing next to a tree reaching 300 feet into the sky might be akin to standing before God.
A sacred cathedral
For now, I can relate one experience that felt uncommonly spiritual, and it happened in the most unexpected of situations. I was with my girlfriend at a wedding that took place on the grounds of a tree nursery. I enjoy weddings, but don’t enjoy large groups. At some point in the night, slightly tipsy from the open bar and full of good food, I wandered outside into the rainy evening. I’d heard rumors of a massive bur oak tree somewhere nearby, the second oldest of its kind in Michigan. The sky was dark, and away from the multitude of wedding lights I could see very little. I wandered among paths full of small trees stuck in pots or jammed into ball-shaped bags, themselves each a potential champion. Eventually, I despaired of finding my quarry, and moped back towards the crowd. As I neared the greenhouse where the guests were all dancing and singing and enjoying life, I found the massive, leafy god, basically right where I’d started my wandering. That I thought this tree would be tucked back somewhere in the woods, waiting to be discovered like Excalibur, is testament to my whimsical and romantic nature. It made more sense that the greenhouse was built next to this tree, and that the oak was intentionally by the road for all to see.
I approached the tree hesitantly, like I was seeing a dinosaur, and marveled at its height. I’ve never stood near a tree so tall, and it reminded me of a cathedral.
I remember the awe I felt in front of Chartres, and a sort of reverse-vertigo overcame me gazing up at something that towered so high. This felt like that, only this wasn’t cold stone, but living wood. In that moment I understood ancient Celtic tree worship because had I approached this creature in a darker, more superstitious age, I would have fallen to my knees and hailed it as God. It took an effort of will for my slightly addled brain to resist the urge to do just that. Eventually I reached my hand out and touched its bark, felt its age against my fingertips and breathed in its aura. As I was doing this, someone greeted me from behind. I was startled, oblivious to my surroundings, and jumped. The man laughed and introduced himself. He was the owner of the nursery, and we started talking shop. He told me how he’d fought to keep the county from knocking the tree down and putting in a highway. I told him about how I was trying to clone willow trees. I think he could tell how much I loved trees from the brief conversation we had because later, after I’d gone back to join the melee of wedding guests, he found me. He called me out, “Hey, tree guy,” he said, and handed me a paper bag. Inside was a sapling, potted and healthy looking. He told me that the bur oak tree out front was always sprouting these things, and that I could have it. I was taken aback at the unexpected gift, and told him that I would plant it somewhere special.
I haven’t planted that little bur oak yet. I don’t think it’s big enough to be out there on its own, despite its advanced genetic composition. At some point next year, when the weather is warmer, the ground soft, and the feeling right, that little tree will find a home on GilChrist soil. If my study of trees this year has done nothing else, I hope it has given me the knowledge to care for this tiny being that has the potential to become a god. That certainly feels spiritual to me.
David C. Stewart is a writer, farmer, past-times bartender, sometimes librarian, gardener, learner, reader, game player, food lover, beer drinker, and many other things, including a caretaker at GilChrist, the Fetzer Institute's retreat center in Three Rivers, Michigan.