I didn’t realize how much I love trees, because for a long time I took them for granted. From the time I was about four or five there was always at least one tree somewhere on our property, and I’ve always made friends with them. The first I remember was a huge, ancient willow growing out of the creek that flowed through our back yard. It was a shallow creek filled with minnows, dappled with sunlight, with large smooth stones that made a path across the water to the shade of the huge old willow. I’d step across the stones to rest in the roots of that tree, its old leafy limbs reaching down around me till they nearly touched the ripples in the stream. I played under the shade of that tree nearly every day.
Then there was the tree that stood just outside my bedroom window in the house where I lived in my teenage years — a great tall maple or oak (I was young and didn’t think to ask its label). In the morning I would look out and see it and at night its shadows would dance across my bedroom walls. I remember when Dad said we would be moving and we went to look at houses: I fell in love with one of those houses because it had a tree outside what would have been my bedroom window. It broke my heart when we didn’t move there. I wanted that bedroom with that tree in my window.
When I grew up and became a pastor I served a church in New Jersey where there were two huge maples outside my back door. When I was in distress over troubles at the church I would walk up and down under their branches while I talked with God, seeking wisdom and peace and a clear way ahead.
But it wasn’t until I took a 30-day retreat, in my 40’s, in a hermit’s cottage kept by the Sisters of a convent near Lake Erie that I recognized the deep affinity that had till then been unconscious. My cottage was one of three hidden deep in the woods, invisible to each other and to the motherhouse. Every day I sat under the shelter of those countless trees. It was mostly tulip trees (yellow poplars) with some maples and oaks, with a few spruce and other evergreens that surrounded my hermitage. I listened to their songs by day and by night, their gentle rustling under hot summer suns and their vigorous sighing and singing in cool evening breezes, but mostly I just gazed at them — especially the tulip trees, with their (to me) strangely shaped leaves and their great presence. Something of their peace entered into me, and I never took trees for granted again, or loved them quite as thoughtlessly as I had before.
I have hugged trees. I guess you could call me a tree-hugger. But one day I held a tree as it lay dying. It was one of the big maples outside the manse I lived in, and it had been felled by a storm that swept through in the night. I found it in the morning, and I laid my hands on its bark for a long time, until I felt its energy ebbing. I mourned that great friend’s passing.
I am a mystery to myself. How can I move through the world so heedless, as I am most of the time, of my connection to these living creatures who have sheltered and blessed me in so many ways? So rushed. So busy with things indoors. So cocooned in my house or my car or my office that I miss the natural world that is my real home. I wish someone had taught me as a child to reverence and respect and seek the wisdom of the myriad living creatures – plant and animal – that nurture and sustain us and on whom we depend so much. When I was a child I had the instinct – most children do – to gaze long at grasshoppers and wonder at ants and marvel at every little minnow swimming in the water. But somewhere along the way that sense of wonder and of the sheer significance of such creatures slipped away from me.
For years I prayed with my eyes closed. Then one day the Lord said to me, “Now I want you to pray with your eyes open.” I’m learning more and more that to experience communion with God’s creation is to pray; that to be awake and aware, receptive and open to the expression of God’s Word that called forth life in all its forms, is to meet God in the world.
I’m still learning to pray with my eyes open. I’m still not very good at it. But I’m getting there.