February 2: “The Conspiracy of the Trees” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
In his poetry, Robert Frost urges us that “when the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star, to stay our minds on, and be staid.” After this train wreck of a week and month, I am going to suggest trees. Big, durable, seemingly silent trees, standing bare through the frozen winter, renewing their leaves and fruit, patiently scrubbing carbon out of the air and returning oxygen, offering friendly shade from the summer sun, presenting us with apples and almonds and peaches and pecans, many outliving multiple human generations. Trees, that even after their own deaths, give us fire and furniture and canoes and the structure of homes and the material of art. With the assistance of biology professor and Native American teacher Robin Wall Kimmerer, let us join our Jewish neighbors, and turn from our assorted heartbreak, to rest our spirits in the contemplation of trees.
Nut trees don’t make a crop every year, but rather produce at unpredictable intervals. Some years a feast, most years a famine, a boom and bust cycle known as mast fruiting. Unlike juicy fruits and berries, which invite you to eat them right away before they spoil, nuts protect themselves with a hard, almost stony shell and a green, leathery husk. The tree does not mean for you to eat them right away with juice dripping down your chin. They are designed to be food for winter, when you need fat and protein, heavy calories to keep you warm. They are safety for hard times, the embryo of survival. So rich is the reward that the contents are protected in a vault, double locked, a box inside a box. This protects the embryo within and its food supply, but it also virtually guarantees that the nut will be squirreled away someplace safe. Nuts are designed to be brought inside, to save for later in a chipmunk’s cache, or in the root cellar of an Oklahoma cabin. In the way of all hoards, some will surely be forgotten – and then a tree is born.
The nut trees teach us that not all nourishing is immediate. Some of the provision we would make for the future must be hidden now and discovered later, a stealth legacy. Whether it becomes food for the barren winter, or a seedling that survives long storage to take root at a favorable time, we must invest in a trusted future that we may not actually see. Hide a copy of the Constitution among your mystery novels; it’s time may come again. Review the Gettysburg address that you once memorized; somewhere among your computer files, download the words and music to Hamilton. Teach Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus to your grandchildren. Give copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense as stocking stuffers for Christmas; post Langston Hughes’s Let America Be America Again on your Facebook timeline. Leave print outs of Washington’s and Eisenhower’s farewell addresses among the magazines at your dentist’s office. Get a reputation as a cranky advocate for old school democracy; offer to teach civics to your nephew’s scout troop. Make it an ongoing project to describe what the ‘common good’ means to you, and update regularly. Sing protest songs; they carry the kernel of freedom like the curled heart of a walnut. Hide the legacy of liberty everywhere, in plain sight, so that people have to keep tripping over it. The trees know; you don’t have to announce yourself as the biggest winner. You just have to conceal the ideas where others will come across them and be intrigued, when conditions are more favorable.
For mast fruiting to succeed in generating new forests, each tree has to make lots and lots of nuts — so many that it overwhelms the would-be seed predators. If a tree just plodded along making a few nuts every year, they’d all get eaten and there would be no next generation of pecans. But given the high caloric value of nuts, the trees can’t afford this outpouring every year — they have to save up for it, as a family saves up for a special event. Mast-fruiting trees spend years making sugar, and rather than spending it little by little, they stick it under the proverbial mattress, banking calories as starch in their roots. When the account has a surplus, only then [can people and animals gather pounds of nuts to store away.] Forest ecologists hypothesize that mast fruiting is the simple outcome of this energetic equation: make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense.
But trees grow and accumulate calories at different rates depending on their habitats. So the fortunate ones would get rich quickly and fruit often, while their shaded neighbors would struggle and only rarely have abundance, waiting for years to reproduce. If this were true, each tree would fruit on its own schedule, predictable by the size of its reserves of stored starch. But they don’t. If one tree fruits, they all fruit — there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.
This is the wisdom of the trees: all flourishing is mutual. It’s not Darwin’s fault; he wasn’t wrong. We just willfully misread him. Darwin theorized about the fitness of the species to its environment, which includes how the individual members cooperate to make the best possible use of resources, as well as how the species as a whole contributes to the flourishing of the larger environment, and how it creates mutually beneficial connections with other creatures so that they might also thrive. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency; we as humans are nowhere without the bees to pollinate the fruits we love, and the dung beetles to process our waste products, and the 300 to 500 types of bacteria that enable us to digest food into the nutrients that keep us alive. Any political system which claims that some set of individuals can benefit indefinitely at the expense of all others, or can extract and consume resources without returning value to the whole, is an idolatrous lie. Any creature that does not have a way to neutralize the toxins it produces will ultimately poison itself. We think that accountability for our selfish or toxic actions is a choice, but the trees know better. We can bring death upon others and ourselves single handedly, but all flourishing is mutual, and collective, if it is to be sustainable.
In the summer of 1895, the root cellars throughout Indian Territory were full of pecans, and so were the bellies of boys and squirrels. For people, the pulse of abundance felt like a gift, a profusion of food to be simply picked up from the ground. That is, if you got there before the squirrels. And if you didn’t, at least there would be lots of squirrel stew that winter. The pecan groves give, and give again.
Such communal generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which invokes the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well being from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from the pecans is also a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival. The genes that translate to mast fruiting flow on evolutionary currents into the next generations, while those that lack the ability to participate will be eaten and reach an evolutionary dead end. Just so, people who know how to read the land for nuts and carry them home to safety will survive the February blizzards and pass on that behavior to their progeny, not by genetic transmission, but by cultural practice.
This is both our gift, and our challenge, as human beings. We need not await the slow forces of evolutionary shift; we can create change by shaping culture; we can learn. We can, at the very least, offer our hard-won wisdom to the next generation, by example and by teaching. We can tell stories about how the world works, and what happens when selfishness seeks its own narrow good, or when nobility makes a sacrifice for the well-being of all. What the trees know in their patient growth, ring by ring, we must learn in the midst of our hasty seeking here and there; to live for the individual self alone is a dead end, and it is only by cooperation that we make viable progeny to take the places that we must one day leave empty. For they, no less than we, will require an interdependent web of connections; they, no less than we, will thrive only in cooperation and relationship. It seems to me that the processes of democracy are like mast fruiting, which only succeeds if all participate. Few of us can send our knowledge forward in time alone, undefended, uniquely brilliant. Few of us can sway the present with our individual protest; we will be picked off, one by one, overwhelmed by the greed of supremacy for control. It is only by the constant, coordinated practice of human rights, where when one is challenged we all respond; where there are too many insisting on our fundamental freedoms for all to be consumed, that those freedoms can be secured for the future.
The pecan trees and their kin show a capacity for concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees. They ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive. How they do so is still elusive. There is some evidence that certain cues from the environment may trigger fruiting, like a particularly wet spring or a long growing season. These favorable physical conditions help all the trees achieve an energy surplus that they can spend on nuts. But, given the individual differences in habitat, it seems unlikely that environment alone could be the key to synchrony.
In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand in their own council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of conversation was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge-making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak. Until quite recently no one seriously explored the possibility that plants might ‘speak’ to one another. But pollen has been carried reliably on the wind for eons, communicated by males to receptive females to make those very nuts. If the wind can be trusted with that fecund responsibility, why not with messages?
Consider that it will not be until this coming August 31 that we will reach the 100th anniversary of the first public radio newscast, and even an effective electrical telegraph is less than two centuries old. The world wide web of internet communication on which we now so much rely has come into existence within the lifetimes of many in this room. It is perhaps not surprising that so many generations of human scientists were unable to perceive the options that plants might use to talk to each other. Vocalization, and systems derived from speech, such as writing, represent only one of many possible forms of communication.
We’ve been hearing a lot about conspiracies, lately; the roots of the word suggest that it is a “breathing together,” which is something the trees do. It is what we must do now too, we who believe in freedom, in equal justice and the rule of law, in compassion, diversity, character, honor, and facts. We must first remember to breathe; that is not optional. We must keep going, one foot in front of the other, and be aware that we are not alone. Survival in the long run is not a solo project; not for the trees, and not for us. The only way out is through, and the only way through is together.
There is now compelling evidence that our elders were right — the trees are talking to one another. They communicate via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning. Scientists have identified specific compounds that one tree will release when it is under the stress of insect attack — gypsy moths gorging on its leaves or bark nettles under its skin. The tree sends out a distress call: “Hey, you guys over there? I’m under attack here. You might want to raise the drawbridge and arm yourselves for what is coming your way.” The downwind trees catch the drift, sensing those few molecules of alarm, the whiff of danger. This gives them time to manufacture defensive chemicals. Forewarned is forearmed. The trees warn each other and the invaders are repelled. The individual benefits, and so does the entire grove. Trees appear to be talking about mutual defense. Could they also communicate to synchronize masting? There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity. Tree conversations are still far above our heads.
Some studies of mast fruiting have suggested that the mechanism for synchrony comes not through the air, but underground. The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. The mycorrhizal symbiosis enables the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates. The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected. These fungal networks appear to redistribute the wealth of carbohydrates from tree to tree. A kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time. They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual. Soil, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy — all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity.
Through unity, survival. The trees apparently practice redistribution as a way to coordinate the cycles of reproduction that ensure their collective future. Do the healthiest of them make more pecans, perhaps giving them a small statistical edge in the lottery of which nuts might happen to get lost amidst the orgy of consumption? Seems likely. But the larger point is that unless all participate, no one wins. No tree alone, no matter how prolific, can sate the demand; only all of them together can do that, giving a random handful of nuts the opportunity to get lost in the shuffle, and survive to take hold as new trees. There is virtue in thrift; the trees store up their surplus calories until they have enough to overwhelm the environment and have a critical mass survive. If they expended their seasonal gains every year, that would never happen. Yet there is a crucial difference between communal economy and individual hoarding. The trees know what their neighbors need; the mycorrhizae tell them; and it is not until the most successful can spare enough so that all can bear a crop that the mast fruiting signal is given in a propitious year.
This was clearly not the month of our collective fruiting for democracy, but in the soil beneath us the fungi are whispering, and the roots are alive. Marge Piercy reminds us:
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the wall.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us,
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
Without this work of connection, of kindness, of reaching out, of mutuality; without this con-spiracy, democracy cannot survive across the generations. And this is the breathing together that no tyrant has ever been able to abolish.
How generously they shower us with food, literally giving themselves so that we can live. But in the giving, their lives are also ensured. Our taking returns benefit to them in the circle of life making life, the chain of reciprocity. Living by the precepts of the Honorable Harvest — to take only what is given, to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate the gift — is easy in a pecan grove. We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels.
The Honorable Harvest; is this not a recipe for more than agriculture? Take only what is willingly given; do not waste it, but use it carefully and beautifully; acknowledge the debt of gratitude, not only to the immediate giver, but for the abundance of life and the universe; and give back; pay it forward, pass your creativity along, serve the common good in whatever ways you can. We know when we are living in a culture that does not observe the precepts of the Honorable Harvest – even from a position of privilege, our spirits can never be at ease in such a community. Better to live like the trees, rooted together, warning each other about predators, sharing the resources that make fruitfulness possible for all. Better to whisper in the winds, to conspire with the fungus, to make sugar out of sunlight and rain, to be part of the living organism of the forest.
On this very day, we are at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox; even now, their great web of roots begins to stir in the cold soil, the sap softens in preparation for the warming days, deep beneath the bark, the buds are forming. Go out into the forests where they stand, patiently abiding the centuries of our arrogance and greed, breathing the planet green. Even now, in the chill and the mud, in their least enchanting moment – and ours, too. Choose something like a tree; quiet your mind enough to hear their conspiracy; borrow from their ancient strength, and take courage. This may not be the moment, but the year of our harvest will surely come.