The Majestic Oak: A Model of Endurance and Wisdom

This is a “Bur” oak, a massive tree that grows upward of 100 ft. tall and just as wide. Oaks can live more than 300 years. The name derives from “Burr,” the cup of the acorn which resembles the spiny bur of a chestnut. The species extends farther north than any of the other oaks. Out West, it’s considered a “pioneer tree” because it often borders and invades prairie grassland. It was planted there specifically to rescue future travelers who would need to make new wagon tongues, wheel hubs and spokes. Lewis and Clark held council with Native Americans under a 150-year-old bur oak in Sioux City, Iowa. Today, that tree is known at the “Council Oak.” Oaks only blossom every three to five years.

The bark on oak trees is robust. There’s a saying in German: “It’s no skin off in old oak’s back if a wild boar wants to use its bark as a scratching post.” The tree can survive lightning strikes and deep cracks because the wood is permeated with tannins that discourage the growth of harmful fungi. These substances fend off most insects, and the tree will broadcast—through the helpful fungi at its roots—a signal to all the oaks in the area, prompting them to pump tannins through their veins as well. They also improve the taste of wine that’s stored in barrels made from the wood. Native Americans used bur oak leaves as medication for heart problems, reducing fevers and improving circulation. Curiously, scientists have observed that the blood pressure of forest visitors rises went they are under conifers, whereas it calms down and falls in stands of oak trees.

There are at least 100 different species of helpful fungi that operate in various parts of a tree’s roots. By breaking down rocks into disparate minerals, the fungi bolster the nutrition of the soil. Because they strive for stable conditions themselves, the fungi support all species of trees for many miles around protecting them from complete collapse. It’s a prime example of symbiosis and how diversity among the parts of a living system provides security for the whole—in this case, a forest. Perhaps because oak trees are robust, stable and long-lived, they’ve become a symbol of strength, stability and wisdom. 


Even when a tree becomes severely damaged with broken branches, it will grow a replacement crown and live hundreds of years longer. In this, I see the lesson of persistence—continuing to grow regardless, perhaps because of, the trials that life presents. We often hear stories of people who have overcome childhood trauma or adversity. My own experience has convinced me that in each of us there resides the truth of who we are and what we can do, despite what anyone else may say. Eventually, our true nature prevails.

Storms make the oak grow deeper roots.

George Herbert (Church of England priest)


Here’s a quote from Jacob Israel Liberman, optometrist and author of Luminous Life: How the Science of Light Unlocks the Art of Living—a book I highly recommend. “A grain of sand irritating an oyster creates a pearl. Whether we are discussing physics, chemistry, or human interactions, disruption is the catalyst that often brings change. Electrons jump to a higher orbit when they are perturbed. Chemical reactions occur when homeostasis or stability is disturbed. And human beings often transform themselves when they are stressed.” Today, the stressors are coming at us continuously and from all directions. Whatever the disruptions, disturbances or breakdowns, our survival and growth individually and collectively will be determined by the manner of our responses. And there are two fundamental options—fear-based or love-based. 

The path prompted by fear results in a spectrum of self-centered behaviors which, unlike trees that look after each other for the well-being of the forest, create instability and chaos that eventually results in the breakdown of the whole—family, community, nation, planet. Because love is a binding and unifying force, the resulting behaviors produce increased strength and stability. The more we come together and give our unique gifts, the more fully we make ourselves, the nation and planet whole. This isn’t just a feel-good perspective. Sharing the best in us with the rest of us is a fundamental operating principle of evolution, a refinement of what Darwin called “survival of the fittest”—not necessarily the physically strongest, but those who adapt well to their environment.

Every oak tree started out as a couple of nuts who stood their ground.

Henry David Thoreau


One of the most important and obvious lessons we’re learning from the Coronavirus is how interconnected and interdependent we are—globally. It comes at a time when the world is being stressed due to increasing climate catastrophes, national trends toward exclusion and fanning the flames of materialism on a finite planet. Isaac Asimov observed that “the saddest aspect of society is that we’re gathering and exchanging information and knowledge faster than we are gaining wisdom.”

Systemic challenges cannot be resolved by old methods. What they require is a shift in perception and thinking. According to Gary Zukov, author of The Seat Of The Soul, “Our species is again being given the chance to choose how it will learn, how it will evolve. This is a time for us as a species and as individuals to choose again. It is an opportunity for us to choose differently, to choose otherwise, to choose this time to learn love through wisdom to take the vertical path of clarity, of conscious growth and conscious life.” 

Currently, “The vertical path of clarity” requires the activation of knowledge encompassed by wisdom—how best to act in crises that are grounded in biology and exacerbated by social interaction. Evolutionary biologist, Elisabet Sahtouris, informs us that “Evolution protects what is stable and works well, yet is open to change when instabilities arise, using change to create both new unity and new variety—that gives nature the resilience to survive disasters.” Oak trees are “resilient,” even surviving lightning strikes because they have multiple and diverse defensive and symbiotic relationships. Dr. Sahtouris continues: “It is Gaian (Earth as a living system) wisdom to balance variety and use it creatively in forming highly stable ecosystems. The greater the variety is, the more stable the ecosystem is as a whole.” So instead of building walls to reduce or eliminate diversity, the wisdom of evolution—demonstrated by nature—is to build bridges, put up welcoming signs and work on improving relationships across the board. Globalization isn’t a phenomenon, it’s emerging as an evolutionary necessity.

This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.

Carl Sagan

When we come out of quarantine, as challenging it may be at times to shift our perception and engage people who are different from us, the way to build resilience for the known and unknown crises ahead, is to begin to emulate nature by putting into practice the wisdom of evolution. The lesson of the trees, for instance, is that they must interact symbiotically with every member of the forest for it to survive. Self-centeredness, exclusion and discrimination are unhealthy relationships, whether between people and nations and between human beings and the environment. Concerning diversity, the general population needs to learn what scientists have known for a long time—that diversity is the principal evolutionary driver. Without it, living systems—individuals, nations and civilizations fail. 

We must now look to living systems as our teacher, for our survival depends on discovering new ways of living — and making our living — that embody life’s wisdom.

Joe Kresse

Wanting to better understand the specific benefits of “cultural diversity,” I researched some of the most respected sources and found that “it nurtures social cohesion,” “diverse people communicate more, socialize more and provide mutual help and support, all of which decreases stereotyping and discrimination.” “It opens minds to new and exciting experiences and new ways of thinking.” “Diversity promotes cultural enrichment, improves local economies, enhances the robustness in complex systems. And biologically, “populations possessing wide variations of alleles (a variant form of a gene) are more likely to survive and reproduce. Diversity allows natural selection to increase or decrease the frequency of alleles already in the population.” Physically speaking then, sameness and exclusion optimize entropy—decay and death. 

You can’t see wisdom, but you can see its reflection. Its reflection is happiness, fearlessness, and kindness.

Silvia Boorstein

A final observation about wisdom is prompted by the capacity of trees to intercommunicate for the health and well-being of the forest. It has been my experience that when we engage each other in meaningful (as opposed to trivial) conversations, we call out their wisdom, and they in turn call it forth ours.

The wise writers who inspire me are united in observing that consciousness is fundamental, that the universe derives from a “field” of consciousness, and that we tap into it by “tuning” our minds (like a radio receiver) to the frequency of our interests and concerns. If that’s the case, it would account for the addage that “Whatever we think about we make more of.” In speaking the truth—wisdom—we make more of ourselves, each other and the world. 

The Wise Old Oak

His is a noble presence,

this wise old oak.

Nearly three-hundred years old,

besieged by lightning strikes,

insect attacks and underground menaces,

with the help of neighboring species,

woodpeckers who dined on hole-boring beetles,

roots that went deep and broad

and an underground network that spread the news,

he stood his ground.

Blossoming every three years,

he provided acorns for wood ducks, wild turkeys, 

white-tailed deer, rabbits, mice and squirrels,

wagon wheels and shade for pioneers,

healing remedies for the First Nations. 

This storehouse of wisdom,

living example of how evolution works,

improves the taste of wine

and lives as a reminder that all great things

begin with a seed.

David L. Smith

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