The Ceiba Tree: Symbol Of Transformation

The Ceiba (“SAY-ba”) grows in the wet tropics of Mexico, Central and South America and West Africa, reaching heights of up to 230 ft. Growing thirteen feet a year, it’s the tallest tree in the Amazon rainforest. The buttresses that give it stability can be ten feet tall and extend ten feet from the trunk. 

Until age seven, the young trees have green stripes and large thorny spines around the trunk to discourage animals from damaging them. 

When mature, the tree produces three-to-six-inch long, elliptical fruits in the umbrella-like crown that contain many seeds surrounded by a dense mat of cottony fibers called kapok “silk” in Asia. 

Because the seeds are rich in oils and proteins the oil is edible and was also used for soap and lighting in oil lamps. Near to pure cellulose, the fibers shed water and don’t hold or conduct heat, so they’ve been used as padding for seat cushions, pillows, mattresses, saddles and life preservers. 

From December to February the tree produces numerous white, pink or red flowers that only bloom every five years or more. In the evening the blossoms open after sunset and stand out against the darkening sky like bright stars. When it’s dark, bats come to drink nectar from the flowers and eat the pollen. In the first hours of the morning, blackbirds, tanagers, orioles, brown jays, hummingbirds, oropendolas and many others by the hundreds mingle among their giant arms and blooms. 

In Puerto Rico ceibas were often planted in the center of plazas for shade. In Trinidad and Tobago folklore, there was a carpenter who carved seven rooms into a large ceiba. By tricking Bazil—the demon of death—into living there, he freed the population to live in peace. In 1492 Christopher Columbus and then Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo in 1526 were both impressed by the size of the canoes the Indians made from ceiba trees. They reported that some of them carried more than 100 men.

For the ancient Maya, the ceiba tree was sacred. With its roots deep in the underworld, trunk in the middle world and branches in the sky, it served as a model of the cosmos representing the three realms, all inhabited by gods and demons. Their ideological version of the cosmic tree, which was an imagined replica of the ceiba, was known as Sa’ache’, the “World Tree.” In an ancient myth, the Middleworld was seen as resting on the back of a gigantic, monstrous crocodile— turtle in some places—who floated on an enormous pond full of waterlilies. From the monster’s body there grew the great cosmic tree. The Upperworld or celestial realm had thirteen layers, each with its own deity. And at the highest level, there was a vainglorious mythological bird who fancied himself brighter than the sun. Called Itzam-Yeh by the Maya and the Principal Bird Deity by scholars, he dispensed the life force to human beings from his nest in the arms of the “Great Tree.”

Because ceibas undergo a dramatic change beginning it their seventh year, losing their green color and thorns to become a tall and smooth-skinned adults with a crown of hairy arms, in modern times it has come to represent transformation, a turning point in life. I’ve recently been appreciating the perspectives of Dr. Michael Meade, a renowned storyteller and mythologist in the tradition of Joseph Campbell. He describes the current crises—coronavirus, eco degradation, climate catastrophes, widening economic gap, the trend toward nationalism, ignorant and untrustworthy governmental leadership—here and abroad—as a “rite of passage.” In a half-hour podcast, To Not Miss Your Star, he unpacked the etymology of words including “disaster,” “leadership,” “nobility,” “king” and “destiny” revealing a common pattern between our story and ancient myths. He observed that, as with the ceiba trees where something is lost in order for something greater to emerge, we’re at a turning point.

In another talk, Dr. Meade described the three stages of a rite of passage or initiation that offered a hopeful perspective and addressed the question: Given what’s happening, what can we do about it? What constitutes a proper response? He began by saying the next world cannot be the same as the last one. 

“That’s the one that generated all the sickness, generated the distance between the rich and the poor, generated the bigotries and racism and xenophobia, all of those things. They were generated and becoming prolific in the world we left, and so we have to imagine and create another world that is made differently, one that is seen differently so the people in the dark begin seeing in a different way. That’s what the separation we’re going through is about—learning to see the world in a different way. It’s not that we need a better world, we need a better worldview. Like in the Native American creation story, the first four seekers stood in the dark facing the four directions asking the Creator where they would find the center. We’re collectively standing in the dark waiting for the center to be revealed. As the First People discovered, the center is within us, in how we see the Earth and cosmos.”  

In talking about the rite of passage, he identified “Separation” as the first stage. It’s where we’re required to see the world with fresh eyes. In indigenous cultures, initiates go through a second birth. The first is when they enter the world and go through the process of figuring out their environment, family and what they’re qualified to do. Dr. Meade says humanity is currently in this stage of separation. 

Anthropologists refer to the second stage as “The Ordeal,” or “Awakening of the Soul”—the full expression of mind and imagination. It begins when the initiate goes off alone to experience a vision quest where he can see more of the world and find his place in it. Today we’d call it a quest to find his purpose, his reason for being. For the first time he finds himself alone and suffering through some hardship in order to experience nature—Earth and cosmos. In this way he gains confidence in his ability to survive, and he has greater appreciation for community. Today, because of the coronavirus many people are alone, suffering both physically and psychologically.

“This is where most of us are—the space between separation and union. The space in a doorway that’s between places is called a “threshold” or “liminal” space. On one side is the old world, and the other is the next world. Today, we find ourselves in-beween the old and the new. After the separation, which is happening throughout the world, we’re left in a liminal space betwixt and between. In the United States, there’s a big conversation about ‘the return’ (to normal). Many people, especially those in charge, want to quickly go back to the world that was before. From my point of view, that world is already gone. And it can never happen again.”

The third stage is “The Return.” Here, the initiate rejoins the community transformed. He’s a different person. 

(The initiate) “needs to realize it and the community needs to acknowledge and confirm that difference. ‘We see what you went through. We see that you have become a bigger person and we want to recognize, bless and support you in that…’ The initiates come back inspired and filled with the numinosity of being, and therefore they energize the collective. When a person goes through a crisis, they have to come out changed or it wasn’t a real crisis. You either come out of a challenging experience as a smaller person or a greater soul. The challenge of our time is to become greater souls individually and collectively and therefore bring more soul, more connection and caring into the world—or else we’re all going to get smaller.”

“We’re on our way to another world that’s going to be either worse or better. We stand together looking into the darkness. And what are we looking for? There are two darknesses: The darkness from outside ourselves where we’re looking for inspiration to come, and the other is looking inside ourselves. “What in my life do I have to face in order to become a bigger person? If we can clear ourselves and become receptors of what’s trying to come in, we can get messages from the world that is not there yet but is trying to become. It’s not that we have the ideas now and the wrong people in power. That’s true, but what we’re waiting for is the other world to call to us, to give us information and knowledge… The future is sending us messages about what it wants to be, what it wants us to be when we get there. Rushing to return is a big mistake. In a collective rite of passage we have the opportunity to listen within and become greater souls.”

It’s plain to see that we’re engaged in a rite of passage. Just as the ancient Maya contemplated three levels of the universe—underworld, middle world and cosmos—in the great ceiba tree, we can recognize the first rite of passage—Separation—where the roots spread out, the second—The Ordeal—in the trunk representative of a long journey of elevation and the third in the enormous arms of the crown hidden in the clouds where something greater and more beautiful will emerge. For now, it’s comforting to know that a natural process with deep roots is underway. Can’t we feel it—the living Earth calling for balance? With each of us caring for ourselves and others and supporting leaders who want to help create a better world (rather than attempt a return to the dysfunctional and destructive one) we can be confident that, aligned with nature, that better world will come. The challenge of a transformative turning point is to be patient—ceibas take 300 years to fully mature—as each of us, given our unique gifts, however seemingly small, find ways to illuminate the darkness. 

The strength of the pack is the strength of the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the strength of the pack.

Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book

My novels in the ancient Maya trilogy, The Path Of The Jaguar, are structured as initiations. As the protagonist is the same soul in different incarnations, the rite of passage in each experience raises the soul to a higher level of awareness. The trilogy progression is Jaguar Rising, Jaguar Wind and Waves (with a female protagonist), and then Jaguar Sun, the final realization. Here is a selection, part of the protagonist’s vision quest in Jaguar Rising.

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.100)

(Initiation—First Trial: Capture A Deer)

BEYOND AXEHANDLE, WHERE THE FINGER OF THE LAND turned into a broad thumb, we stopped beside a tree marked with a tall hunter’s hat and two black bands. “Grandson,” my teacher said. “Here begins the first of your three trials, one in each of the worlds. Ahead is your middle world trial.” 

I was excited. “What do you want me to do?”

He pointed in the distance to the narrowing of the beach where the forest nearly met the water. “Stop along there and say an apology and gratitude to the forest lord. Then go into the wild and capture one of his sons or daughters, a fully-grown deer. Do not kill him. Use no weapons. Make your shelters and drill your fires along the coast. If you need a cord, cut some vine and braid it. If you need a net, get some thin fronds and weave one. Ask and accept help from no one but your ancestors. Eat what you alone can gather or kill. Go as far as you need—to take a deer. Remember, you must not kill or injure it. Instead, deliver it live to your father’s pen.”

I was so shocked I could neither interrupt nor believe what I was hearing. “With respect, grandfather. Is this even possible? An adult deer could be taller than me. Even a little one could outrun Thunder Flute.” 

“Trust your ancestors. They are always with you.”

Hunting deer required skill and muscle. Usually, bands of six or more men went out with dogs and spears and strong cords. For me to do it alone and without any of these things was unthinkable. 

If Mother knew this she would be horrified. 

Like vultures on a carcass, stories that Thunder Flute told about men in the wilds swooped down and began pecking at my throat and stomach. Deadly yellow-jaws lay coiled in the weeds and hung from trees. There were blood-sucking bats as large as eagles, and frogs whose loud and constant croaking made men crazy. And there were jaguars. Hunters told stories of them taking down tapirs, deer and peccary and carrying them up a tree. Even water didn’t stop them. More terrifying for me as a sprout was the prospect of encountering an underworld demon, bony creatures with bulbous skulls and bellies who roamed the wilds at night in search of human flesh and blood. Their sweat and flatulence alone were known to kill any who walked into it. “With respect grandfather, what should I do about the dark lords?”

There was not much left of the day. “Keep your thoughts on what you have come to do. If a crosswind comes at night, take shelter away from your fire. Wear this.” He removed his necklace, a single jaguar tooth on a leather cord, and put it over my head. “By this, demons, jaguars and snakes will know you are under our protection.” He had me kneel and he held the serpent on his staff against my head while he chanted. Then he tapped me on the shoulder and turned away. I watched as he left. He didn’t even glance back.

(Capture Of Kicking Deer And Muddy Fawn)

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.101)

Within the sorcerer’s ring, there was a dark grotto, a long mud pit overhung with a thicket of bush with palm and nance trees blooming yellow and orange rising above it. Not far from the edge of the pit, a fawn lay on its side, lifeless and splattered with mud. Two vultures were trying to get at it, flapping their wings to stay above the mud. Farther out dark splatters on top of the lighter-colored mud drew my eyes to an adult deer who was submerged except for its head. Flies, dragonflies and mosquitoes flitted around its nose and closed, seeping eyes. I threw a stick at the vultures and they backed away, but the largest of them jumped onto a branch above the lifeless brown body. When he leaned down and pecked at an ear, it twitched, so I knew the deer was alive. I began throwing clumps of mud at the big ugly and he went higher in the tree.  

To get to the fawn I gathered some fallen branches and laid them on the mud. Crawling out on my stomach I had no trouble getting my arm around her, but when I pulled her by the neck she kicked, the branches broke and we sank. Fortunately, the mud and water was only waist deep. I managed to get some footing, enough to pull the little one onto the bank. The big ugly jumped down again and sidled along the branch closest to the doe. This time when I threw mud at him, one of his brothers darted at the fawn and pecked at its rump. Shouting and throwing mud in both directions, I chased them back. 

So it went until I could gather enough dried fronds and weeds to cover the trembling fawn. With the vultures pushed back I managed to pull some creeper vine and twist it into a cord about an arm’s length. I broke off a branch from a fallen tree and stripped the small branches to make a pole. Using it for balance, I went into the pit to see how far I could go—all the while warning the vulture lord that if she didn’t keep her sons and daughters back, I would be forced to use it against them. Nearly up to my neck in mud, I got the cord around the doe’s neck and tied the ends together. When I pulled on it she opened her eyes, pulled back and kicked me hard in the side, ripping the cord from my hands. 

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The Tulip: Symbol Of Love

The tulip story begins in Central and Western Asia when the bulbs were brought to Turkey by nomadic tribes about 500 years ago. The Turks considered them to be jewels, but it was the Persians who named them “tulipant,” their word for turban which described the shape of the flower they often wore in their turbans. In the late 16th century a European ambassador visited the Ottoman Empire and was given the gift of tulip bulbs and seeds. He then gave some seeds to the Roman emperor, Ferdinand I, and Carolus Clusius, the emperor’s botanist—who introduced the species to Holland when he was appointed professor of botany at Leiden University. 

Between 1634 and 1637 “tulip mania” resulted in an economic frenzy in the Netherlands. The value of the bulbs shot up and quickly became the most expensive flower in the world. In some areas, it was traded as a form of currency. Bulbs were said to cost 10 times more than a working man’s average salary, making them more valuable than some homes. At its peak, a single bulb could change hands up to 10 times a day. Eventually, the economy collapsed, but the Netherlands is still the worlds leading producer, growing as many as 3 million bulbs per year, mostly for export.  Several decades later hysteria hit England where the government was forced to pass a law limiting the price of the single bulb to 400 old English pounds. (One Pound sterling is equivalent to $1.25). 

“Tulipia” is a member of the lily family. Although the blossoms are edible, were even a primary source of food for those starving in the Netherlands during World War II, the taste is not desirable. There are over 150 species and over 3,000 varieties of tulips. With some exceptions, they only bloom from 3-7 days in the early spring.

In Persia, many poets were inspired by tulips. In the Turkish language, tulips are called “lale,” which when written is spelled the same as Allah so it became a symbol of paradise in this world and everything divine. In the Netherlands, the tulip is the main symbol of Dutch culture and heritage, calling to mind the shortness of life since they only bloom for a short time. Every year, the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa celebrates Canada’s role in liberating the Dutch during World War II. It began when the Dutch Royal Family gifted the Canadian people with tulips. And now it’s the biggest tulip celebration with over a million tulips planted in the capital region, initiating a variety of fun activities and artworks consisting of tulips.

Florists have generally agreed upon the meaning of various blossoms—

  • Red blossoms are a declaration of passionate love.
  • Purple blossoms represent royalty, wealth, nobility, extravagance and devotion.
  • Varigated colors express a compliment, such as saying the receiver has beautiful eyes.
  • Yellow blossoms symbolize unrequited love.
  • Pink blossoms signify affection and love, but not in a romantic way.
  • White flowers signify peace or forgiveness.

The velvet-like center of tulips is said to represent the heart of a passionate lover.

As tulips are short-lived and a symbol of love, they can serve as a reminder to not let a day pass by without doing something to experience or express love, if even a little bit. An evocative experience can be as subtle or simple as the sight of a bird, clouds or someone we care about; the sound of a steam-whistle on a distant train, a piece of music or a person’s voice on the phone; the gentle touch of someone’s hand, the warmth of a fireplace on a cold night or the soft stroking of a furry animal, the smell of flowers, baking bread, summer rain or the taste of a favorite food or beverage. In these kinds of situations, paying attention to what we’re sensing triggers a heartfelt response that can be spontaneous or purposeful. 

Love triggered by the senses is a feeling that comes in response to something or someone outside us. Beyond the feeling, sensory stimuli can call up the awareness of unconditioned love that resides within us, and that it, along with consciousness, is fundamental to our nature. The implication is that love can be experienced as a purposeful choice, any time and anywhere, regardless of circumstances. Instead of looking for love as if it’s a need we’d like to have satisfied, we can awaken it with any experience, positive or negative. The soul, being a fully realized drop in the ocean of pure, eternal and unconditional love and consciousness, doesn’t distinguish between right and wrong, positive or negative. It’s already fully “realized.” So we can tap into the energy of love easily and often, simply by choosing to love whatever we notice—and saying so, whether to ourselves or others.  

Throughout the day, the content of our self-talk tends to focus on bodily concerns, household needs, work and other tasks, including relationships and what’s happening personally, socially, nationally and globally. These are the things that concern us to maintain health and grow, make the best of our situation, express ourselves and contribute our unique gifts as members of larger whole systems. Given the nature of the soul, one way to choose love is to incorporate love and its expressions (gratitude, appreciation and acknowledgment) in everyday self-talk.

Awareness + Desirable Object = Love. The equation holds no matter what the object, experience or perception. Whatever the awareness, when we choose to love—anything or anyone—we get a taste of the truth of our being, that we are love, the understanding of which transcends all the other kinds of love. According to Greek philosophers, these include eros (romantic love), philia (love between equals), philautia (self-love), storge (friend love), pragma (enduring love), ludus (infatuation or playful love), mania (obsessive love) and agape (unconditional love). What I’m observing here, is that every experience of love, no matter how fleeting or small, taps into the ground or source of love. 

The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love.

Teresa of Avila 

The challenge and opportunity then is to choose to love as much as possible of what life presents, moment-to-moment, regardless of our perceptions or judgments about it. It’s easy to love certain people and objects—such as tulips—not so easy to love pain, disappointment and suffering. In these situations the challenge is to remember that these too are the soul’s way of eliciting the awarness that we are more than our bodies, thoughts and circumstances. We didn’t come here to be comfortable and have fun. There’s a greater purpose behind the cards we’ve been dealt. Love both liberates and enlivens that purpose. 

Benjamin Disraeli wrote: “We are born for love. It is the principle of existence and its only end.” What is the consequence of this? My view combines what Mother Teresa and Teilhard de Chardin S.J. recommended, that as conscious beings evolution encourages us to maximize the amount of love in all that we do and, as much as possible, heighten its frequency until it becomes universal and unconditional, willing the good of the whole. Regarding tulips, a symbol of love, they don’t aspire to grow taller or be roses. They do aspire to be beautiful—so they can awaken love. And in that, they realize their uniqueness. And they endure. 

For a list of the “Top 50” tulip varieties and how best to grow them, visit on Florgeous.

In essence, our true nature is love. We actually are the love we seek from others, so seeking love outside our self takes us farther away from discovering the source of love.

Lynn Marie Lumiere

Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.

Teilhard de Chardin

It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters. 

Mother Teresa

Unconditional love exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It’s not ‘I love you’ for this or that reason, not ‘I love you if you love me.’ It’s love for no reason, love without an object.

Ram Dass  

If I love the world as it is, I’m already changing it: a first fragment of the world has been changed, and that is my own heart.

Dumitriu Petru

This is the revolution: to love all beings for themselves and not for their use.

Charles Eisenstein

Flowers don’t worry about how they’re going to bloom. They just open up and turn toward the light and that makes them beautiful.

Jim Carrey

Now is the time to know

That all that you do is sacred.

Now, why not consider

A lasting truce between you and the Divine.

Now is the time to understand

That all your ideas of right and wrong

Were just a child’s training wheels

To be laid aside when you can finally

Live with the veracity of love.

Now is the time to know

That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time

For you to deeply compute the impossibility

That there is anything in this world but Grace.

Now is the time to know

That everything you do is sacred.

Rumi


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The Magnolia Tree: Symbol Of Endurance

“Southern” Magnolia Blossom

The Magnolia genus is at least 100 million years old. Bees and butterflies didn’t exist then, so the trees relied upon beetles for pollination. Their early ancestors, one of the first flowers on earth, lived on the supercontinent of Pangaea 250 million years ago, then spread to Laurasia (Europe and Asia) 200 million years ago. French botanist, Charles Plumier, discovered the tree on the island of Martinique and named it after Pierre Magnol, a French botanist whom he admired. Today, there are 210 diverse species of magnolia trees. They can grow up to 30’ tall and spread 25’. The early-spring blossoms can spread to 10” in diameter. 

Buds on a “Saucer” Magnolia Tree

According to Chinese feng shui, a magnolia planted in front of the house attracts the energy of pleasure and rest; planted behind the house it symbolizes a slow but sure acquisition of wealth. More generally in China, it symbolizes purity and nobility. There, and in Japan, the extract of the  tree’s bark has been used as a medicine for 2000 years. The Japanese consider Magnolia blossoms to be “Hanakotoba,” indicating sublime, natural, love for nature. In Europe, there was a custom to offer a magnolia blossom to the return of an old love after being unfaithful. In the United States, the extract is used in medicine and in the cosmetic industry, and the flower is strongly associated with the South. It’s the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi—the “Magnolia State.” And due to the scores of magnolia trees growing along the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas is sometimes referred to as “Magnolia City.”

The Saucer Magnolia (shown here and above) was the first to be hybridized. It’s a cross between Magnolia denudata and liliiflora, first raised near Paris in 1826 by Etienne Soulange-Bodin, a French army officer. Today, it’s the world’s most widely planted garden Magnolia, with many cultivated forms. 

The title of the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias,” is a reference to the magnolia’s ability to withstand harsh conditions. In the movie, six women “endure” a barrage of hardships and eventually rise above them. Each time we see the tree blooming, it can remind us that we can endure life’s challenges well, face them squarely and make the best of them. 

This is especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we pause and turn inside, the ancient roots of the magnolia recommend patience and endurance. One of the great lessons of evolution is that each species must either learn to adapt to changing conditions or perish. Our current challenge is necessitating an adjustment, not only in lifestyle but in how we think about and relate to one another and the planet as a living system. It’s important to realize that the virus itself is a living system, born of the earth and multiplying according to the design of life—to make more of itself. This is not to minimize the lethal consequences for our species if we let it go unchecked, just to underline one of the lessons that nature is teaching us—that we’re all members of one body, a living integrated system that’s mutually responsive.  

Besides the quarantine advantages, our being told to “stay at home” can be seen as a call to be patient, return to center and take advantage of the opportunity to cleanse ourselves of inherited norms surrounding excessive consumption, increase our appreciation for services and people we previously took for granted, consider our real needs versus wants, shift from a quantity to quality mindset and reprioritize in order to lay a solid foundation for life in the new reality.

 

I’ve always loved magnolia trees and their blooms — there’s something so beautiful about a magnolia blossom. It demands attention, and you can’t help but love those big, creamy petals and that fragrant smell. 

Joanna Gaines


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Soil: Literally And Symbolically The “Ground”

Soils are “living” systems—a combination of ground minerals and organic matter that began to form in the Cambrian Explosion (550 mya) after a mass extinction of life-forms between the Permian and Triassic geologic periods. Today, soils are to the land what plankton are to the oceans—the bottom or ground of the food chain. On average, it can take hundreds or thousands of years for one centimeter of soil to form. There are more microorganisms in a handful of soil than there are people on earth. And just one teaspoon of soil contains billions of microbes divided among 5,000 different types, thousands of species of fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites and many more. 

According to the Soil Health Institute, “95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils. In the last 150 years, the world’s soils have lost half of the basic building blocks that make them productive.” The Institute produced Living Soil, a very informative 60-minute documentary about soil health that explains the status of global soils and features what innovative farmers and soil health experts are doing to promote it. Whatever the scale, everyone involved in farming should see this! 

The complex soil ecosystem is highly evolved and sophisticated. It processes organic waste into soil. It filters and cleans much of the water we drink and the air we breathe by retaining dust and pathogens. And it plays a large role in how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere.

Jim Robbins (NY Times Colomnist)

Specifically, soils contain nearly one-third of all living organisms, filter out pollutants from underground water, improve habitats and increase plant nutrient availability and uptake. According to Eric B. Nelson who studies disease ecology at Cornell, “The greater the soil diversity, the fewer diseases that emerge in plants… Insects are deterred by plants that grow in healthy soils.”

Scientists found that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. They say that’s where it belongs, not in the atmosphere. Adding carbon to the soil by maintaining or adding trees and plants makes the land much more productive because the living materials capture carbon dioxide from the air and pump it down, through the roots to hungry microorganisms. Known as “carbon sequestration,” the process contributes significantly toward combating climate change.

From a living systems perspective we see that climate health depends on the health of local ecosystems everywhere. The health of local ecosystems, in turn, depends on the health of the water cycle, and the health of the water cycle depends on the soil and the forests. 

Charles Eisenstein

Author, Climate: A New Story

Globally, soils are in trouble. 33% of global soil is moderate to highly degraded through erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, chemical pollution and nutrient depletion. It’s estimated that 28% of the world’s agricultural land grows crops that are wasted. Excessive and unnecessary tilling breaks up pores of sand, clay, silt and other matter that’s home to bacteria, fungi, microbes and larger creatures like earthworms, releasing these into the air as carbon dioxide. The world’s soils have lost between 50-70% of their original carbon stock, much of which has been released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. And soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it’s being replenished. Add to that, soil “sealing” from the asphalt and concrete of suburban sprawl destroys soil life, as do heavy machinery and pollution. I think about the many commercials that show cars and other vehicles ripping up the soil for the sake of offroad adventure. According to Charles Eisenstein, these and other unsustainable practices will stop when we understand that human well-being is inseparable from the well-being of soil and water.”

Soil, with all of its organic matter, is second to the oceans as the largest carbon repository on the planet. Annual plowing, erosion and other mismanagement releases carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and exacerbates climate change.  

Jim Robbins

NY Times Columnist

Regarding solutions, we can put carbon back in the soil where it belongs by avoiding synthetic chemicals, keeping the soil covered with plants or trees, increasing crop diversity, composting, safeguarding worms, using cover crops, practicing responsible grazing and practicing no-tilling agriculture—not plowing every year; allowing dead vegetation to decompose. Soil scientist, Julia Gaskin at the University of Georgia recommends being patient. “When we are talking about restoring our soil and bringing it to a healthy balance, we need to have some patience and add amendments gradually over time. Our goal should be to get the soil to where we want it to be in a course of three to five years, not instantaneously.” 

To learn more about the complex ecosystem services that soil provides and what we can do locally to maintain and enhance it, visit the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative.

Soil symbolizes the ground, the generative state. We’re grounded physically, mentally and emotionally when we’re comfortable in our bodies, not distracted, scattered, fearful, anxious or dwelling on the past or future. Spiritually, we’re grounded when we’re present and living in the present, centered, operating from a deep understanding of our personal purpose and feeling connected to the Ground of All Being, whatever we perceive that to be. 

In practice, we become grounded by tapping into life’s essences and constructing a worldview that’s positive, rich with meaning, uplifting and empowering. Approaches vary, but can include  activities such as contemplation, meditation, being in nature, star-gazing, laughing, creating, empathizing and helping others. Meanings and applications of the words “ground” and “grounding” are many and varied. Here, I offer a few inspirational perspectives.

Awareness is the ground of conscious life, the background or field in which all elements exist, different from thoughts, sensations, or images… Behind your thoughts and images is awareness and that is where you are.

Jenny Wade (Developmental Psychologist)

Les Matheson, a business training specialist in New York writes “In order to become grounded, you have to be able to see your self-concept as a limited thing with a kind of falseness to it.” By developing some self-awareness and understanding to see this mechanism as mostly ego-maintenance, he says we can get through it and become grounded by asking “What has universal value?” What’s really important in life? “What comes up are words like love, truth, freedom, justice, friendship, healing, and so forth, things that have an enduring value which goes beyond just concerns about me and my needs and desires.” His bottom line: To become grounded requires that we “Start taking those values seriously—to prioritize them with the understanding that you’re working to embody those values—to become the source and generator of those values.” (Italics are his).     

Finding common ground with other people does not mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is shareable ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with. You and your neighbor may not vote for the same political candidate, for example, but your shared belief in elections, free speech, and the democratic process is common ground.

John Graham (Leadership coach)

Physicist David Bohm famously coined the phrase “Ground Of All Being.” He said “All phenomena emerge from—and continuously participate within—this oceanic field of being. Everything is in dynamic relation with everything else, continuously communicating and collaborating within an immense ocean of consciousness.”

Soil has the transformative power to help us stabilize our changing climate. By capturing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and storing them underground, through the assistance of living plants and microbes, we improve both the atmosphere and the soil.

Karen Ross

Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture

We never tear away the earth’s skin… The trees that the white people plant, the mango trees, the coconut trees, the orange trees, and the cashew trees, they do not know how to call the rain.

Shaman Davi Koenawa (Amazon Yanomami)

I would rather lie facedown on the ground and use my body as a bridge, than stand proud and tall and use my body as a wall. 

Kamand Kojouri (Teacher)

Soil

How we treat the soil

is how we treat ourselves.

The more life we put into it,

the more life that can come from it.

The soil doesn’t belong to me,

but is entrusted to my care.

What I do with it, how I treat it,

matters to the world, not just me.

We awake and find ourselves on the Earth,

many of us privileged to be caretakers.

Whether a plot or farm,

whatever we plant and how we plant—

Our little being serves the soil, the Earth,

on behalf of The Ground Of All Being—

A privilege and responsibility.

 


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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. 

Strength

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)

Stability

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

Wisdom

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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The Pansy Flower: A Reminder To Remember

Perhaps because Pansies are annuals and small, those of us who aren’t gardeners can easily miss the beauty and the message they carry. I only became aware of them when, beginning many years ago, Linda began to plant them in her garden and in a long flower box on our front porch where they greeted us every time we left the house and returned. Because of their saturated colors and varying “faces” depending on the light and weather, I often photographed them.

The flower gets its name from “pensé,” the French word for thought or remembrance. The blossoms were sent to someone, ostensibly to say “remember me” or “I remember you.” First bred from the Wild Pansy in Victorian times, the flower was considered a love potion. Shakespeare, who once described it as “Love-In-Idleness,” cited it as the reason why Titania fell in love with an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Pansy blossoms have five petals. They’re a member of the large Viola (violet) family native to the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including Hawaii, Australia and the Andes. They like moist and slightly shaded conditions and are relatively disease and pest free. 

One type of blossom, particularly the yellows and some blues and purples, have thin black lines called penciling. It’s said that the pansy’s delicate aroma is more pronounced in the early morning and at dusk. This is especially the case with the yellow and blue blossoms. Both the pansy leaves and the flowers are edible and high in vitamins A and C. They’ve been used to make syrup and dyes. And the Greeks cultivated several of the viola species, including the  pansy, for medicinal use.

Because the word and the gesture of giving pansies relates to rememberance, and considering that gardeners speak of the blossom as a “face,” I’m reminded of ancient Maya stelae, carved and erected in large part to depict a ruler so he would be remembered. In cultures that venerate ancestors, when a person dies it doesn’t end their relationships or influence within a family or the community. This is because the spirit of the person lives on, just in another world. And they continue to have influence in the world, as long as they are remembered. By continuing to have conversations with the deceased and offering them gifts—for example, as Mexicans do on the Day Of The Dead—the deceased ancestors can appeal to saints and others in the spirit realm on behalf of petitioners to keep them safe, healthy and so on.

For indigenous people, to “re-member” is to maintain the spirit of a deceased person as a member of a family or community. The faces of Maya kings are prominent on monuments, buildings and artifacts because being remembered kept them alive and extended their influence beyond the grave. Just as the faces of kings had power, so the faces of pansies can have power—if we take from their faces the memory of someone we lost. 

After gaining this insight, I decided that the face of a particular yellow pansy in our flower box will, every time I see it this Spring, will remind me of Joanne, my deceased sister. Yellow, because her smile and  hearty laughter brightened the day for everyone she met. Indeed, she has been re-membered by many. And she is contributing.  

Pansy

Every Spring,

the black lines

on her colorful five-petaled face—

a floral megaphone—

call us to remember a loved one.

David L. Smith


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Willow Tree: Model of Flexibility, Adaptability and Growth

Willows are graceful and easily recognized by their long thin branches that sometimes reach the ground. Their green leaves are also long and narrow with  finely toothed edges. They grow well near water, especially where the soils are acidic, loamy, and well-drained. They grow fast, more then 24” per year, reaching heights up to 80′ with a spread of  50’.  In April and May, they produce yellow flowers born on short catkins. Producing brown fruit 1/4” in diameter, male and female flowers grow on separate trees.

All trees have defenses mechanisms. For willows, it’s the production of salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin that’s on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, those safest and most effective. A tea made from willow bark can relieve headaches and bring down fevers. Salicylic acid is a key ingredient in topical skin care products, and it’s used as a food preservative, bactericide and an antiseptic.

To reproduce, willows use their colorful blossoms and olfactory signals to draw attention to themselves and attract passing bees. Sweet, sugar-rich nectar rewards them in exchange for the dusting the bees receive during their visit. Other willow species—poplars as well—send fine-haired seeds adrift on the wind for long distances.

Native to China, willows are mentioned in texts from ancient Egypt, Sumer and Assyria. The Celtic nations used their wood in ceremonies to enhance psychic abilities. The Cherokee and other Native Americans use an infusion of the bark to reduce fever and inflammation and treat rheumatism and headaches. It’s also a symbol of inner wisdom for them, a reminder to keep an open mind with the stability and the strength of age and experience.

For us, because willows are one of the few trees that bend without breaking, they can provide a model of flexibility, the ability to go with the flow of life—hold ideas, conversations, opinions and news lightly and adjust to change appropriately always eager to explore greater truth, expand awareness and act with empathy.

Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.

Bruce Lee

Another quality of willows that we can learn from is their adaptability. They can survive in challenging soil and weather conditions, sometimes taking root from a single fallen branch. As I write, the world is responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. All of a sudden, humanity is waking up to the fact of our interconnectedness and interdependence. I find it curious, instructive actually for the future, that although the Federal government has been and continues to be slow to respond—more in an “It’ll be alright” mode than “All hands on deck; here’s the information and this is what needs to be done”—the public and their local affiliations are assuming the responsibility for rapid and appropriate responses. I think we’ve all gotten the message: In a whole-systems crisis, the way through is best managed by the parts (members), each adjusting to change according to his or her circumstances. Those at the top of the social pyramid need to be prepared to provide those in the middle and bottom with the resources they need to help them help themselves. In the case of a pandemic, that means ensuring that test kits are immediately available and testing sites widespread, fully supplied and prepared. 

We are not to be forced into a choice between uniformity on the one hand—everybody exactly alike—and alienation on the other hand—everybody divided into different groups antagonistic to one another. We can behave like an ecological network. Currently, we are shifting and adjusting, mutating and suffering extinctions: the human ecology is in motion, groping for adaptation.

Fritjof Capra

Because willows are prolific growers, they can also remind us that, irrespective of conditions and  circumstances, we can grow as persons and family members right where we are. Especially, we can grow in consciousness—by developing our self-identity and improving the quality of our relationships with others, the planet and God—however we perceive that and by whatever name we prefer. I specify the development of consciousness because growth for its own sake is the ideology and methodology of cancer cells. Professional growth is a different challenge. For many, it requires a move to another city. And while that complicates family matters physically, it’s equivalent to the willow seed blown in the wind far from the parent tree. Wherever it lands, it puts down roots and begins the process of reaching to the sky. 

Human society can no longer afford behavior that is selfish, arrogant or separative. The time has come to mobilize every major discipline in human affairs — psychology, sociology, philosophy, theology, economy, art, writing, drama, science and technology, business and industry and all that our electronic age is able to offer — for an all-out effort to inquire into those human characteristics that are growth directed, future-oriented, species centered and globalizing, altruistic and open-ended, and that includes love and faith, trust, courage, humility, creativity, empathy, sharing and a sense of community, human potential for change, growth and maturation and many other constructive human characteristics.

Janus Roze

Willow isn’t weeping.

Her head’s down, pondering,

contemplating, humbled

by the exquisite sunlight

streaming through her leaves;

water quenching her roots.

Reflecting,

Willow’s inner powers of healing

are strengthened by her awareness

of Self, an expression of the Ground.

Content and in place, she remembers

when, as a sprout, 

she dreamed of being just as she is.

David L. Smith

 

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Tree Roots and Anchoring Principles

From Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, I learned that the roots underground are more involved in a tree’s survival than anything growing above it. They withstand severe changes in climate, regrow trunks from time to time and it’s there where centuries of experience are stored. While trees don’t appear to have a central organ like a brain for storing information, it has been established that they learn.

Frantisek Baluska and his colleagues from the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany at the University of Bonn discovered brain-like structures at the root tips of trees. “When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli.” Measuring electrical signals, they found that when a root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones or saturated soil it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. It then changes direction and steers the growing root around the problem areas.

We have learned that mother trees recognize and talk with their kin, shaping future generations. In addition, injured trees pass their legacies on to their neighbors, affecting gene regulation, defense chemistry, and resilience in the forest community. These discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system. There is a burst of careful scientific research occurring worldwide that is uncovering all manner of ways that trees communicate with each other above and below ground. 

Dr. Susan Simard (Professor of Forest Ecology, University of British Columbia

Trees feed each other at the roots in a process called “equalization.” Serving as a gigantic redistribution network, when a tree is running short on sugar, a nearby tree that has an abundance will provide it—one of the reasons why trees of the same species are packed together in a forest. Another reason for proximity is that nutrients, fungal networks and water can be easily divided among the trees so each can grow to be the best it can be. According to forester, Peter Wohllenben, “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. Its well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single unit. Even strong trees get sick over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, all it takes is what once would have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of the giants.” Nature favors proximity, sharing and helping.

 

Tree roots can extend more than twice the spread of the crown, so the roots of neighboring trees intersect and grow into one another. Again Peter Wohllenben: “Usually, there are fungi that operate like fiber-optic internet cables. Their fine filaments penetrate the ground, weaving through it in almost unbelievable density. One teaspoon of forest soil can contain many miles of these hyphea (a kind of fungus). Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest. The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers. The fungi are pursuing their own agendas and appear to be very much in favor of conciliation and equitable distribution of information and resources. So trees communicate by means of olfactory, visual and electrical signals.” Nature favors symbiosis and integrated networks. 

A study found that it was the loose uncompacted soil around cracked sewer pipes that attracted tree roots in cities, not so much the water in the pipes. When the soil is hard as concrete, the roots get desperate and as a last resort, they find a way into a cracked sewer pipe or into loosely backfilled trenches. In both instances, the roots can’t get a secure footing. What’s more, roots have to deal with fertilizers, dog urine which can burn the tree’s bark and kill the roots. Similar damage is done by winter salt. The stresses are so great on urban trees, most of them die prematurely. Wohllenben offers one consolation. “Because streets and pathways are often planted with rows of the same species of trees, at least they are able to communicate with other members of their species.”  Nature favors community.

Roots serve as anchors. They grip the earth tightly, dig deep and spread out to form a symbiotic union with the earth. Drawing up nutrients and water, they keep a tree growing and stable. By analogy then, what are the things that anchor us in the ground of our being; the ground of all being? For me, they’re the invisible forces or “principles” that guide our lives as we navigate meaning, the world and other people. In particular, psychological stabilization occurs as we begin to find at least partial and satisfying answers to the perennial questions—Who am I? Why am I here? What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? Do we have free will? How should we live and treat others? Is there an afterlife? The extent of our confidence in life is in large part a function of how deeply we dig into these questions. Some of us are inclined to dig deeply, others not so much. But even the prospect of an answer can provide some stability. Whatever our approach, the principles that anchor us in everyday living are both personal and social.

The principles that apply to us personally are those that, when activated, provide confidence that we’re growing and our lives are meaningful. We find them in the Faith Traditions—the principles taught and demonstrated by the founders of religions and other holy persons. These include love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, healing, humility, toleration, respect and kindness. 

Some find their root is Science, the process of seeking empirical knowledge of the physical world and universe through the principles of direct observation and testing, truth-seeking, curiosity, exploration, information sharing, debate and rigorous analysis. Those more inclined toward addressing the fundamental questions concerning reality, existence, knowledge, values, aesthetics and language find their footing in the process of rational argumentation.

Whatever the medium and whether the process is mental or physical, the act of creation itself can anchor a person in realities both actual and imagined. The operating principles in Creative Expression include heightened perception, aesthetic investigation, trust, connection (to the subject matter), inventiveness, divergent thinking, constructive imagination, social analysis, caring and sharing. Another anchoring endeavor is Contribution. Like the roots of trees that spread out to neighboring trees, many people find their stability in outreach and helping, providing service to others. Their  energies are grounded in principles of caring, responsibility, empathy, citizenship, cooperation, collaboration, respect, tolerance, empathy and goodwill. 

Above, I quoted Peter Wohllenben who said that a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. In another chapter of his book he writes that the goal of the trees is the survival of the forest, so I looked into it and identified some of the fundamental principles that anchor us in the ground of nature socially and as a species. Diversity is what gives living systems resilience to survive disasters. A forest is enriched by many species of trees. Neither they nor their roots fight for space, sunlight or nutrients. Instead, they are constructal, meaning they’re flexible—taking the easiest path to work around blocks. 

The greater the variety, the more stable the ecosystem is as a whole. Reducing variety creates instability and vulnerable situations. Elisabet Sahtouris (Biologist)

No living creature can ever be entirely independent. All living systems share the same physical roots. All are holons within larger holons. Life is Interconnected and Interdependent at all levels. Health and growth at the social level derive from the sharing of energies and information.

Were we to understand our fundamental interconnections, we would recognize that our own well-being or the development of our soul and consciousness is totally dependent on the development of every other human being on the planet. Michael Lerner (Rabbi)

In addition to being interconnected, living systems are Coherent, they integrate their diverse qualities, relationships and values. The whole is sustained in a growthful mode when the members of a living system relate to one another in ways that are nourishing and mutually supporting. 

Everything we do either promotes or counters coherence and thus our and our environment’s evolution and development; it is either healthy or unhealthy and is either constructive or destructive. Ervin Laszlo (Systems theorist) 

Living systems are autopoietic—self-making. They maintain and renew themselves by regulating their makeup and conserving boundaries. Examples of Self-Regualtion are individuals and organizations that take responsibility for themselves rather than relying on family, social pressure, peers, professionals, companies or governments. These systems also set limits on their exposure to and acceptance of products and energies that are toxic or counter to their growth.

Autopoietic structures have definite boundaries, such as a semipermeable membrane, but the boundaries are open and connect the system with almost unimaginable complexity to the world around it. John Briggs and F. David Peat (Physicists)

Trees communicate to other trees. Through Information Sharing they and we gain understanding and concern for self, others and the world. There could be no life without communication. As a principle of growth, the nature and quality of the information that’s shared are critically important. For instance, false information is destructive. And communication designed solely to persuade can be both a distraction and destructive.  

The reality of how we’ve changed as a species involves not the genetically driven evolution of our brains, but the mental evolution of how we collectively pass energy and information among each other across generations. This is the evolution of the mind, not the brain. Dan Siegel (Psychiatrist)

As noted, when a tree is lacking nutrients—for instance, sugar from photosynthesis occurrng in its leaves—other trees of the same species will come to its rescue. Wherever it occurs and whatever the system, context or level of activity, Helping is an indication of caring. Help is often provided when there’s a need for it, but it can also be given without need or expectation, as when we help another to learn, reach a goal or by the simple acknowledging their achievement.

We rise by lifting others. Robert Ingersoll (American writer and orator) 

Anchoring principles, singly or in combination, provide an individual with mental and spiritual stability. And along with it confidence. We feel teathered to someone or some ideal that’s enduring and dependable in a world of rapidly changing conditions and increasing complexity. Without an anchor or teather, we’d feel adrift with nothing to hold onto. 

Whatever the cause of despair and attempts at suicide, I think the lack of a deep connection to someone or something meaningful can be a contributing factor. When in serious trouble or when life is threatened, as happens with trees, it’s the depth and extent of our roots that can see us through.   

Newly planted,

my fingers extend and grow.

Ever so slowly searching deeper, farther,

groping in the dark below

for sustenance and water.

Where there’s a block, a wall,

I easily go around.

With the roots of other trees I entwine and share,

in appreciation of our common ground,

for the strength of the tree is the strength of the forest.

Older now by hundreds of years,

my fingers are sprawling and integrated braids.

Surviving blustry winds, lightning strikes, 

punishing rain and insect raids,

I look up and see my purpose fulfilled.

David L. Smith

 

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The Tolerant American Beech Tree

Trees provide the very necessities of life itself. They clean our air, protect our drinking water, create healthy communities and feed the human soul.                                                        Arbor Day Foundation

The word “Beech” derives from the Anglo-Saxon boc and German boko meaning “book.” In Northern Europe, early manuscripts were written on thin beechwood tablets and they were bound between beech boards. Also, it’s said that the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark.

In Native American lore, the beech tree symbolized tolerance, past knowledge and the softening of criticism. Today, symbologists add patience, insight from the past and lightness of spirit. Used medicinally, the leaves can help the digestive system and they’re used for healing wounds, sores and ulcers. 

For the early settlers, American Beech trees were a sign of fertile soil. And with fairly shallow roots, they were easy to remove for plowing. At that time the trees were home to migrating Passenger Pigeons who fed on their nuts. One report said the birds were so numerous they broke off the limbs “from the sheer weight of their numbers.” And there’s a story about a tree on the old stagecoach road between Blountville and Jonesborough, Tennessee. It bore an inscription carved into the trunk that read “D. Boone cilled a bar on this tree in 1760.” When the tree fell in 1916 it had a girth of 28 feet. The Forest Service estimated its age at 365 years, “making it fully two centuries old before Daniel Boone inscribed on it.”

Researchers in Europe found that beech trees in a forest, although situated in a variety of conditions—stony or muddy, little or lots of water, nutrient-rich or poor soil—synchronized their rate of photosynthesis between them. Strong or weak, thick or thin, all members of the same species were using sunlight to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf, a process of equalization that was taking place underground through the roots. Entire beech groves—communities—have often grown from the roots of a single tree. And they can live for 300 to 400 years.

Properties

Pollinated by the wind, beeches have male and female flowers on the same tree. Their wide-spreading canopy provides shade in the summer and bronze coloring in the fall. They’re often found in parks, golf courses and cemeteries. Although they only grow 12” to 24” per year, they can reach a height of 80 feet and their girth can spread to about 70 feet at maturity. Beeches like six hours of direct sunlight each day and soil that’s acidic, loamy, moist, sandy, silty loam and well-drained, making them very drought sensitive.

The leaves are 3–6” long with sharp, incurved teeth on the outer edges. They’re dull green on top and lighter green on the bottom, and they turn yellow or brown in the autumn. The trees are easy to spot because they retain many of their leaves through the winter. Beeches produce an edible, hard, brown beechnut that’s a half to one-inch in diameter, which is a favorite of squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, bears and larger birds. Native Americans ate the nuts in small quantities, raw and cooked. And early settlers extracted oil from the nuts for food and lamp oil, using the dried leaves to stuff mattresses and pillows. Because beeches retain their smooth bark as they age, kids often carve their initials onto their large smooth trunks. Many trees are partially hollow and provide excellent den sites for various wildlife, including squirrels, raccoons and opossums. 

In the above image, a young beech tree in winter holds onto his leaves, perhaps not wanting to let go of them in spite of the fact that the sugar they provided from photosynthesizing sunlight through the summer had been internalized. By retaining his leaves in this way, he shines brightly as the sunlight rakes through the forest. Enduring strong winds, rocky soil and dramatic shifts in temperature, he stands straight on the hillside, his growth dormant until a pattern of warmer temperatures signal the time to wake up, take in more water and initiate the growth of buds and leaves, surfaces to absorb sunlight so his process of photosynthesis can begin again producing sugar. 

His lesson—tolerance—is that despite the  conditions of place, threatening winds and patience, uniqueness will shine within the diversity that surrounds us. When the climate is harsh, the airwaves foul and the forest threatened in so many ways, we can stand our ground and know that a more growthful season is ahead.  

 

The tolerant beech,

retaining his dried-out leaves through the winter,

sharing nutrients with others at the roots,

softening criticism of his diverse neighbors,

passing on the knowledge of being,

stretching arms to the sky,

sighs an ancient prayer of gratitude

for slow and steady growth. And sunlight.

David L. Smith

 

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The Aspen: A Model Of Interconnectedness

When I began using a camera creatively, I approached trees and forests mainly as objects to facilitate the development of my aesthetic eye. Recently, Peter Wohllenben’s book The Hidden Life Of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate expanded my appreciation by describing their acute sensory and communication processes. After reading that book I discovered that the aspen have much to say about the current political and social climate worldwide, and I’ve been amazed at how my aesthetic and life has been enriched as a consequence of better understanding the marvelous capacities of trees.

Aspen trees grow 24 inches per year to a height of 50 feet or more. Because they grow in stands (called clones) and reproduce by sending up sprouts—individual trees—from their roots, they’re the largest living organism on the planet. Virtually all the trees in a clone are connected, so while the lifespan of an individual tree is normally 100–150 years these days, there’s a clone in Minnesota that has been estimated to be 8,000 years old. And in Fishlake National Forest, Utah, there’s a clone of interconnected aspen roots that researchers consider to be a single tree with one massive underground root system over 80,000 years old covering more than 100 acres and resulting in a forest of approximately 47,000 individual trunks.

More generally, German scientists discovered that most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected through their root systems, and they exchange nutrients in times of need. The researchers regard such forests as “superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.” What’s more, all trees distinguish their roots from those of other species, even the roots of related individuals. And they work together. An individual tree is at the mercy of changes in the weather, but together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates the extremes of heat and cold, stores water and generates humidity, allowing individuals to live to be very old. 

Typical of all living systems these scientists say, the goal of a forest is to keep living no matter what. According to author and forester Peter Wohllenben, “If every tree were looking out only for himself, then many of them would never reach old age leaving gaps in the canopy, making it easier for storms to get inside, uproot more trees, allow heat to reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.” This is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished—through the roots—until they recover.

Of cultural interest, Druid’s took their novices and initiates to aspen groves for a taste of transcendental bliss. They believed that in watching the trees and listening to the quaking of their leaves a trance could be induced in which they would journey to other realms of consciousness where special knowledge could be gained. The Onondagas of Upstate New York, one of five nations in the Iroquois Confederacy, called the aspen nut-kie-e, meaning “noisy leaf” because of the sound the leaves make in the wind. And many First American tribes regarded the aspen as a symbol for clarity of purpose, determination and overcoming fears and doubts.

Interconnectedness

Contemplating the interconnectedness of aspen, I backtracked to the roots of that phenomenon and realized that fundamentally, all of life is interconnected by virtue of the Big Bang. While living systems diverged and proliferated exponentially since then, every cell, organ, individual and species retains its dependency upon all the other systems—elemental, physical and social—for life to continue. As in the aspen grove, the existence and quality of life of each member of the human community depend upon the condition of the greater wholes in which it functions—family, community, organization, nation and planet. Putting the mathematics of chaos theory and the reality of interconnectedness in  terms that were understandable, a meteorologist commented that a flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. This idea then gave rise to the “Butterfly Effect,” the observation that the flap of a butterfly wing in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. The point was that even the smallest change in any part of a system affects the whole. Because the Earth is so large and heavily populated with human beings, it can be difficult to see the truth of this. But now, due to everyone’s personal experience and reports in the media, it has become obvious to most that one person’s behavior—for good or ill—has large scale consequences.

Every living creature must get materials and energy from its environment to form itself and to keep itself alive. This is why no living creature can ever be entirely independent—it is always a holon within larger holons, including ecosystems, depending on them for its very life.

Elisabet Sahtouris (Biologist)

That we are interconnected can no longer be denied, not when a single pet vendor in China doesn’t wash his hands after handling a bat creating a global health and economic crisis; when vegetables, poultry and seafood spread disease and affect the economy because of errors in sanitation; when a nation or company fouls the water or air in order to reduce costs; when the cost of medicines greatly exceeds the cost to develop and produce them; when a parent neglects or abuses a child and that child becomes an active shooter sending waves of fear throughout the world; when ethics is violated in the interest of profits; when dictators murder their people and destroy cities in order to retain power; when democratic leaders turn a blind eye to science that warns of impending health and environmental disasters and when nations decide to go it alone in a world where survival and growth will increasingly depend upon their collaboration.

“Nationalism” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations.” Basically, it’s national self-centeredness. Although it may be understandable, in part, when relations with other nations have not been particularly beneficial, a more appropriate and constructive strategy would be to do what nature does—work on improving the relationships. Symbiosis.

Evolution and history demonstrate that Nature does not respect individuals. It safeguards and promotes the continuation and increasing complexity of whole systems—species in our case. At all levels, living systems arise and fall. Individuals, nations, planets and galaxies are born, grow and die. What remains is the cosmos, driven by the universal constants of change and increasing complexity. Although we may not think about it, every day each of us experiences change and increasing complexity personally, professionally, socially and globally. Without change there can be no life. 

From the perspective of the community of nations, those that place their emphasis on self above others are thinking and acting like cancer cells in the human body, striving for as much growth as possible in any way they can regardless of the consequences to the whole. In living systems, individuality is a destructive illusion. When these systems attempt to grow in isolation, the result is increasing stress and eventual breakdowns in functionality.

One of the motivating forces behind my fascination with indigenous cultures and the ancient Maya in particular was their common understanding and experience of all things as alive and interconnected. Most such cultures, if not all, didn’t have a word for “I.” The individual reference was either a name or the collective “we.” There was no ownership of land or objects. A member of the tribe had the use of a horse or garment, perhaps even for a lifetime, but if someone else needed or wanted it more, it would be traded. And because the world was perceived to be alive, possessed of a spirit that had to be dealt with in order to maintain balance, everything was accorded respect. And out of respect, the rule was to take from nature only what was needed and waste nothing. Of course, there were other principles of indigenous people that we would consider barbaric. But on the positive side, they acquired the knowledge and wisdom of how to live in harmony with nature.

In our case, having inherited “Enlightenment” philosophies that separated matter and spirit, body and soul, science and religion—and divided science into specialities—we’ve grown accustomed to the illusion of separation to the extent that materialism has become the unqualified means for an individual to secure comfort, success and security. However, a grave consequence of separation is fear. “Everyone else is grabbing the good stuff; I need to get my share.” “The more I have, the bigger and better my experience, the happier I’ll be, and the better off my family.” Where there’s fear there’s a need to possess and control. So without thinking, acquisition and accumulation became normalized in Western culture and the mass media continuously ramps up  the desire for more, better, faster and newer. 

As noted, the consciousness and behavior of self-centeredness in society equates with a cancerous cell. In anthropology, this kind of thinking derives from “the belief of limited good.” In societies where the good is perceived to be finite, not enough to go around, the members hoard and eventually give away everything they have in order to be respected. In psychology, a contributing phenomenon is the “mentality of scarcity,” the need to acquire before things run out. Whatever the name, evidence of enflamed materialism operating in our culture today is seen in television commercials and the Black Friday stampedes on stores that offer dramatic sales after Thanksgiving Day. Never mind that much of that material—transformed  sunlight and earth—will likely be discarded or replaced in a matter of months or years, ending up in a landfill outgassing CO2.

Given the way human beings are raised and enculturated around the world, seeing ourselves separate is natural. It’s only when it occurs to us—through personal or perceived tragedy or being taught otherwise—that we are inexplicably interdependent and interconnected, that we come to grips with the fact of inexorable change and its consequences. Once we see that independence is a fantasy, that the “self-made man” and “rugged individual” were images created to generate wealth for a few, and that having money, goods and grand experiences are distractions from what really matters in life—health and well-being, personal growth, creative expression, loving and empowering relationships to name a few—we can put the fear of change in perspective. 

With respect to change, we each have three choices: 1) Ignore it; 2) Go against it—fight to maintain the status quo (existing systems) at all costs; or 3) Make the best of change as it approaches or occurs by attempting, through collaboration, to steer it in a constructive direction.  Ignoring change just puts it off. Fighting it has resulted in the polarization that humanity is currently working through worldwide on its way toward realizing that the illusion of separation—with its consequent unbridled materialism—is leading our species to the brink of extinction. The way through our fears and challenges, of course, is to unite and create fresh solutions that are in harmony with Nature and each other.  

Easier said than done. When members of a living system choose to be led by an individual who openly and consistently communicates falsehoods—who is ego-centric, unapologetically ignorant and reluctant to consider the voices of experience and wisdom, who is lacking in empathy, values the making of money for the privileged over promoting quality of life for all, who denies his inadequacies and exalts his regressive decisions, who builds by exclusion, denigrates those unlike himself, demeans his dissenters and whose modus operandi across the board is to separate, deceive and disconnect—they are seriously out of step with nature.

It is not enough to remove and replace the offending leader. In a climate of increasing  stress and breakdowns with collapse on the horizon, those who would restore harmony and promote the health of both the members and the social body, recognizing their interdependence, will want to take responsibility for the parts and the whole through mutual respect, creativity, inclusion and collaboration—the modalities of nature that insure more and greater life.  

Is that possible? Can the awareness and understanding of Nature’s law of interconnectedness be accelerated in time to save the nations and planet? I believe it can by educating ourselves, bringing the reality of our interconnectedness into discussions whatever the topic, shifting personal habits that respect all of life and voting for individuals who understand that the health of the forest depends on the health of all trees. What about people who don’t understand the dynamics of interconnection and can’t be persuaded? Sometimes it takes a tragic experience to wake up and adopt a deeply heartfelt sense of responsibility for the whole. Many, I believe, in their heart-of-hearts already know that we’re one and interconnected at the roots.   

Were we to understand our fundamental interconnections, we would recognize that our own well-being or the development of our soul and consciousness is totally dependent on the development of every other human being on the planet.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Knowing where we came from,

that we are not alone,

members of a grand forest,

we can weather any storm.

Arm-in-arm,

we stand together in love

enjoying unbounded distinction, 

glorious uniquenesss

and freedom.

All for one and one in all,

roots intertwined,

golden glory quaking in the wind,

we are Aspen.

Along with our neighbors

in uncountable forests,

we remember that

we are all rooted in the Earth.

David L. Smith


 

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> 

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For a weekly appreciation of: Ancient Maya Cultural Traits