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The On Being Project

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The Tree Did Not Die

The Tree Did Not Die

Last week I was honored to attend the first-ever On Being Gathering at 1440 Multiversity outside of Santa Cruz. In preparation for such a beautiful gathering of souls, my partner and I spent a few days hiking in the beautiful Northern California redwood forests. Somehow walking with and among the largest and oldest of living organisms seemed like the best way to prepare our hearts for what was a gathering of souls.

This is one of the magical aspects of being not in nature but with nature. When words fall away, when we listen for the silence, and welcome the melody of the leaves, frogs, birds, and creeks, we start to hear the ultimate scripture: the natural cosmos. It is as if each tree, each branch, each leaf, each seed, each handful of soil becomes more luminous than a verse of scripture, revealing all that we have been veiled from.

One such light-filled mystery was revealed to me after being with the trees. We found ourselves in Muir Woods, that ancient cathedral of thousand-year-old beauties. At first all I could do was to tilt my neck back until the back of my head touched my spine, trying to take in the tips of these amazing trees that seem to come from a time when giants roamed the Earth. After a while, growing more accustomed to majesty all around, remembering the majesty within, my sight returned to the ground around me, and I started to notice the beauty at a tree by tree level. These giants have their own variations, and sometimes they grow in clusters.

One of the mysteries that was so touching was noticing that occasionally the redwoods grow in a circle. Again and again, we noticed circles of redwoods, dancing as it were, around a shorter, dead-looking single redwood. The central redwood often looked charred, burned to the core — was it an human fire or perhaps a lightning bolt?

My initial response was sadness — how sad that an act of man, perhaps a careless fire, had burned down a living creature. But a sign by one of these rings made me stop in my tracks. I read this sign three times, each time a tear forming in my eyes:

“Hundreds of years ago a single large redwood grew here. Then disaster struck. The trunk of the large redwood was killed, perhaps by repeated and severe wildfire. From here you can see the original tree trunk still standing upright, now a dead and blackened snag.

Despite such terrible damage, the tree did not die. Below the ground, its massive root system was full of vitality. Before long, hundreds of young, bright green burl sprouts began to come up around the circle formed by the root crown of the original tree. Some of those sprouts have grown into the full-sized trees that today stand in a circle around the original trunk.”

I had to slowly mouth these words, which rang in my heart more and more profoundly with each repetition.

“Despite such terrible damage, the tree did not die.”

Redwoods National Park (Andrew Geiger / Getty Images. All Rights Reserved)

We are this charred tree and the family of trees ground around it. We are the roots, the burning, the healing, and the regrowth. May we see this family circle around us, friends.

Each of us go through “terrible damages” — a divorce, a heartache, a breaking, a clinging depression, an exile, a financial ruin, a lingering disease, a loss of a loved one, a death, a loss of dignity, a violation.

May it be that despite such terrible damage, the tree of our life does not die.

May it be that there is a vitality in our roots, and that the charred tree of our experiences gives birth to a hundred new blooms dancing around us, newer versions of ourselves that leap to life from what we would have deemed to be our death.

The tree did not die. May our hearts not die.

The tree did not die. And may our families not die.

I don’t want to die, not yet, not now, not for awhile. I want to dance with my children at their weddings and tell stories of love and resistance to their as of yet unborn children. But my time will come, and so will yours. When that time comes, may I have, may you have, may we have deep and ancient roots that are filled with light and vitality, so that new life, new soul, new light sprouts from the charred portion of our being.

The tree did not die. And our ancestors live in us. We are who we are because they loved us, through and after their earthly life. They live in us, through us, long after their bodies are charred and returned to the Earth.

The tree did not die. The new trees are the old burned tree, and they grow out of the roots it put down. May we witness this growth out of our being. May there be new loved ones circling us, as we circle our ancestors.

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