This old adage seems to reflect a wonder and reverence for this amazing feat.
I love trees, I really do. I could easily personify them, impune them with human attributes, worship them as spirits. Something about a tree, standing firm and tall in the same place, day in, day out, year ’round…it brings a sense of stability, longevity, solidity, groundedness.
I like to subscribe to what I call Tree Philosophy, or Tree Attitude. So many things in our lives appear to be a conspiracy of circumstances, the times we live in, where we live, the way we live, with whom we live. Choices we made back in…when? Things we shoulda woulda or coulda done.
My grandfather always told me “Take shoulda, woulda and coulda in one hand, and a nickel in the other, and see which one will buy you a donut.”
Trees waste no time on such worries. A little tree seed plants its first tendrils into the soil—and is committed! From day one, that tree is going to live or die, stand or fall, right on that very same spot.
I like to imagine trees thinking about that. “I’m going to be the best tree I can right here, where I am, working with what I have.”
This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from President Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” That is, after all, a description of our entire lives, really, isn’t it? We are where we are, there’s no denying that. We must work with what we have, be it employment, a dwelling, our people, money, transportation, brain power, energy or spirit. And doing the best we can within these parameters is all we can do.
For philosophers such as President Roosevelt and myself, this means we don’t throw in the towel just because the odds are stacked against us, the task is overwhelming, or we’re short on assets, even if tasked with great challenges or the seemingly impossible. It also means recognizing that there are limits to what we can do, and we shouldn’t punish ourselves for being unable to do more.
I imagine a tree’s life is similar, but to the greatest extent. Tree doesn’t agonize over location. Perhaps prospects for success might be better elsewhere. Perhaps the climate is something humans would want to escape. Perhaps the very home of Tree is in a precarious place, on the side of a cliff, at the edge of an eroding riverbank, or at the last edge of the tree line, far up a tall mountain. Tree can’t move, but can only hang on and throw all of its efforts into the present.
Neither can Tree do anything about the changes in its life. Perhaps it’s struck by lightning, maybe loses a limb or suffers damage to its trunk. Perhaps humans come along and saw pieces off. Maybe its roots are immersed “knee-deep” in water during a flood season, or a drought season makes survival difficult.
If Tree is an evergreen, it will keep it’s needles as it goes into a dormant season. Granted, I have wished more than once that I could have a dormant season for myself, to rest and recuperate from the rigors of my own seasons, storms, lightning, chain saws, floods and blizzards. If Tree is deciduous, it will awaken, depending where Tree lives, sometime between February and May. As it stretches its limbs to the sky, it gets down to the business at hand: budding, developing and flowering. Sounds a bit like our lives again, doesn’t it? For its season, however long it may be (and without groaning that it is either too short or too long) Tree will produce thousands of leaves, each one a near-perfect copy of the others. For pines, tens of thousands, maybe millions of needles. Year one, year 50, year 200, Tree goes right on doing what it is born to do, producing those leaves or needles, growing when the conditions are right, and resting when it is necessary.
Tree will keep up the good fight, no matter what, and will try until defeat and death. As it is with all living things (and, in fact all things in the universe on its grand scale), eventually there is an end. I like to imagine Tree retiring. “I’m going to lay down, right here, next to the rest of you.” At that time, Tree is okay with this end, whether it is after 5 years or 500. Call it destiny, call it nature, call it the randomness of the universe, the circle of all things.
Saplings can be heard all around “Good job, Tree, and thank you for your silent service. You have been a fine example of patience and perseverance. A great neighbor in our community, shading the tender shoots and plants at your base, welcoming, with open limbs, the wildlife; squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, wasps, and anything else that came to you seeking refuge, a home, safety, security, something meaningful and solid that we can know and understand and rely on.”
Even after death, Tree remains an influence. Flora and fauna of certain types will flourish thanks to Tree’s legacy. The many generations growing around Tree will look on, seeking and seeing the testimony to its determination, learning and benefitting from the example, and the knowledge that Tree stood by them, and gave selflessly whenever called upon to do so.
I don’t need riches, recognition or immortality. If my life, and its own end, can be to any degree worthy of Tree’s example, I too will be able to lay down in peace, and return to the earth from which I came.
Be at peace.