Like a Tree

Trees are a great gift to all forms of life on our planet. As people, we often see them only as a resource to meet some particular human need, and they certainly do that. They are the great providers. In many parts of the world, they are essential for day-to-day life. Trees offer shade from the sun and shelter from rain; they produce fruit and seeds for food; they provide firewood for cooking, for light, for warmth; they provide timber, leaves, and bark to build shelter, furniture, and tools. And while trees do much to feed and shelter humans, they do even more for birds and other wildlife. And it is because of their utility that trees are so indiscriminately destroyed by people with an industrial mentality.

It is interesting that the ancient Hebrew laws included protection for trees, especially trees that produce food. During war, even societies that value trees often forget themselves as they exact vengeance on their enemies. But the nation set apart as God’s people was expected to treat trees with respect, even during dire times.

“When you are attacking a town and the war drags on, you must not cut down the trees with your axes. You may eat the fruit, but do not cut down the trees. Are the trees your enemies, that you should attack them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

But beyond providing resources to meet immediate needs, trees are also a great hidden resource. They give us so many things we don’t see—until the trees are gone and the benefits disappear. They hold the soil on mountainsides and in valleys, preventing the rain from carrying it away, thus keeping the water in our rivers and streams clean and flowing. They slow the winds in flat lands, preventing wind erosion. They catch the rain as it flows into the earth and recycle it back into the sky as moisture for more rain. They send roots deep into the subsoil, dredging up minerals unreachable by other plants, and ultimately transferring them to the nearby soil through falling, rotting leaves. They capture carbon dioxide and use it with sunlight to produce life and growth and, in turn, produce oxygen. They are not only the great providers; they are also the great sustainers and recyclers.

Trees are also survivors—well, at least when forces aside from humans come against them. Trees put down deep roots so they can find sustenance in even the driest of times, and so they can stand strong even in the wildest storms. Most trees reproduce themselves energetically, spreading seed by various means to make future generations possible. Trees in forests sometimes even share resources, joining roots so the trees closest to the stream can be a conduit of sustenance to their neighbors. Trees often grow best in community, providing strength and shelter for each other. Trees live long and offer continuity and memory to a place and a community; and even when gone, they leave a stump behind to rest on.

In the great collection of psalms in the Hebrew Bible, the godly person is compared to a tree.

“Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.” (Psalm 1:1-3)

With all the gifts that trees offer us and the characteristics they demonstrate, is it possible for us to live up to such comparison? The fact is, trees give far more than they take, and most people do quite the opposite—except the for godly people, who value, meditate on, and live out the laws of God, an activity that is constantly calling them to be givers rather than takers. Jesus summarized God’s law with two simple laws: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we live by these laws, we will certainly be like trees—providing for others around us, sustaining our families and communities through self-giving, joining others to protect the ecosystems and community systems that sustain life and health. Such people are like trees, and it is such a life to which we are called.

Garden Tip: Plant a tree, plant several trees, plant a whole forest of trees if you can! And do it today! As the old Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today.” All trees take a long time to grow. And the best trees—the most long-lived trees, the most valuable trees—take the longest to grow. They are certainly the hardest to replace. It can take many lifetimes to replace what can be cut down in minutes. So in addition to planting trees, look for ways to preserve forests and trees that cannot be easily replaced.