Christians should be tree-huggers

October 22nd, 2019

I met some interesting characters in my Tai Chi class. One was a young woman who was into healing crystals and alternative medicine who swore that when she did Tai Chi in the woods, she could hear the trees talking to each other. I probably rolled my eyes when she talked about it. I mentally tagged her with an uncharitable label: genus—hippy; species—space cadet; family—tree-hugger.

Decades later, I learned that she was right. Trees do actually talk to each other, though maybe not in language we can understand. Recent research into the fungal network that connects plant life in the forest indicates that there is a drama unfolding beneath the soil. Trees can share nutrients and information with each other through tiny filaments provided by mycelium. A plant in distress can receive help. Some plants can inhibit the growth of others. All of them have a symbiotic relationship with the network of fungus and bacteria at their roots, which has been nicknamed “the wood wide web.” Some scientists even argue that we should actually see the forest itself as one giant organism. Although it cannot speak our language, it demonstrates a kind of intelligence, responding to threats and opportunities, making strategic decisions to allow individual trees to cooperate or compete. While the forest’s fungal brain may not respond as quickly as our neural one, it is just as complex and surprising. What if the forest itself is conscious?*

Other research has demonstrated that plants can hear the sound of running water and can distinguish between the vibrations of insects chewing and rushing wind. I had thought that people who sing to their houseplants were deluding themselves into thinking their plants could hear them. I was probably wrong about that, too. Saint Francis may have been on to something when he preached to the trees.

In the Bible, God shows a concern for these vegetative creatures. In Deuteronomy 20:19, God forbids Israel to engage in environmental warfare and says they should not cut down trees when they make war against a city:

“If you besiege a town for a long time… you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?”

God asks, “Why are you making war on the trees?” This instruction places limits around total war. While the Chosen People are busy putting their human enemies to the sword, they are still forbidden from attacking the trees.

It’s important to remember the context here: Though the Promised Land was full of milk and honey, wood was scarce. A first-century fishing boat that archeologists dug up from the Lake of Galilee in 1987 was made of twelve kinds of wood, most of which were imported. The lack of wood in the region is one reason some scholars prefer to say that Jesus was a stone-worker (tekton) rather than a carpenter. Most construction was stone, and paneling a house with wood was (and still is) considered a luxury (Jeremiah 22:14). While there were forests, especially north of Galilee, the ancient forests had long since disappeared.

Scarcity may also be a reason pagan fertility cults held sacred trees in such high regard. The Hebrew Bible’s authors often talk about idol worshipers engaging in sacred prostitution “under every green tree” (Jeremiah 2:20, 1 Kings 14:23, Isaiah 57:5).

But trees are also symbols of stability and faithfulness. Psalm 1:3 and Jeremiah 17:8 both describe faithful people as trees planted by streams of water. Ezekiel compares Israel to a cutting from a cedar tree, planted on top of Mount Zion which grows so large the birds of the air come to nest in its branches (Ezekiel 17:22).

I wonder what these ancient authors would have thought about the trees speaking to each other? The closest insight we get is a folktale. Jotham tells a parable in Judges 9 about the trees trying to choose a king for themselves. After all the likely candidates report that they are too busy doing productive things, they choose the worthless bramble to be their king.

If we recognized that trees and forests have an internal world, possibly some form of consciousness or subjectivity the way we do, would it change our behaviors or our social policies toward them? People who study climate change and human society are desperately trying to get the world to wake up and pay attention to our relationship with trees, to slow deforestation, protect indigenous cultures who in turn protect and respect trees, and to spend more time outside. We know that simply being around trees improves our mental health and decreases symptoms of attention deficit disorder. One recent study suggested that we could offset a huge amount of carbon in the atmosphere through reforestation. It would be wonderful if we could stave off some of the worst effects of climate change just by planting trees.

But even talking about all the good things trees can do for us still sees them through the lens of human utility: They are good because of what they can do for us. The God of Deuteronomy sees trees as good in and of themselves, simply because they are God’s creatures. This mind shift reminds me that the biggest challenge in saving the world from environmental destruction is not a technical one, but a spiritual one. We need, like Saint Francis, to see the trees as our siblings. We should embrace the epithet “tree-hugger” the way our ancestors embraced the slurs “Christian” or “Methodist.” When we join the rest of Creation in the final judgment, it won’t matter to God that our fellow humans called us tree-huggers. It will matter that the trees said it. Because they will talk.

*Fans of Star Trek: Discovery know that the writers incorporate the idea of a cosmic, conscious mycelial network. The show even named one of its characters after the real-life mycologist Paul Stamets.

comments powered by Disqus