Cosmic realities have always been an area of fascination for me. My mind oscillates between the far-flung luminaries in space to the gritty stuff of earth like rocks and dust and mountains, but trees are of special significance for me. Trees, especially oak trees, are a dominant feature in my writing because I see them as living metaphors, sacraments even, of a deeper spiritual reality. I realize that this might seem absurd to some, after all isn’t a tree just a tree? My contention is that nothing (and for that matter nobody) is merely what it appears to be, rather in any good thing, once we get beyond appearances there are almost limitless possibilities for meaning.
Trees are visible connections between heaven and earth. They are rooted in the mysterious subterranean depths that encompass the underworld that has been long associated with the grave. Yet, their branches are like a company of arms reaching toward the sky in a perpetual embrace of the light. Their leaves breathe in death, literally taking in carbon dioxide, and exhaling oxygen, the stuff of life. Trees are repositories of memory; the Bristlecone Pine that grows in select groves within the White Mountain range on the California-Nevada border, are so old that they reach back beyond antiquity into the primeval depths of cultural history. Trees are encompassing, often towering sanctuaries of life; some like the California Redwood are so tall that they dwarfed almost every human structure in height until the past century, many of these largest Redwoods house their own micro-ecologies in their highest branches, little worlds of biological life that can be found nowhere else.
St. Paul connects the (presently disparate) family of God to an olive tree rooted in the faith of their patriarch Abraham in his Epistle to the Romans. The prophet Isaiah depicts the beleaguered benefactors of God’s saving activity as oaks of righteousness. However, I suppose that for me, every tree carries with it an echo of Calvary. Perhaps the reason why everyone who hangs upon a tree, as Christ did upon Golgotha, is cursed is because trees are connected to both heaven and earth and the one hung from a tree is rejected by both. Such alienation is profound, and given tremendous depth when seen in in the light of the boundless power of our Lord upon that tree. He breathed in sin and death and the curse only to exhale life, an indestructible life that bridges across every span of alienation and sets aright the relationship between heaven and earth.
I could probably linger much longer on trees, and I will in my own imagination, but not here. I will say this though – if the history of the world can be told in a single drop of rain how much more can it be told in the intricate perfections of a tree. These precious creatures are telling a nearly limitless set of stories to those who will listen – they sing songs in the wind and whisper poetry in our ears. The soul can see things that the eye cannot, and to perceive with the soul is to penetrate into a language that dispenses true knowledge far more than the purely descriptive process of optics. In this life we might catch only glimpses of the Beautiful Vision that we were created for, yet in every good thing we can see the retinal echoes of that primordial and final Good even when our eyes are closed; how much more will our hearts be filled when at last they are opened. For now, it might be enough to look at a tree and beyond it, to what it signifies; this language of signification is the doorway into the sacred and it is open to us in all things.