There is wisdom whispering through the trees.
When they loom all around you, stretching soothing shadows upon the rich soil, nourishing your body with the succulence of their fruit, reaching their fingertips far and wide for children to climb and revel in the power of their own growing bodies, you suddenly cease to view these trees merely as building blocks to your lush surroundings. You start to feel into their role within an integral symbiotic relationship with all other life that inhabits this land.
Here in the sun-drenched gardens of rural eastern Uganda, we live a life shrouded in green. The fertility rates of the world’s third fastest growing nation are echoed in the fertility of these soils, sprouting an agricultural bounty that offers indispensible sustenance for millions every single day.
The Busoga region east of the Nile River is brimming with lush farmland. Our trees bear the avocados stacked into pyramids in every corner of the open-air markets. They birth the behemoth jackfruits that loom ominously over village roads. They sprout the plantains that droop in bushels around each home and the mangoes and papayas whose juice runs down the smiling lips of children everywhere you look.
When I arrived in Uganda, it was not only the loving arms of the remarkable community that welcomed me that made me feel at home here, but also the abundance and power of the trees themselves.
Since I was very young, I’ve been an obsessive tree-climber. I must have climbed every single tree in my yard at least a hundred times throughout my youth. When that was no longer enough to quench my thirst for vertical ascent, I ventured to the trees of neighbors, to the elms and pines of the dense swaths of woods surrounding the creeks near my home, to the oaks and cedars dotting our schools and local parks. Growing up in northern California (in the City of Trees no less), I was blessed to marvel at the magnificence of some of the largest trees on this planet, and I always dared myself to climb ever higher, imagining myself ascending into the heavens, branch by branch.
For me, trees provided a sanctuary from the trials and traumas that too often await children when they return from their dream states to the realities below.
It was not until I arrived in this country, designing health interventions for the mothers of a community in which I had the pleasure of living for over a year, that I finally and fully abandoned the assumption that there was nothing more to trees than what one could see, touch, or smell. Trees possess powerful lessons for each and every one of us.
One particular tree stood out to me. It was a papaya tree. It stood tall and strong in the middle of the vast garden that stretched from the back of my home in Bujagali Village down to the banks of the Nile River. My tree was not a particularly remarkable tree upon first glance, but the first time I walked past it, it gave off something of an electric pulse that I could not simply shrug off. It felt as though the tree itself was communicating in some small way. Having recently Peter Tompkins’ The Secret Life of Plants, showcasing the extensive body of research on the physical, emotional and spiritual connections between plants and human beings, I was somehow unsurprised to feel this pulse, and quickly recognized that there was some reason that this tree and I came in contact.
The papaya tree soon became a regular fixture in my days and nights. Under its sun-shadows and moon-shadows, I would regularly sit and meditate. To me, it was the heart of the garden, and I came to feel into the beat of its energy as it juxtaposed with my own. I climbed up into the branches and swayed in the gentle night’s breeze, imagining that it was not the wind that was moving the tree, but that she was simply enjoying a dance in the cool night air.
On those nights, I was transported back to a simpler time, when sitting in a tree was all I needed to escape all those forgotten fears and anxieties of life on the ground. In this papaya tree, like in the trees of my youth, I found sanctuary. I cheekily adopted the tree as a sort of Spirit Tree, an extension of my Self, a place of peaceful worship nestled within my peaceful village life.
Like me, my Spirit Tree provided comfort to those in need of it. Like me, it found itself firmly rooted in this place, soaking up the nutrients of the world around it and giving back whenever it could. Like me, this tree was growing, every single day, inside and out.
And, like me, its time here was only temporary.
I had just returned to Bujagali after acting on a conscious decision to quite radically alter the circumstances of my life, and I walked to the garden to seek solace and guidance at the roots of my tree. There I found it buckled over, rotting from the inside just near the base of the trunk, branches tangled helplessly in the neighboring banana trees.
It was an odd moment. My heart felt as though I had come home to find a beloved pet that had suffered an unexpected death. I was devastated.
I admittedly grieved the loss of my Spirit Tree, my spiritual center, and even went so far as to wonder what this loss meant in my life. Weeks later, immediately following another rattling series of changes in my life, I returned yet again, only to find the once powerful trunk, branches, and roots chopped to pieces and cleared from the garden path.
I ran through the decisions I had made that led up to those moments, both the initial fall and the ultimate demise of the tree. After all the time I had spent meditating and doing energy work under its branches, I wrestled with the notion that this destruction was intimately linked to a destruction of something within myself. Was each stage of the tree’s fall a message, uniquely tailored for me, that was attempting to redirect my worldview, my actions, my relationship with the world around me? What had I destroyed? What had I done?
I tried to convince myself of a far easier reality to accept: it’s just a tree.
Of course, conclusions of this ilk do not tend to last long for me, and I soon shrugged off the possibility that this was anything but a learning opportunity. Somehow, I knew that there was a lesson to glean from it all.
I believe that the fall of my Spirit Tree was a reminder that life is a cycle of growth and decay, of creation and destruction. Nothing in this world is permanent, nor should it be. We rise and fall within our own unique temporal paradigm, not only in terms of our time spent on this Earth, but of all the myriad experiences that comprise our lives. The scattered remnants of this tree are illustrative of these cycles, of the twists and turns that befall us unexpectedly, and are often all too unwelcome.
Without the fall, however, there would be no potential for the life borne of this decaying body to spring forth from the soil.
With decay comes growth. With destruction comes creation. Here amidst the cradle of humanity itself, creation abounds. It abounds not only in the form of new organic life, but in the innovation, in the ideas, in the potential that I’ve seen in every Ugandan I’ve been lucky enough to know. I see it in every child afforded the opportunity to go to school, in every mother exposed to new knowledge on how to care for herself during pregnancy, and in every moment that I’ve let myself connect with a new way of thinking, of viewing the world, of living my life.
Plato writes of the idea of entelechy, the knowledge that throughout the natural world, each seed holds a blueprint of potential which will eventually be realized as a new form altogether. In contemporary biology, this idea is embodied in the anlage, the part of the cell that is designed – even destined – to become a complete and wholly unique entity. Within the decomposition of the Spirit Tree, new life will be born, and it is within its dissolution that a whole new ecosystem of possibilities can now emerge.
When we face destruction in our own lives, be it the loss of a loved one, the loss of a lover, the termination of a friendship or rejection from an opportunity into which we had invested so much of ourselves, we must remember that within that loss lies infinite potential to alter the course of our entire lives. What is not meant to be will cease to be, and the primal substance left behind has no choice but to become.
My Spirit Tree now has the gift of playing mother to the entire garden, just as life’s misfortunes act as the matriarch to all that may follow. Already I can see the new life springing from the earth where the tree’s branches lay decomposing in the soil. And already, I can see new creations springing from the ostensible voids left in my own life by the events that preceded the tree’s fall.
Somehow, we all need to learn to let go. We all need to learn that there is never a good reason to lose hope. Whatever our fallen tree may be, know that there is more abundant good in store than we could possibly imagine.
We need to remain open to the wisdom of this world coming from places we may not expect it, because the plain and simple truth is this: that wisdom is whispering all around us.
We just have to listen.