NATURE'S ECHOES / SPIRITUAL BIOMIMICRY
Our lives are always shaped by a master metaphor. Our understanding of reality, our answer to the nature of the "good life" is framed by this metaphor. For some reality is like a machine. For others a computer. Wise spiritual masters have shaped their understanding of reality by nature. My time in a California redwood forest has validated this ancient insight.
Through nature we can learn about the structure and priorities of the spiritual world. This is "spiritual biomimicry." Academically, biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. It is learning to deal with our most complex problems by learning from the ecological complexity of nature.
Nature teaches us enduring lessons about spiritual reality. On this the ancient spiritual poets acknowledge, and our human experience agree:
"God's splendor is a tale that is told, written in the stars. Space itself speaks his story through the marvels of the heavens. His truth is on tour in the starry vault of the sky, showing his skill in creation's craftsmanship. Each day gushes out its message to the next, night by night whispering its knowledge to all—without a sound, without a word, without a voice being heard., yet all the world can hear its echo." (Psalm 19:1-4)
In California's redwood forests we find the oldest, largest, and tallest trees in the world. A hundred years ago the German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse wrote a love letter to trees. In it he stated, "Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.... Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life." These "ancient laws of life" are what we need to learn again.
Often discussions about nature get framed politically in terms of climate change or controversially in some circles in terms of evolution. Today I'd like to frame our thinking about nature spiritually. To quote the modern mystic Joseph Campbell, "The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with nature." Spiritual biomimicry. What do trees teach us about our spiritual life? Laura Foley encourages us to have a conversation with trees about our life.
Go into the woods
and tell your story
to the trees.
They are wise
standing in their folds of silence
among white crystals of rock
and dying limbs.
And they have time.
Time for the swaying of leaves,
the floating down,
They have time for gathering
and holding the earth about their feet.
It is something I have learned.
How they will bend down to you
They will bend down to you and listen.
What do we learn about spiritual reality and ourselves within that reality if we start our spiritual pilgrimage by hugging a tree?
From redwoods we learn that as living beings we are dependent beings. Everything living derives its life from an environment that is larger than and other than itself. These redwoods depend on the sun, rain, fog, and soil around them for their life. The reason redwoods are only found near the coast is because 40% of their water intake is from fog. It is not simply acknowledging the life around them that matters to them but absorbing this life within them that enable them to flourish.
If this is true of redwoods, then we must ask ourselves, what is the larger and other environment from which we derive our own life so that we can uniquely thrive? French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin observed, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human one." Our thriving is never self-generated but is dependent on our connection on this larger outer environment on which our successful flourishing ultimately depends. We may not know much about this larger spiritual environment, but we learn from trees that it is larger and other than oneself and that its importance is more than it being around us, but it being in us that matters in the end. Jesus framed this insight with the picture of a vine and branches.
"You must remain in life-union with me, for I remain in life-union with you. For as a branch severed from the vine will not bear fruit, so your life will be fruitless unless you live your life intimately joined to mine. I am the sprouting vine and you're my branches. As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you—but when you live separated from me you are powerless." (John 15:4-5)
This insight can orient your spiritual pilgrimage. Like trees we are dependent beings.
From redwoods we learn that the dynamic of life is invisible to the eye, it is found in a network of fungi in the soil. There is a hidden life to trees. Canadian forester Suzanne Simard discovered recently that trees communicate with one another through a network of fungi. Underground there is this other invisible world—a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate. Some scientists see this as a sort of intelligence and is described by them as the wood wide web. When we look at a forest, we must remember that their living dynamic is found in this invisible network that allows trees to function in a community of ongoing conversation. Like trees what is invisible to us is more important that what we can see.
From redwoods we learn that we are designed to function in community. These redwood trees grow in groves, five or six trees in a circle. This is because their root systems are not very deep, usually only 12 feet. But they interlace their roots and so they hold each other up. The reason that they can grow to such heights, 300+ feet, is because they grow in community. Redwoods teach us that it is not about the tree but the forest—for it is in the community of other trees that they find their strength, support, and protection. If in community we find a dynamic of support, communication, and protection, this is more than intelligence, it is evidence of love being rooted in the stuff of reality. So too your life, you were not designed to be an independent autonomous individual but designed for community, mutuality, and love. Like trees we require community.
From redwoods we learn that the forest gives back proactively. Redwood trees are the greatest of ecological activists. A redwood tree provides 40% more oxygen than any other plant. The air you breathe in a redwood forest is purer and more oxygen rich than any other place you can go. It gives back to the wider world around it. It's very being makes the world a better place. You and I are intrinsically linked to redwoods in this way as what we breathe out gives them life as what they breathe out gives us life. Poet Hannah Stephenson adds, "One said that all breath in this world is roped together, that breathing is the most ancient language."
If you stand at the edge of a forest
and stare into it
every tree at the edge will blow a little extra
oxygen toward you
It has been proven
Leaves have admitted it
The pines I have known
have been especially candid
that all breath in this world
is roped together
that breathing is
the most ancient language.
The world needs us. Like trees we function in a spiritual ecology of meaning where our talents and calling to make the world a better place is intrinsic to who we are and necessary for the world's vitality.
And finally, we learn from redwoods that sacrifice is a necessary pattern of reality. Within redwood forests there are ghost redwoods. These are trees that serve the surrounding forest by drawing up into themselves all the toxins from the forest soil thereby protecting all the other trees. Toxins like cadmium. These trees are totally white because they have no chlorophyll and cannot feed themselves from the sun through photosynthesis. Instead, they are fed by the surrounding trees while they protect the forest from deadly toxins. There are 400 of these rare ghost redwoods in California. Self-sacrifice in community is taught by these trees about the nature of reality. From redwoods we learn that we lose our life to find it.
Redwoods point to a spiritual reality that is beyond themselves. They are the echoes of a voice that is calling to each of us.
We live at a time where we think we are self-dependent and we are not, can function without others and we can't, that what matters is only what we can see and it isn't, and that getting is more important that giving and sacrificing and it's not. If we listen closely to redwoods, they tell another ancient story. They provide an onramp to spiritual pilgrimage that finds its fullest expression in Jesus. He once healed a blind man. It took two steps. The first time Jesus touched his eyes he saw people as trees. The second time Jesus touched his eyes he saw clearly. In a similar manner redwood provide spiritual biomimicry insight into the nature of our spiritual pilgrimage.
Our identity is not designed but derived by dependence. Our identity is not simply about our autonomous self but root in community—family, friends, and church. Our identity is not disembodied but is root in our body—how you eat, drink, breathe, and love. Our identity is found not in getting but in sacrificing for others. We live in a culture that doesn't want to listen to nature. It has turned a deaf ear to these spiritual echoes. Spiritually, we owe it to ourselves to walk in the woods and learn from the trees.
California's ecological giant and Christian mystic John Muir said, "The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness." I have found that a hike in nature, walks the soul back home. We cannot ask for more from a walk in the woods.