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  • Martha Engeman

What is it About Trees?

Trees are the gentle giants of nature, providing a curtain of protection against too much sun, offering fruits, nuts and syrup for our consumption and wood with which to build. Calm, serene, majestic and reliable, they beckon us to come and sit with our backs against their broad trunks and rest, meditate, or contemplate nature. 

When I was on retreat at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, I spent time in

nature with the magnificent old live oak trees that reside there. Some of the trees have been around for centuries. The grounds keepers were clearly invested in keeping the trees alive--so much so that there were cement blocks propping up a particularly long and low lying tree branch to keep it from hitting the ground. The grounds were also covered with beautiful, well cared for lawns of green grass.

What I realized when I was there is the importance of balance in nature. Just as we need various foods to keep us healthy, so does nature need a variety of plants and animals. On one part of the vast property was a labyrinth carved through a field of prairie grasses and flowers that are native to South Carolina. It struck me that those prairie grasses and flowers were an important part of the ecosystem--just as important as the majestic oaks and grassy lawns.

When we exalt certain parts of nature, and want to tame, or even eliminate other parts, we put a strain on our earth home. For balance to occur, we need to appreciate all parts of nature--the trees, the grasses, the wild untamed areas, the flowers, all of the animals, and yes, even the weeds. We can choose to have manicured areas that we cultivate naturally and allow other areas to be wilder. But when we try to eradicate something that is an important part of the ecosystem, we end up ultimately hurting not only our earth home, but ourselves as well. 

A case in point is what happened at Yellowstone National Park when the wolf population disappeared and then, 70 years later, when they were reintroduced. Without wolves, the elk population increased which led to a decrease in the vegetation and trees that they ate. That in turn, led to a decrease in the animals who depended on that vegetation. When wolves were reintroduced, the elk had to deal with a predator which kept the herds on the run and stabilized their population. That in turn led to decreased grazing and an increase in trees, which helped to shore up the sides of stream beds, and vegetation which brought back other animals. Because trees ingest carbon dioxide, which is a big culprit in climate change, the shift ultimately helped humans as well. When nature is in balance, we all thrive.

If I could wave my magic wand and make one wish to help our earth it would simply be this: that every human being feel a personal connection to our earth home. When we cultivate connection, we cultivate care, compassion and love. When we truly love someone, something or our Earth Mother, then we want to protect and care for it. 

The trees at Mepkin Abbey are reminders of the awesome majesty of nature, a majesty that was cultivated over centuries. Compared with them, our time on this planet is short. However our impact on this earth has been far more profound. We have it within us to make changes in the way that we consume, discard, interact with nature and move through the world to make a positive impact on our earth home. It may not always be easy, it may not always be convenient, but it will always be worth it. 


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