Old oak tree

Several years ago, a strong storm split an old oak tree out back. The winds caught the branches and split the trunk through the exact center, half-way down. Since then, the tree has split almost to the base. Yet the tree survives, almost unchanged, something of a marvel.

There are strories of medieval Europe about hermits who lived in just such tree hollows, and a fairy tale (if I recall) about a punished king who was trapped in the hollow of a great tree and only freed by a passerby years later. These are storeis about trees as much as hermits. They attest to the awe inspired by great trees that dwarf human size or just challenge our sense of longevity and courage with their silent and enduring presence. The forests of medieval Europe once evoked not only terror but sanctuary, filled not only with wolves, witches, and gobbins, but also with hermits, and with kind spirits of water and trees.

The forest created by the hermit Elzeard Bouffier in Jean Ginono’s wonderful tale The Man Who Planted Treestestified to the potential that, as the protagonist reflects, “Men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”

But the destruction of such forests is now world-wide and is a horrible testimony to the baseness of human society’s rapacious capacity to destroy. It is a grave symptom of a deep flaw that cannot be overcome collectively. Just as with the forest today, so too with individuals who follow the marketplace and the conventions of society. They are cut down by worldliness, consumption, and conformity. Human inclination is to destroy collectively, not to create. Only an individual can create, and survive.

We survive as the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu showed us, remarking that the old gnarled tree survives, whereas the normal healthy tree is cut down, for the carpenter cannot use the gnarled tree and passes it by. We must be like the gnarled tree, like the old split oak, like the hermit in the forest who disdains the modern consumption and commercialism that has destroyed so much of nature. That is how we save ourselves, can save others, and can save the forests.