On Friday, my son Jordan (age 16) drove me to the Washington County Fair Ground to pick up 100 trees we had purchased from the county Soil and Water Conservation Department. There were fifty white spruce and fifty black walnut, each two to three years old, each with bare, damp roots, all bundled into one bag that I could carry myself. I carried 100 trees to the car and loaded them in the back. We drove away.
An hour after arriving home, with the help of Kyra (10), Kai (6), and Leif (2), Jordan and I began digging holes, inserting seedlings, then filling, pressing, and encircling the small spires with wood chips and hay. (Geoff and Jessica were away.) When Leif got cold, I went inside for a blanket and snacks, came back out, wrapped him warmly, and kept going, hole after hole.
It seemed insane, and not because we were counting on a two year old to sit and watch. These tiny twigs, not much longer than my arm, were trees? It seemed ridiculous to imagine that this branch would become anything other than kindling.
Ninety-eight, I kept thinking. That is what age I will be when these plants, if they manage, mature. Still, I swallowed my doubt and kept sticking them into the dark earth. Jordan, at least, was happy. “I love planting trees.”
As we made our way to the end of one long row and doubled back for a second, I was struck by how much faith it takes to plant a tree—not to mention 100. You simply have to have faith otherwise the task will not get done. Reason or common sense will intervene to stop the folly. In fact, planting a tree seems to me to be a good example of what having faith means.
Here are ten reasons why.
To plant a tree is…
1. To act. Planting a tree is not a question of believing in someone outside of your self. Nor is it a question of believing something about yourself, as sinner or saint, bound or free. Planting a tree is an action—a doing—where you initiate a sequence of movements that will have consequences. You move your bodily self in the world in a way that makes a difference to who you are, to how you feel, and to what is. You begin.
2. To imagine. In order to plant a tree, you need to be able to look clearly at what is, and see an alternate reality emerging alongside the one that already exists. You need to imagine that reality, thoughtfully, fully, knowing that one image is not more real than the other: the difference lies in how you act, in the movements you will make. What matters, what happens, is up to you.
3. To desire. To plant a tree, you can’t just form a picture of an alternative reality in your mind’s eye, you have to want it to be more real than what is. You have to feel a pull towards your own vision that guides your action in ways that will make that vision true. Without this desire, your imagining will not go anywhere, and your action will have nowhere to go.
4. To trust. To plant a tree is to trust that the world as we know it and need it will endure. It is to trust that the sun will shine but not too warmly; the rain will fall but not too heavily; that the soil will nourish, and the earth will turn. It is to trust that, in the fifty years it takes this tree to grow, we humans will get our act together enough to preserve a climate within which these trees—and human beings—can live.
5. To care. And when you set that seedling in the ground, and your human heart swells at its vulnerable, unlikely fate, you know: to plant a tree is to care. It is not just that you can imagine, want, and trust a new reality to emerge, you care about whether or not it does. You care about whether this tree, the one you are planting, becomes what it has the potential to be. That is, you care about this single tree—not just your vision. You care because you act, and your acting makes it so.
6. To commit. In that rousing of affection, as you realize how much you care, you find a willingness to commit yourself to the well being of the trees you are handling. You are willing to do what you must and what you can to let this tree and that tree live. You orient yourself to the trees, knowing that your fates are entwined.
7. To risk. At the same time, every step of the way, you are haunted by other possibilities you can imagine. Because you imagine and care and act, you walk in the shadow of your own fear and doubt. There is no guarantee that any one of these trees in your care will amount to anything. To plant a tree is to risk being undone by torrential rains, hungry deer, or careless cattle. It is to risk being dried in drought, fried in a heat wave, or buried by snow. It is to risk… failure. Disappointment. Despair. All of the time, energy, and resources you are spending could be for naught. Poof. Nothing there.
8. To honor. Although you act and care and stomach risk, in the end, you also know: there is nothing you can do make the tree grow. It is not in your power. No amount of imagining, desiring, or trusting can make it grow. For the tree to become what it is—what you can imagine it might be—there must be some un-nameable, unstoppable power manifest in the tree itself, searching to thrust its way into the world in this particular time, place, and shape. The tree must “want” to grow, to move into the world, to take in all the world has to offer, and transform what it receives into a space-spanning height and breadth. Planting a tree, you honor this life force. You honor it by enabling it—by participating in it and aligning your efforts, however small, with what you can imagine it to be. And you do so in awe of what may become real and true through you as you do.
9. To be a body. To plant a tree one must be a bodily self, and not just to hold a shovel. Bodily selves exist to move. It is their purpose. The benefits of accessing larger arcs of time and space drew singular organisms together to bond and differentiate their cellular selves. As a result, every limb and lobe, every organ and system of our bodily selves, represents a complex pattern of movement potentials that have been made and remembered and handed down over millions of years. Because our bodily selves have moved, we can imagine what will happen, care that it might, and want, trust, commit, risk, and act to make it so.
10. To affirm life. To plant a tree is to affirm life—to love it—all of it. It is to embrace the dirt clinging to your eyelashes; the rocks under your knees; the tight, bright fists of needle green, waiting to open. It is to affirm the weight of the wheel barrow mounded with mulch; the effort of digging deeply; the stress of surfing the unknown, and the incredible joy of being a body who can and does participate in a mutually enabling, reciprocally empowering unfolding of what is. Of what may be. Of beauty incarnate.
Saturday morning, we planted the fifty black walnuts. This time we brought a blanket and snacks with us at the start. As the sun warmed, we dug holes in soil so moist and dark it cut like fudge. Leif and Kyra and Kai interspersed their planting with playtime on the hay bales. The cattle watched, amused.
I could have been doing something else—something less risky—whose results would be more certain. Like shopping. Doing a crossword. Or eating a chocolate.
Instead, I am imagining a day, when I am ninety-eight and I walk through this grove. Some of the trees will be gone—transplanted to distant spots, cut for Christmas, or harvested for making musical instruments. But some, I hope, will stand, and I will walk under them, remembering that day on my knees, knowing it was for this, and knowing that this is beautiful. This tree friendly world is one in which I want to live—a world I want to leave behind to those who come after.
It might never happen, but even so, the thought that it might makes me happy. If I didn’t act, it surely wouldn’t. At least now, there is a chance. Regardless, here and now, a better world begins.