The Elders and Oaks are Speaking

by Sue Fulmore

At the beginning of the year 2021, I had no inkling that trees in the forest would become my sanctuary, my place of prayer, and conduits of my healing.

Entering a forest is not unlike crawling into a wardrobe and finding a portal to another world. A place where the quality of light changes, becoming softer, subdued. Leaves filter sunlight into misty shafts of amber and gold. The air is fragrant with life, the trees releasing restorative compounds, breathing out the very thing we need to breathe in. Sound becomes muffled, our footfalls almost silent upon the mossy, leaf-carpeted ground.

In every season, the forest is a haven. In summer, offering a respite of cool green for heat and noise-weary bodies, akin to entering an old stone cathedral while exploring hot city streets. There is immediate relief, as the overwrought senses find rest. A hush envelops the traveler, breath slows, and the mind settles. In winter, the intricate tracery of branches highlighted against the sky belies its ability to be a sheltering canopy against the bitter storms. The winds may howl across the plains, but in the forest there is calm.

Being in the presence of trees heals us, according to the practitioners of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Simply put, forest bathing is the practice of mindfully entering a forest environment and experiencing it through the senses. The evidence suggests that healing begins within minutes of entering a green space.[i] Walking beneath the sheltering branches, blood pressure is lowered, stress reduced, cardiovascular and metabolic health is improved, and blood-sugar levels are recalibrated. Our time in a forest can improve concentration and memory and reduce depression. Being amongst trees also improves pain thresholds and energy, boosts the immune system, increases anti-cancer protein production, and helps with weight loss.[ii] As we are enfolded in the embrace of the forest, both our physiological and physical selves are renewed and remade.

The forest behind my home has become a sanctuary for me over these past many months of Covid restrictions and questions, fears, and uncertainty. I recently read about a Welsh phrase “dod yn ôl at fy nghoed”, meaning “to return to a balanced state of mind” or the literal translation is “to return to my trees“. [iii] Walking among the trees has become my therapy, returning me to a calmer state of mind. Watching the natural rhythms of nature reminds me that some things have remained the same, unchangeable and dependable. I need this reminder daily, as much of the what seemed to be solid ground beneath my feet has shifted. Moving my body, under each season’s unique canopy, helps me attune to the anxiety which has burrowed into my being. Each step along the path breaks into the spiral of doomsday thinking. They serve as a reminder of grander and primeval things, of a larger story than the one I am living. The trees remind me of larger vistas, the slow almost imperceptible growth which is happening. I daily look for signs of change in the buds and leaves, the insects and animals in their seasons. Even the slightest movement toward spring, or the first signs of the leaves turning in fall, brings with it a reassurance that order remains, that this spinning planet on which I live has not been forsaken.

I began to believe in the healing powers the forest held. Day by day, the trees soaked up my troubles, cleared my lungs, and allowed me to breathe deeper. Walking became breath prayers shared with the living and breathing woodlands. Just as they are held and sustained by the Creator, I knew this to be true for myself as well. “I am held” became whispered reassurances as I breathed among the branches reaching skyward.

Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, illuminates the various ways trees communicate and form a supportive community. Together, the trees in a forest create an environment for each other to flourish. They generate their own ecosystem, which moderates temperature, stores water, and produces humidity, all necessities for the life of the whole.[iv] The stronger trees send nourishment to the ones who are suffering. They speak to each other in their own language, through interconnected root systems and underground fungal networks. They send messages warning each other of incoming attacks from pests or drought. Recent studies have suggested that plants also communicate through sound in their roots and the neighboring plants react as if bending their ear to hear.[v] If we bent our ears to the ground, would we hear the sounds of construction as mature tree roots reach out to their neighbors, building connection, adding support? Would we hear the words of solidarity and reciprocity spoken back and forth as the trees shore each other up?

“I move among the ankles
of forest Elders, tread
their moist rugs of moss,
duff of their soft brown carpets.
Far above, their arms are held
open wide to each other, or waving
what they know, what
perplexities and wisdoms they exchange…”[vi]
Denise Levertov, From Below

It is fascinating to consider this world of covert communication of which we are unaware. We cannot hear the whispered warnings passing from tree to tree, or the encouragement given to the weaker ones. The knowledge that this kind of interaction is happening opens us up to wonder and a deeper appreciation for the natural world. Longfellow calls the pines and hemlocks, “druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic”. [vii]

If we could hear their prophetic voices, what messages would our arboreal friends tell us? They may remind us how much we need each other. How life is better when we offer support instead of looking for ways to divide and conquer.

All the while I walked under the branches of the poplars and the pines, they were ministering to me and calling to mind the words I had read about the communities they create. I could imagine the underground support systems and wonder at their messages to one another.

In a world deeply fractured, with individuals set against one another, each one claiming their “right-ness”, this picture of solidarity and resource sharing in the woods challenges our way of life. The solidity and permanence of the forests tell us the wisdom of their ways. When the length of our days is over, the trees will remain, steadfast and strong. The trees become a model for us for creating environments where all can flourish. Instead of maintaining the imbalance of our current system, we could build networks of support to ensure the weakest receive all they need to thrive.

I can’t help but think the forests are a picture of how faith communities were designed to function in the world. Collectively becoming a sanctuary for one another, a place of shelter and relief. If we lived like the trees, our reaction to one who is struggling would be to reach across the divide and offer our own resources for the other, regardless of our differences of opinion, beliefs, or values. Instead of pointing out deficiencies, we could send out roots of support and nourishment, and build a system of reciprocity and care.

We are designed to be this for one another in the fellowship of believers, but also to work toward the flourishing of all humanity and the natural world. Can our networks of support feed and clothe both those on our own streets and those in villages across the globe? I wonder if we will be the ones sending out distress signals on behalf of the environment, and working to save the planet one bus ride and reusable bag at a time? Can we communally be a reminder of grander things, a foretaste of a larger story that is yet to come, as we work to usher the Kingdom of God into our place and time?

As I continue my wondering and my wandering under the forest canopy, the trees are my companions as I whisper prayers such as these,
As we have found shelter under the arch of your branches, O God,
And nourishment from your life given,
May we grow to become oaks of righteousness
and a place of healing for the nations.

[i] Li, Q. (20 Li, Q. (2018). Forest bathing : how trees can help you find health and happiness. Viking
[ii] ibid
[iii] To Return To My Trees | Creative Potager
[iv] Wohlleben, P. (2018). Hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate. Vancouver; Berkeley: Greystone Books, pg. 4
[v] Ibid, page
[vi] From Below, Denise Levertov
[vii] Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sue Fulmore is a freelance writer and speaker, seeking to use words to awaken mind and soul to the realities of the present. She is the mother of two adult daughters and lives in sunny Alberta, Canada with her retired husband and robust shoe collection. Some of her work has been published at Ekstasis Magazine, Red Letter Christians, Christian Courier, The Perennial Gen, Convivium Magazine, Joyful Life Blog, and Asbury Seminary Soul Care Community.

One thought on “The Elders and Oaks are Speaking

  1. This is stunningly beautiful, and it confirms what I have long felt — that our connection with Nature is one of the Heartspoken Life’s four essential connections: 1) with God, 2) with Self, 3) with Others, and 4) with Nature. You have written about this in an articulate and compelling way. Will be sharing widely.


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