Listen to the Trees
As I was setting up my new house in San Cristobal de las Casas, I listened to an audio book I had wanted to enjoy for a long time. The following passage caught my attention:
When I said at the beginning of this chapter that trees are definitely silent, the latest scientific research casts doubt even on this statement. Along with colleagues from Bristol and Florence, Dr. Monica Gagliano from the University of Western Australia has, quite literally, had her ear to the ground. It’s not practical to study trees in the laboratory; therefore, researchers substitute grain seedlings because they are easier to handle. They started listening, and it didn’t take them long to discover that their measuring apparatus was registering roots crackling quietly at a frequency of 220 hertz. Crackling roots? That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, even dead wood crackles when it’s burned in a stove. But the noise discovered in the laboratory caused the researchers to sit up and pay attention. For the roots of seedlings not directly involved in the experiment reacted. Whenever the seedlings’ roots were exposed to a cracking at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction. That means the grasses were registering this frequency, so it makes sense to say they “heard” it. Plants communicating by means of sound waves? That makes me curious to know more, because people are also set up to communicate using sound. Might this be a key to getting to know trees better? To say nothing of what it would mean if we could hear whether all was well with beeches, oaks, and pines, or whether something was up. Unfortunately, we are not that far advanced, and research in this field is just beginning. But if you hear a light crackling sound the next time you go for a walk in the woods, perhaps it won’t be just the wind… (From the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. English translation by Jane Billinghurst. Published in 2016 by Greystone Books and David Suzuki Institute)
The very next day, I accompanied Alberto, from the Institute for Intercultural Study and Research (INESIN), to visit the community of Chanal. As the road curved around the Chiapan Mountains of southern Mexico, past rocky eroded hillsides, tiny gardens, and villages of adobe and tile roofs, Alberto told me about growing up Tseltal, descendent from the Mayan people, and the wisdom he learned from his elders. “I remember when my father would take me into the forest to cut a tree for firewood. He would explain that all living things must be respected, even the tree we must cut down to survive the winter. As the tree fell, we could hear all the other trees crackling even though there wasn’t any wind. My father told me that the other trees were weeping for their fallen companion and out of fear that the same would happen to them. When the trees cry, they remind us to take only what we really need.”
Crackling trees. Scientists discover what the descendants of the Maya already know. Trees talk even if we no longer can understand them.
I have been thinking of the crackling trees mourning the loss of their forest community even as I meditate on Easter and the restoration of light, hope and peace after of the inhumanity and confusion of the crucifixion. Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that creation groans in pain while waiting to be set free to share in the freedom of the children of God. All of creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal his children. For creation was condemned to lose its purpose, not of its own will, but because God willed it to be so. Yet there was the hope that creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth. But it is not just creation alone which groans; we who have the Spirit as the first of God’s gifts also groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free. For it was by hope that we were saved; but if we see what we hope for, then it is not really hope. For who of us hopes for something we see? Romans 8:19-24 (Good News)
As the forests of Chiapas disappear, so do the quetzals, spider monkeys, red macaws, and jaguars. The climate changes, erosion sweeps away the fertile soils from the valleys, water systems dry up, and the air pollution increases. As the forests of Chiapas disappear, so do the healing ways and culture of the Maya, rooted for thousands of years in the seasons and rhythms of nature.
Perhaps, we need to listen more carefully to the trees and to the wisdom of our elders, to the people like the Maya, who have faced centuries of oppression and destruction. Perhaps they will remind us that we who have the Spirit are called to bring hope to all of God’s creation: from people and trees all the way to insects and fungi. I pray that even as we celebrate Christ’s victory over death and devastation, we might commit to bringing the good news of redemption to every situation and space where there is darkness and despair. Perhaps, as we strive to be the dignity building, earth keeping, hope spreading people of God, then we “will be led out of the city in peace. The mountains and hills will burst into singing, and the trees will shout for joy.” Isaiah 55:12 (Good News)
Elena Huegel serves with the Intercultural Research and Studies Institute (INESIN) in Chiapas, Mexico. She serves as a consultant for peace (conflict transformation) and environmental education. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.