Matthew Biggs, of Gardener’s Question Time fame, refers to himself on Twitter as @plantmadman. I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself, but I’ve become in some small way a tree-mad-man.
I love trees, from the apple orchards of Kent to the Scots Pines of the old Caledonian forest; from the scented cypresses of Jerusalem to the scrub-oak woodlands of the Galilee. From the uncurling of their leaves in the springtime to the foliage fall in October, trees lead me through the seasons more gracefully than any diary. I like to look at them by day and listen to them by night.
Trees are good for us physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually. As the Torah says, ‘the tree of life is in the midst of the garden’, feeding all the worlds.
Physically, we need trees. ‘Rewilding’ is one of my favourite words. We must urgently replant the great forests, trees in billions, which store carbon, exhale oxygen and enable all living things to breathe. From Indonesia to Africa and the Amazon, from Scotland to the east and south of Europe, we must replant. Without the trees, the breath of life will choke.
Trees bring livelihoods to peoples across the globe. Tree Aid calls the Shea Tree ‘the little nut that makes a big difference’:
this humble native species provides local people with a cornucopia of essentials: food, fuel, fodder for livestock, medicinal products and building materials, as well as precious saleable commodities. Like all trees, it also aids soil fertility, water conservation and biodiversity. (www.treeaid.org)
We need trees for our emotional health too. We’re less alone when we’re out among the beeches and the oaks. A charming Midrash explains how it used to be:
All the trees, plants and spirits that dwell in nature conversed with one another. The spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind for all of nature was created for mutual companionship with people. (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)
I disagree only with the past tense: the trees still speak. At least, they’re trying; they’re waiting for us to switch off our social media and retune our souls to the wavelength of their spirit.
Nachmanides (1174 – 1270) explains that God didn’t just show Moses which tree to throw into the bitter waters of Mara to make them sweet. The Torah says not vayareihu, but vayoreichu – ‘he taught’. God taught Moses that the Tree of Life has the capacity to sweeten our inner bitterness. I can’t count how many people tell me: ‘Nature is the solace for my heartache’.
Trees are important morally. Rabbi Ari Killip explains how deeply the rabbis of the Talmud (c. 500CE) understood tree roots. They intermingle underground; they’re interdependent with innumerable micro-organisms: it’s a kind of subterranean mixed dancing. They operate in circles, not squares; they drink from the field of the farmer next door. They teach us that we’re not autonomous individuals but part of, and responsible to, the inseparable, impossible to disentangle community of life.
Trees nourish our spirit. Like the mystical texts of other faiths, the Zohar understands life as an upside-down tree. Its roots are in heaven; its branches are creation:
The world to come cares for this tree all the time, watering it…never at any time withholding its streams. Faith depends on this tree. (Zohar III 239a-b)
That’s what inspired Chaim Nachman Bialik in his magisterial poem Haberechah, the Pool:
There, between God’s trees which had not heard the axe’s echo,
On a path known only to the wolf and the mighty hunter,
I used to wander whole hours by myself…
Uniting with my heart and with my God
Until I came…To the Holy of Holies in the forest, the pupil of its eye…
A tranquil holy sanctuary, hidden between the shade of the trees.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat – and may this be a year of planting.