Trees Are People Too

By Melanie Gillespie

As we get closer to our Science of HOPE conference, I am thinking tactically about this community of people who will come together for two days and an evening. In honor of Random Acts of Kindness Week, we are extending our early bird registration just a smidge, until 2/24/16. We are also creating some fun and useful tools to support the conference attendee community, but this is not my topic for today. Today I’m thinking about the interplay between individual and community. The way each individual is unique and uniquely contributes to the make up of the community, however that is defined, and how interdependent the individual and the community are.

As Dr. King put it: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. “

This is a hard mental model for many western people to shift into, and I am confident that doing so is a critical leg on our journey to create enduring health equity, to create Health Opportunities for People Everywhere. Shifting our focus to nature can be a useful bridge. I best access nature either directly or through poetry. I am always stumbling into some new way of seeing or feeling through the doorway of a new (to me) poem. I recently received the gift of a book of poetry, Leading from Within, and it included this gem I hadn’t seen before from the Pacific Northwest’s David Wagoner (from his Collected Poems 1956-1976):


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

In the introduction to this poem within the book, Peter Senge, systems scientist and popularizer of the concept of learning organizations, writes: “Nature is incapable of producing two identical creations, and she calls us to discover and bring forth our uniqueness. The great mystery is that life, too, colludes in finding us. We would never think of a tree or a branch as being lost. Why would we be different? It is only through forgetting that we are expressions of the same source that we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise.”

Indeed, I would never think of a tree or a branch being lost. New writing from German career forest ranger, Peter Wohlleben, reveals an emotionally compelling perspective on trees and connectedness in “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World.” The book is not yet available in English, I’ve preordered it myself and you can too if you like. This write up from the New York Times causes me to hope they release it faster! From the article: “Trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots… in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. Working together in networks and sharing resources, they increase their resistance.”

So now we see that trees aren’t just healthy to have around, making us calmer and increasing well being the statistical equivalent of giving us $10,000 or 7 years more living time, and creating our wonderful breathable atmosphere for us, they are role models showing us a way back to the selves, the us, we seem to have forgotten in the western world.

We see the importance of support to our informal social networks through the effectiveness of many Community Health Worker models and through similar peer models such as The Interrupters in the Cure Violence program in which they “train carefully selected members of the community — trusted insiders — to anticipate where violence may occur and intervene before it erupts. And we engage the entire community to change behavior and recognize that violence is uncool and there are other solutions to conflict.” This program has been well evaluated for its success and replicability.

The key to Cure Violence’s results is that trusted insider. This is the key in fact to all CHW and peer models. In the words of Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy: “Trust is the conduit for influence; it’s the medium through which ideas travel… Having the best idea is worthnothing  if people don’t trust you.” You can watch the award-winning documentary about Cure Violence’s The Interrupters for free at Frontline:

People and trees and everything else are all interconnected. We help and hinder each other every day. As I’ve written about before, hope is a social gift, according to Dr. Chan Hellman, one of the nation’s leading researchers on hope. (And, did I mention one of the amazing keynotes at The Science of HOPE conference?? )  Let’s be sure to give it, it’s so easy to do a small thing to help another. Kindness is contagious after all, and you don’t need to be any kind of expert in any way shape or form to give kindness to yourself and others.

In fact sometimes the non-expert perspective provides a cascadingly fresh view that recharges the expert in a new and useful way. That’s what happened to forester Wohlleben:

“Stopping to consider a tree that rose up straight then curved like a question mark, Mr. Wohlleben said, however, that it was the untrained perspective of visitors he took on forest tours years ago to which he owed much insight.

For a forester, this tree is ugly, because it is crooked, which means you can’t get very much money for the wood,” he said. “It really surprised me, walking through the forest, when people called a tree like this one beautiful. They said, ‘My life hasn’t always run in a straight line, either.’ And I began to see things with new eyes.”

Here’s hoping we all have opportunities to see things with new eyes!