If God were a tree, this page
would be a sacred thing,
oblation in cellulose.
Dear Reader, I imagine you thinking right now—preposterous! Yet the Bible invites us to think of God as bread, breath, light, rock and a mother eagle, among other things. We read that God was manifest as pillars of cloud and fire, as whirlwind, and, of course, as burning bush. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus famously says to his friends. So is God as tree such a stretch? We may agree that God created the tree and so perhaps within its treeness is something of God.
I wonder if you, like me, had a strange and lonely Christmas—for the best of reasons. You want to slow down the spread of COVID-19. You care for your loved ones, neighbours and frontline workers. One safe way I navigate the necessary isolation is by finding companionship among the trees; I am privileged to live on an island near Vancouver.
The coronavirus has expanded my idea of communion beyond the human. I am not alone in this. Consider the joyous outpouring of photos and posts from around the world during the 2020 lockdowns: penguins parading down Cape Town’s empty streets, a rare civet cat on a Kerala crosswalk, wild boars in Haifa. Consider the surge in backyard birdwatching. In the absence of pre-COVID’s relentless pace, people are paying great attention to the natural world. As the mystic Simone Weil said, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
My first thought on the subject of how to know God in 2021 is GET OUTSIDE. If you can (and you live below the tree line), spend your attention on trees. If you live in the city, find your companions in parks or along boulevards. Listen to their winter silence; watch how their branches generously hold the lives of birds, insects, squirrels and, sometimes, our children. Watch spring bring out mists of buds that unfurl into green gold. Watch them turn scarlet in the fall. Trees share their knowledge, like Solomon, of seasons. Fruit trees and sugar maples teach sweetness. Trees spin sunlight into energy, creating oxygen as a gift to all living creatures.
I am aware I am pushing this metaphor of God as tree a bit hard, but in 2021 I need to know God beyond human-made constructs and contexts. Our brilliant faculties have led us humans into dark places. We are watching unprecedented numbers of citizens die from opioid poisoning, the other epidemic alongside the coronavirus. Our COVID isolation has driven us deeper into our socially acceptable dependency on the smart devices we keep close, which daily dole out their tiny doses of dopamine. All the while the surveillance capitalists grow richer as they sell us and our attention to the highest bidder. If attention is prayer, as Weil suggests, who are we praying to?
Summer temperatures are soaring dangerously in many cities throughout the world. Trees are part of the solution. Our urban heat islands cool down marvelously under the shade umbrellas of these leafy citizens, who filter air and water, reduce noise, while gracing busy streets. B.C.’s official tree is the western red cedar, also called Arborvitae (“Tree of Life”). It can live over a thousand years. For the Coast Salish peoples, it carries profound cultural importance. At the rate the climate is changing, these beloved giants will be gone locally within 100 years. Already I see the young ones dying. Storms in B.C. have more than doubled in just three years and are increasingly severe. The volatile climate is a result of fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Following Paul’s lead, I admit that of sinners, I am chief, being a beneficiary, user and victim of the oil and gas enterprise.
My second thought on spiritual practices in 2021 is GO INSIDE: be still and know that I am God. Trees teach stillness and stability. I am learning to ask what are the deeper longings below my compulsion and consumption? Am I rooted in love, for God, for self and for my neighbours, who include all creation? When despair over existential threats whispers it is too late, this is the heartwood where I find strength. I am not a good student, but my teachers are patient.
Dear Reader, my hope is that prayerful attention can build within us the collective will to restore our living world, its health and balance, and thereby save ourselves. So I pay attention to the teachings of my COVID companions, the trees: how they silently commune, how they share resources through interconnected root networks, how even in death, they give.
If God were a tree,
we’d study Botany
to grow closer to
Our third eye
would be a leaf.
Susan Alexander’s poetry has received multiple awards including the 2019 Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry; Nothing You Can Carry is the title of her most recent collection. She lives on Nexwlélexm/Bowen Island, the traditional and unceded territory of the Squamish people.