Between you and me and the trees

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by Janis Norton

Father and two sons hiking on trail in woods and talking

Maybe trees and people aren’t that different, writes Janis Norton. After all, they, too, live in community. ©Adobe Stock

The more time I spend in the forest, the more I think trees and people aren’t that different, in some ways.

Take the red oaks, those tall, long-lived trees are often the last to put on a show of vibrant fiery leaves in autumn. I was admiring a stand of them last fall during a hike along a trail in the Shenandoah National Park.

I had been reading up on trees, trying to learn more about the life and characteristics of various types, and had become interested in the way trees live in community.

Each tree starts its life sprouting wherever its seed has fallen – no picking a neighborhood here – and then makes the best of what the environment has to offer. Often seeds sprout very close to one another and two saplings might compete for sunlight and water their whole lives. Likely they will live out their days under bigger trees that have already established deep roots and a huge canopy above.

Life in the forest can be quite crowded, with lots of elbow rubbing.

In the crisp autumn air I spent some time looking at how this stand of red oaks had adapted themselves to one another. From my reading I knew their root network was extensive and dense. Over time the roots share nutrients and water and have a sophisticated chemical signaling system through which they alert one another to threats and dangers – a sort of neighborhood pantry and a watch system to boot.

A single line popped into my head as I surveyed the oaks: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness….”

I peered up and shaded my eyes against the bright sunlight that peeked through in spots of the branched kaleidoscope. Trees manage being so crazy close together by respecting each other’s spaces, I’d learned. Branches grow toward one another, but they do not invade their neighbor’s limbs. As branches spread close to a friend’s, long growth stops and further development goes into thickening and strengthening, an ingenious benefit toward creating a strong top story able to withstand whistling winds and blankets of snow.

That image stuck with me even after I left the forest. So did a quote from Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, a single line that had popped into my head as I surveyed the oaks: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness….”

What exactly does it mean to have space and togetherness at the same time? Sometimes people need to be like trees, to know how to rub elbows but respect each other’s space.

I remembered the time my daughter, then in middle school, was deliberating about whether or not to try out for cheerleading. She was athletic, a three-season participant in school sports, and I was thrilled she had actually been invited to try out.

When I was in school, I’d tried out for cheerleading every year and had never gotten one call back. But now, it seemed, the possibility of vicarious success was within reach!
Or maybe not. My daughter wasn’t sure she was interested, since she’d have to give up track, her go-to for off-season soccer training.

I listened quietly, but my heart was sinking fast. How could a person not want to do cheerleading, especially one who was so perfect for the sport? I could just see her, pony tail whipping as she flipped up into a perfect V, balancing on one foot while the crowd … but wait a minute. Whose decision was this?

I hadn’t had that epiphany with the red oaks yet, back then, but somehow I knew to swallow my own disappointment and let my daughter follow her instincts.

Don’t think, though, that I always allowed my children their own growth in decision making.

How many times had I insisted my young children dress according to my comfort level? Once when I was pushing my son’s arms into a jacket he did not want to wear, my husband looked at him and said in amusement, “Wear the jacket, son. Your mother is cold.”

But it’s refreshing to see, when it happens. Recently on a visit to the playground with my infant granddaughter, I watched the other parents and their children. A father sat down next to me while his young son shakily made his way up a rather steep ladder. The child looked back nervously at his dad, who had kindly taken the time to lean over and admire my bundled granddaughter.

I watch the man’s child carefully climb back down the ladder and approach his dad.

“Can I do the slide dad? It’s awful high,” he asked.

His father got up and went with his son to the slide. “I’ll stand there. You can decide,” he said.

I smiled to myself. I had thought that dad was pretty smart when he recognized the charm of my granddaughter – and then he confirmed his wisdom.

Janis Norton is a family therapist in private practice in Harrisonburg, VA.

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