Exit Ramp: Our lives as a tree
I was on a hike with my husband earlier this winter when I spotted two trees whose knotted roots were entwined. The trees appeared to be holding hands, like a couple in love, or two friends leaning in to comfort one another.
From a quick online search I learned that this phenomenon is called inosculation, a process similar to the biology of skin grafting. It occurs when individual trees grow toward each another and meet at a branch, a root, or even a trunk. Their barks abrade at the point of contact, where they self-graft and start to grow as one. I began to wonder if trees were social creatures, a mild obsession that continued for weeks, but became timely in the lead-up to Tu b’Shvat.
Known as the New Year for Trees, the 15th day of the month of Shvat is the date used to calculate the age of a fruit-bearing tree in the Land of Israel, where Jewish agricultural laws, like tithing, apply. But wherever we live, the holiday offers the opportunity to contemplate our harmony with the arboreal world and the sentiment captured by New Jersey-born poet Joyce Kilmer in his poem, “Trees”: “Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.”
While their divine majesty is evident — in their boughs and branches, sturdy trunks, and leafy canopies — what I treasured most about trees when I was a child was their shade. I’d sit on the ground with a book, looking up occasionally to catch a glimpse of a treetop sweeping the sky. Come Tu b’Shvat, however, I’d pay more attention. I’d count the change in my piggy bank, hoping I had enough to plant a tree in a forest in Israel, and I’d eat the dates, figs, and that teeth-killer, carob, doled out in celebration by my Hebrew teacher.
Nowadays, I don’t have dental insurance, so I skip the carob. But what I’ve returned to every Tu b’Shvat in recent years is a fascination with our similarity to trees — a natural comparison, with examples appearing throughout the Tanach. We are “an apple tree among the trees of the forest,” according to Shir HaShirim 2:3. Devarim 20:19 likens us to the tree of the field, while Psalm 92 assures us that if we are righteous, we will “flourish like a palm tree.”
There are the obvious physical resemblances between us, like our limbs. We stand tall; lay down roots, seed, blossom, and grow. We depend upon water and nutrients for survival, and we both look to the sun for light. We humans also need the warmth that comes from our relationships, formed at the moment when we move toward one another and let down our guard, allowing others to entwine their stories and lives with our own. If inosculation is any proof, trees sometimes seek those connections, too. One day, I’ll have to talk to a forester more about it.
Lastly, we share the truth of our mortality. None of us will be here forever, even the bristlecone pine, which can live for nearly 5,000 years. Yet each of us has an individual “tafkid,” a personal mission to fulfill during the time we are allotted here on earth. Trees are givers, essential to the ecosystem. We humans must find our own way to the role that will define our legacy after we’re gone.
Despite what we have in common, trees have the ultimate edge, and I will end by confessing my jealousy of the tree in Kilmer’s poem “…that looks at God all day/and lifts her leafy arms to pray.” She stands taller than I, far from the commotion down below, closer to heaven and God’s listening ear. If she could, I imagine she’d be more likely to notice a sapling, grown from a seed borne on a breeze, and wonder, How did this lovely thing get here? These days, I’m so harried by life’s daily entanglements — by the news and the vitriolic discourse about current events — that I’d surely overlook the beauty and walk right by.
How I envy that tree her peace of mind. How I wish I could entwine my roots with hers, so that the two of us could pray as one.