On a recent trip to Lancaster county, I saw a curious sight while visiting the Amish Farm with my family. An old mulberry tree grew across a river like a bridge. When I say across the river, I don’t mean that it’s branches grew over the river, but that its trunk grew horizontally rather than vertically, out into the middle of the river, about halfway across before the branches started growing upwards, perpendicular to the rest of the tree, toward the sky. It almost looked like the tree had been chopped down, except the roots grew—in a massive tangle—from the ground, and were still connected to the tree.
The sight of this tree brought me back to my childhood when I used to go camping with my father every June after school let out for the summer. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred on those camping trips, and when I think about my father, who passed away in 2003, I often recall the things he taught me on those trips to the woods, and the wisdom and life lessons he imparted on those trips shaped the way I see and think about the world as much as anything else in my childhood.
The particular memory of this tree triggered was from one of our earliest trips. As a child who grew up in a largely urban environment, I was amazed by the trees in their natural setting in the state park in upstate New York where we went camping. What I noticed first was actually the roots (I was a city kid, and we’re taught from a young age that only tourists look up). The trees that I knew grew neatly on the edge of the sidewalk or in public parks. They were kept and pruned. Sometimes their roots would lift up sections of the sidewalk, which could trip you if you tried to ride your bike over them, but which for the most part, remained hidden, growing, properly, into the earth.
The roots I noticed were exposed. They grew in intricate tangles, gripping glacial rocks like the fingers of a giant, clawed hand. You could see roots as wide as branches growing down the rocky slope into the pond by which we ate breakfast each morning.
My father explained that the trees roots would grow to “find” water. If they could not penetrate the rock, they would grow around—or over it—stretching and striving to get to the water they needed to grow.
He then directed my gaze upward, pointing out the way they did a similar thing as they grew to get to the light, the other main thing they needed in order to survive. Young trees could not grow straight up, he said, because the older trees blocked out the light they needed to grow. If the tree was to survive, it would need to find the light, in any direction it could. Trees near the water would often grow in this fashion, as the airspace above the water was clear of the canopy of older trees, but you could see the trees twist and turn in interesting and unexpected shapes anywhere in the forest.
Looking up, I was awed by these wild trees. I found a beauty there which would inspire in me a Tolkien-esque love of trees. Others could have their beaches (which I always found boring) and their mountains. For me, the beauty of nature was best expressed in trees, especially in those twisted, mangled deciduous trees, seeking for sunlight, striving to survive.
The mulberry tree I saw a couple of weeks ago on vacation brought me back to this memory for obvious reasons. Though the tree on the farm grew in isolation, it is likely that at some point in its early life, it had to yield its airspace to other, older trees which have since been cut down. In this tree, I saw an extreme example of the phenomenon my dad pointed out all those years ago. The trunk grew parallel to the ground, low and over the river. It must have grown that way for years before its branches were able to reach upward toward the sky.
During this season of resolutions, let us look toward these trees. We live in a society which values progress and often assesses it by the extent to which it is linear. But life does not work that way. Everyone has their own, individual path, just as each tree must find its own way down toward the water and up toward the sun. Moreover, growth is not always linear. Sometimes, your trunk will have to go parallel with the ground—like the mulberry tree—or even go, temporarily, backward in its long and twisted pursuit of its goal. In a society which encourages us to chart growth and evaluates it by the shape of the plots’ steady slope up a graph, choose, instead, to emulate nature and embrace the unique patterns of the enchanted wood.
Grow toward your light, whatever direction that takes you.