Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. Here, Christopher Smith calls attention to an ecological margin that is hidden in plain sight: treetops!Since I was a young boy, I have loved climbing trees. The apple trees of the small orchard on my grandparents’ Iowa farm, with their low-hanging branches, were a perfect place for a boy like me to learn to climb.
Today as I write, I am perched up in the old mulberry tree in my neighbor’s yard, the same tree that last summer yielded bumper crop of berries, which with a little effort we turned into such treats as wine, pie and my wife’s acclaimed jam bars. It is mid-April and the tree is still bare from its winter rest, save for the new buds that are only beginning to emerge all over its branches. A robin lands about a dozen feet away in the outer reaches of the tree’s limbs, munching slowly on a worm he’s found in earth softened by the recent rains.
My three young children also like to climb trees and we often climb together and are constantly amazed by the wonders of the treetop world. Here in Indianapolis, as in many cities I suppose, the world of the treetop is one of the urban landscape’s few untouched natural spaces. Anyone who bemoans the dearth of natural spaces in the city has likely never climbed a tree. In a tree, wildlife abounds: not only the vibrant life of the tree itself, but also birds like the robin I saw earlier or the chickadee that now landed just out of my reach; insects; rodents such as squirrels and opossums; mosses and even plants that nestle in among the tree’s roots or make a home for themselves in the tree’s canopy. As I climb trees and experience the abundant life of creation in the treetop world, I have come to realize that tree-climbing can be a redemptive practice pointing to the shalom of God’s coming kingdom.
are another world, smelling of bark,
a stratum of freer air and larger views,
from which he saw the world he’d lived
Wendell Berry, from “The Old Man Climbs a Tree”
Tree-climbing is a redemptive practice because by it, we get to experience intimately and be challenged by the virtues of a tree. In observing the manifold forms of life that make their homes in or on a tree, we begin to get a sense of a tree’s hospitality. A tree offers shade from the beating summer sun, and in the winter, its hollow nooks offer cozy nesting places for squirrels and other rodents. In climbing a tree, one will undoubtedly experience the generosity of a tree, its bountiful fruit or nuts, its leaves, which in dying each fall are resurrected as rich compost. There are few depictions of a tree’s generosity that surpass Shel Silverstein’s memorable tale The Giving Tree, in which the main character, an apple tree, gives to the boy her fruits, her branches, her trunk and finally, as the boy has become an old man, her stump on which he sits and rests. At every turn, the tree is happy at being able to please the boy, however self-indulgent his wishes might be.Trees also generously sustain life, by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Nalini Nadkarni, in her excellent book, Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, catalogues a host of other ways in which trees contribute to health and healing of humanity: quinine, for instance, which has traditionally been used to treat malaria, comes from the bark of the Andean Cinchona tree. It has long been profoundly striking to me that at the heart of John’s biblical vision of the apocalyptic New Jerusalem is the tree of life, whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:1-2). To climb a tree is a redemptive act because it is a firsthand reminder that God is at work in all of creation. As we share life together in our church communities, embodying in small ways God’s justice and shalom and thus proclaiming the good news to our friends and neighbors, it is easy to get so absorbed in our own calling and the challenge of human relations that we forget that God is reconciling all parts of creation. To climb a tree, therefore, is to be reminded of the broadness of God’s care, provision and reconciliation of all creation.
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
…see, everything has become new!
St. Paul, 2 Cor. 5:17 NRSV
Tree-climbing is also a redemptive practice insofar as it is a Sabbath practice. Although there are some exceptions, I would suspect that most people who climb up into a tree do not do so as a form of work or self-sustenance. Most tree-climbers ascend for the sheer joy of climbing itself or being in the treetop world. In his book, Sabbath, Dan Allender reminds us that such delight is an eschatological act: that is, it builds in us the anticipation for the day when all will be reconciled and when such abundant joy will infuse every moment of life. Furthermore, Allender reminds us that in God’s economy “there is no distinction between work and play” and therefore playful Sabbath activities — like tree-climbing — give us perspective that helps us constantly reshape our understanding of work. As quoted in Allender, the renowned theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, “We are no longer playing merely with the past in order to escape it for awhile, but we are increasingly playing with the future in order to get to know it.” Wendell Berry, in the poem “The Old Man Climbs a Tree,” eloquently reflects on how the Sabbath activity of tree-climbing offers a changed perspective on one’s normal earth-bound world. Berry’s old man experiences Sabbath joy as he sits in the tree reflecting on both worlds and he is “pleased and unafraid.”
Finally, tree-climbing is a redemptive act because climbing into the treetop world serves to seed our imaginations with possibilities for our earth-bound life. Just to be baptized into the Kingdom reign of Jesus is to live in a different world, climbing up and sitting in a tree inserts one into a different world. Most, if not all, of the world’s great injustices had their origins and propagation in failures of imagination. For instance, the African priest and theologian Emmanuel Katongole tells the story of how nineteenth century European missionaries came to Rwanda and — on the basis of their racialist ideologies — elevated the Tutsi people above the Hutus. Katongole notes a failure of imagination on the part of these missionaries, who could not imagine a society that was not ordered by a racial or ethnic hierarchy. This failure, however, was hardly just an ideological one, as the work of these Christians shattered the social stability that the peoples of that land had maintained for centuries and started a chain of events that eventually lead to the massive genocide there in 1994.
I won’t pretend that tree-climbing will solve all of the world’s problems, but by it our imaginations are prepared in small ways for being the people of God in a world of injustice. In the treetop world, the human is an alien, an outsider. Reflecting on this minority status might prove beneficial in orienting the Church’s imagination in a post-Christendom world, in which the Church is not at imperial helm of power. Considering firsthand a tree’s stability through wind and storms might likewise spur our imaginations about our own rootedness in a place. The super-abundance of a tree’s provision of fruit or nuts might, upon reflection, re-shape the ways that we think about economic issues related to scarcity and God’s provision. And on and on we could go exploring the ways that being for a time in the world of the treetop can ignite our imaginations.
Yes, I believe tree-climbing is one of the sorts of joyful “playing with the future” (to borrow Moltmann’s phrase) that we need to renew our imaginations and to point us in the direction of God’s redemption of all things. I, for one, long for the day when God will set right relations not only among myself, God and all humanity, but also among myself, the mulberry tree, the robin, the chickadee, the mosses on the branch next to me, and the white butterfly that just flitted past my perch. Having just celebrated Easter, I am reminded that a God who conquered death can surely reconcile all these creatures…and more. May we revel in God’s gift of trees and of the rich worlds hidden in their tops, and may we emerge from the treetops with imaginations ablaze for the challenges that arise in our day-to-day living!