The Scottish-born naturalist, John Muir wrote, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
What John Muir is talking about is ‘connection.’ Our connection to the natural world is profound. It is more than a place to visit. It is home. It is where we feel most alive. It is where we relax and unwind. It is where we find refreshment for our bodies and nourishment for our souls. It is a place of healing and restoration. It is a place of learning and inspiration.
The natural world also offers lessons for basic living: how to be healthy, how to prosper, how to survive challenging times, how to grow strong, how to stand tall.
Peter Wohlleben has spent the greater part of his life observing trees. He worked as a forester for the lumber industry looking at hundreds of trees every day – spruce, beeches, oaks, and pines – to assess their suitability for the lumber mill and their market value. His love of trees was reignited twenty years ago when he began to organise survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists. He found that visitors were enchanted by the crooked, gnarled trees, trees of low commercial value, but curious and exciting specimens nonetheless. Wohlleben now works for the community of Hummel, a tiny village in the Eifel mountains, managing their forest.
In his recent book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” Peter Wohlleben delights in explaining the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in his woodland. What the reader discovers is that the language of nature is the language of life. It is an ancient wisdom that calls us back to the fundamentals of life.
Here are four fundamental lessons for living from “The Hidden Life of Trees.”
1. A tree is not a forest.
On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.
Trees need each other. Their well-being depends on their community. When trees grow together they are able to create an ecosystem that allows them to flourish and enjoy a long life.
Humans are social beings. It is part of our nature to want to be together. Life has taught us that no individual can stand alone without the help and support of others.
Entrepreneur, Richard Branson says,
“Togetherness is a hugely important aspect of life. It unites us, gives us security, much-needed support and a sense of belonging, and encourages us to love one another.”
2. Every tree is valuable to the community
Every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way around, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.
Recognising the value of every tree ensures the survival of the forest. If every tree were looking out only for itself, the tree canopy would soon be compromised as weaker members succumbed to disease or lack of nutrients and died off. This would leave the forest vulnerable to further damage due to violent storms and the heat of summer.
Every person is a unique individual. Our uniqueness is not conditional on our physical abilities or our mental wellbeing. It is not determined by our intellectual capacity or our emotional maturity. It is a given.
But, personal loss and hardship can cause individuals to forget their worth and lose hope. During times of doubt, we need others to lean on, people who will provide the physical and emotional support, people who will affirm our value.
The goal of society is to build strong and cohesive communities. To do this we need to find ways to promote inclusion and participation of challenged and disadvantaged people in community life. It requires a mindset that values the individual and sees their intrinsic worth.
3. Trees that are weakened are vulnerable to attack
If trees are weakened, it could be that they lose their conversational skills along with their ability to defend themselves. Otherwise, it’s difficult to explain why insect pests specifically seek out trees whose health is already compromised.
A lot of trees suffer injuries over the course of their lives. A falling tree may break off the branch of a neighbour. The exposed wound is an ideal landing site for fungal spores. To avoid complications the tree must get the area sealed once again. But this is a slow process. If the fungus becomes established the situation is potentially life threatening.
Most people consider the onset of a chronic illness or disability as a negative event. It is unsettling, causing a range of emotions including anger, fear, grief, and shock. Adapting to change is always difficult. Some conditions threaten every aspect of our life – employment, family, social interests, sporting activities.
Defence personnel face a raft of challenges. For example, veterans returning from active service may have visible scars but it is the hidden wounds, like post-traumatic stress disorder, that undermine their well-being. Left untreated, mental illness can lead to tragic consequences.
4. Young trees take three to ten years to learn stability
The process of learning stability is triggered by painful micro-tears that occur when the trees bend way over in the wind, first in one direction and then in the other. Wherever it hurts, that’s where the tree must strengthen its support structure.
The death of the ‘mother’ tree is a major disruption and places the smaller, younger trees at risk. Without the protection of the older tree, they are vulnerable to the elements. Trees are not known for their speed, and so it takes younger trees three to ten years before they stand firm once again. On the upside, adversity causes the young trees to strengthen their support structures.
Nobody enjoys going through difficult times. We do our best to shield ourselves or develop strategies to avoid them. But tough times will come. How we respond says something about our character. It demonstrates what we’re made of. It highlights qualities of courage, perseverance, strength and resilience.
Tragically, some people see themselves as broken. They are weary and lack the inner reserves to deal with the challenges they face. They feel their fragility. They fear their future. They finally succumb, resolving to end their pain.
There is debate as to how communities should address suicide prevention. Building strong, cohesive, inclusive, safe, supportive communities is a good place to start. People at risk need to know they are not alone, they are unique individuals, the threat is real, but there is a way forward. Understanding these foundational principles
provides everyone with hope for tomorrow.
Peter Wohlleben says, “Only people who understand trees are capable of protecting them.”
My take is this: “Only people who understand suicide are capable of preventing it.”