“Tell your heart to beat again/ Close your eyes and breathe it in/ Let the shadow fall away . . .Say goodbye to where you’ve been/ and tell your heart to beat again.”–as sung by Danny Gookey, written by Bernie Herms, Randy Phillips, and Matthew West
I listened to my companion. Behind the person talking, an old oak tree stood proud and erect, sheltering us in her arms of shade. The tree’s hefty roots thrust muscularly above and through the earth’s surface, foundational tentacles of nourishment and steadfastness, outstretched, ready to ensure the old sentinel’s position for future decades. The person spoke of loss, heartbreak, and missing the one who had provided a source of inner strength.
“You’ve lost your tree,” I impulsively stated. “You no longer have a tree, like the one behind you, on which to lean.”
Later, I chastised myself. What a stupid thing to say. Why hadn’t I been more encouraging? Even choosing to remain quiet and supportively listening would have been better than saying something like, “You’ve lost your tree.” Open palm. Insert face. Think, Steph, think . . .
And so I thought. I thought about my friend, I thought about life, and I thought about that grand oak whose shade in which we sheltered on that beautiful morning. I pondered loss, heartbreak, life changes, aging, illness, changes in the world, changes in society, change, change, change . . .
Oak trees. Roots, trunk, branches, leaves, acorns, canopy, crown, greens and browns, weather and wind, sunshine and rain, hail and storms, dry and wet seasons, changing temperatures, changing weather, changing levels of groundwater . . . change, change, change. In spite of it all, a typical oak tree has an average life span of 100-300 years, some may even live 700 or more years. During that time, how many acorns must one tree produce–all with the potential to become another oak tree?
Acorns. A tiny nut, dense with nutrients, capable of feeding a wide array of woodland creatures, such as bear, moose, mice, deer, squirrels, chipmunks and so on. What’s more? Acorns, with proper germination, can produce trees of 40-80 feet in height and with wing-spans of 60-100 feet across. While that is certainly no small feat, the root system of a mature oak tree can span up to hundreds of miles–and most of these roots remain unseen!
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”–Cynthia Occelli
As I best as my non-science mind understands, when an acorn is planted, like many plants, most of its energy is used to begin the growth of the root system. Starting with the tap root that grows and burrows deeply into the soil in search of a reliable source of water. During this time period, very little growth above ground can be observed; however, once the taproot is established, branches and leaves begin to sprout with more regularity.
Meanwhile, approximately 18 or so inches below the soil, where the eye cannot witness, roots are growing, expanding, spreading over a space four to seven times wider than the crown of the tree. These roots, more gangly in shape and size than the tap, seek out moisture and essential nutrients, sending them circulating back through the root system in order to nourish the growth that is visible above the ground. Silently, lateral roots slither and probe through the soil, supplying continuous sustenance to all parts of the oak. If these oak roots encounter roots of another oak tree, the roots will graft together to help one another. Still, it is each oak’s individual taproot that remains the principal form of support.
The taproot, combined with the ranging root system, is the oak tree’s source of health, or potential illness, and gives it the ability to weather all types of harsh environmental conditions and changes, including the ability to withstand the most severe storms of life. It was this basic lesson in biology that I began to contemplate as I thought of my friend, myself, and all those in my life, present and past, who have suffered loss, stormy seasons, and major life changes/shifts. Finding that inner taproot and expanding that root system is key to not only withstanding turbulent times, but also to the ability to offer shelter, strength, and plant seeds of hope for others.
“When your heart is broken, you plant seeds in the crack and pray for rain.”–Andrea Gibson
To be certain, mild, temperate weather in the shade of an old oak tree is splendid, and I could spend the rest of my life there in the vast, comforting blanket of its shade, gazing upward through splayed branches of green, spying glimpses of dappled sunlight and bluebird skies while a gentle breeze nuzzles my cheek. While those sorts of moments are what I wish everyday could be like; life offers us a meteorological spectrum of experiences. Therefore, like those expansive tree branches, we must embrace it all–the wonderful, the not-so-wonderful, and the downright heartbreaking.
We, like the oaks, have space in the soil of our soul for a taproot and a root system; and like the oak, this system is keenly connected to Divine Providence. When we are small, others develop and influence the establishment of our roots–for better or worse–depending upon one’s childhood circumstances. Eventually, however, we all reach a point of maturity in life in which it is up to each individual to nurture the inner self, foster personal strength (grit, if you will), and fortify our faith. While it is a wonderful blessing to have our root system grafted with that of another’s, in the end, it is our individual tap root connection that must be our anchor, our mainstay of strength.
Therefore, just as the rain waters the oak, so too must we water our inner taproot, encouraging it to delve deeply into that which cannot be seen or touched, but which offers a wellspring of strength, resiliency, and renewal. With a taproot strongly secured to the Divine, our true source, we can persevere throughout the vicissitudes of life. Winds may tear at your branches, bite off your leaves, and even snap off pieces of your life. Lightening may crash all around as tears stream down like rainfall, and still, like the oak, you can withstand it all. You, my friend, can continue to rise, and as your roots spread, so too will your reach.
“You never quite know what you do in life that leaves a seed behind that grows into an oak tree.”–Michael Portillo
As many as 10,000 acorns can be produced in one year from one mature oak tree. Acorns fall to the ground–even when there is no one to witness. Some acorns feed wildlife. Other seeds decay into organic matter that feeds and enriches the soil. Finally, there are acorns that take root–perhaps carried off by an animal, blown by the wind, or gathered by human hands–and new life is formed . . .
Meanwhile, underneath the canopy of the towering oak, shade is proffered for those in need, spots for seasonal nests abound, roots continue to sink and spread, and the crown continuously reaches for the heavens. Alone, but rooted; quiet, but engaged; humble, but life-giving; falling, but rising; yielding; but tenacious, and ever reliant upon The Source.
May my life be more like that of an oak.