Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Parable of the Oak Tree

When I was in the eighth grade, I found a tiny live oak tree in the woods in which I was tramping. I knew if I left the tree there, it probably wouldn’t survive, and I wanted it – needed it. I was in the midst of a passionate love affair with plants, and I felt a harmony with growing things that has enriched my life to this day. When my spirit gets dry, I listen to the trees calling. I hear their song.

I planted that tree in a corner of the yard, and I surrounded it with white quartz rocks so it would be protected from clumsy feet and deadly lawnmower blades. The little tree thrived on my love, and by the time I had grown up and left home to make my journey into the distant world, it had grown into a big, spreading tree with limbs overhanging the little road in front of the house.

That tree has listened to me and nurtured me through unnumbered crises and joys. It has watched my children play and given them shelter from the biting sun. It has been home for bird families and nourished the world with their songs. It has been a magical tree. That’s how I have always seen it – and how I always will.

The tree lived in the yard of my mother’s house, and when I had to sell the place, the tree had to go too. What the new owners have done with it, I don’t know. I haven’t had the heart to go back and see. They don’t know that tree, even though they may “own” it. By now they may have even cut it down. There were complaints about how the tree had spread into the neighbor’s yard, and how it was threatening to obscure visibility on the little road beside it. But what nobody knows is that I took the tree with me – in my spirit. I had to – it was part of me.

Thinking about my oak set me to thinking about how we see things – the differences in viewpoints, in perspectives, in angles. One tree – many trees. Here is a tale about seeing a tree.


There was an oak tree that sat on a small hill – a live oak that had sent its first roots into the soil more than a hundred years before. It had stretched out to the sky in praise while its limbs were shaped by the wind and from following the sun each day, and its acorns had fattened generations of grateful squirrels. Many people had looked upon the tree, and each had seen something different.

A carpenter saw beautiful wood with a fine, golden grain. Hard wood and solid that would make admirable furniture that would impress everyone with his art and skill.

A poor man who lived close to the earth saw enough firewood there to keep his family warm through a long winter, to fuel the stove that would belch out pan after pan of biscuits, to give a soft light and take the sharp edge of darkness off the bitter night.

An artist saw grace expressing itself in every elegant twist of limb, in every shadow cast by fat green boughs, in billowing verdure swept across a backdrop of sky and cloud. Her palette came to life with color, and shape and form fastened themselves to her canvas, and she captured a reflection of the image of the tree – and she saw that it was good.

A civil engineer saw an obstacle to his project, an object that must be removed and carried away so progress could be made – until the plans for the highway route changed, and the tree didn’t matter anymore.

A philosopher pondered the tree and saw the mystical Tree – Plato’s Real Tree, but perhaps not the tree itself. It was something to think about, something aesthetically exquisite.

A local historian thought about all the generations of folk that had passed by since the tree had crept from its acorn and established itself on the edge of town, how many significant events had taken place, and this tree (much like the ancient turtles of the Galapagos) had been alive through them all – and still lived.

The birds and the squirrels saw shelter and food, but there was nothing remarkable about that – there were countless other trees (oak, poplar, hickory, maple, and otherwise) that would provide the same thing.

Perhaps the saddest of all were those who never even saw the tree. Their eyes were fastened onto other things, things less permanent, but always more important than a “dumb tree”.

To the tree none of this really mattered. All that really mattered was the little boy who came almost every day to sit beneath its shade, to run his fingers across its bark, to fondle its leaves, to tell it all of his secrets, all of his dreams. The tree became part of the boy, and the boy part of the tree in a mystical bond more mysterious than even the philosopher was able to apprehend.

And they both live to this day, ages hence – tree and boy, boy and tree. Happy is the one who understands this parable of the tree, and saddest of all the one who can not see.

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