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Keeping Hope Alive

Cottonwood tree shelters a tent
Tent under a cottonwood tree in Simon Canyon, northwest New Mexico

As we venture into 2021, coming out of 2020 full of grief, worry, frustration and a boatload of other emotions, it can be hard to feel hopeful.

 

Even so, there are reasons to keep our hope alive and to look forward to positive change. When I worry that more people I know could get very sick with Covid-19 and its emerging virus strains, I think about trees.

 

What could trees teach us? They have weathered all kinds of challenges, from invasive beetles to the possibility of being cut down, and they've faced a whole host of other threats from many different sources. What keeps them going?

 

They are rooted to one spot. They can't run away from danger. But they can draw on strengths. They change their behavior as needed to stay healthy.

 

In the winter, trees go dormant. As some animals hibernate during the winter, trees slow down their metabolism. That helps them to conserve the food they have stored. They want it to last since they don't make food in the winter. That's the season when they slow down their energy consumption and growth. Many trees shed their leaves in the winter because they don't need the leaves to help them form simple sugar, their kind of food, in the presence of sunlight, a process called photosynthesis. That sugar helps to give them energy, but in winter they take a rest.

 

Just as trees go into a dormant state during the winter, in this time of Covid-19, we need to slow down our activities by staying indoors more, not gathering in large groups, and shopping in stores only for essentials. If we wear masks, keep at least six feet from other people, and wash our hands frequently, we also reduce the chance of getting the virus. Those are all activities that slow us down and make us practice different behavior than we normally would. It can be frustrating and downright maddening to have to change our behaviors. But it gives us and others a better chance to remain healthy.

 

Trees know how to be dormant. They do it naturally. They slow their activity level to stay healthy during the winter. If trees can adjust their behavior during winter to keep themselves safe, perhaps it doesn't seem quite so limiting to adjust our behavior too.

 

Trees also do something called respiration. In this process, they convert energy stored in the form of glucose, the sugar that leaves and sunlight produce during photosynthesis. That energy is needed to carry out the tree's metabolic reactions, which occur even in winter. During respiration, carbon dioxide oozes through the trees' pores. Carbon dioxide is essential to create the energy trees need to keep themselves healthy. They get a lot of that carbon dioxide from animals, including humans, when we breathe out that gas. In return, trees give off oxygen, which is toxic to them, but we would die without enough of it.

 

No matter how challenging life may be for them at times, trees continue to create the carbon

dioxide they need and to get rid of the oxygen that we need. If they didn't keep doing what they need to do to survive, we wouldn't be able to survive ourselves.

 

When I look at trees, I don't often think about the chemical reactions that happen within them. I just enjoy their beauty, the shade their provide, and the habitat they offer for birds and other critters.

 

I'm glad trees remain committed to doing what comes naturally to survive. It helps me think that, even though it's not easy to wear a mask, social distance, and wash my hands often, it is helping to give me and others a better chance to stay healthy. That gives me hope.

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Meditating among Trees When You Face Troubling Times

Cottonwood grows near irrigation ditch bank
Cottonwood tree

If you are struggling with an issue in your life that weighs you down or stresses you almost beyond your ability to cope, take time to visit the trees you have come to appreciate. Many of them may be in your yard or around your neighborhood.

 

When you get to one of those trees, stand near it. Quiet your mind as much as you can and focus on the tree. Notice the texture of its bark. Touch the bark to sense how it feels to your hands. Is it rough, smooth, lumpy? Look higher up into the tree. Trace the branches with your eyes. Notice how the twigs and any remaining leaves that have not fallen attach to the branches and spread beyond them.

 

Do you see any nests in the tree, any birds perched there, perhaps squawking at you for standing so close to the tree? Are there any other wildlife? Once I saw a porcupine perched in a tall cottonwood. Another time I saw a snake winding its way up the trunk of a tree toward a bird's nest containing, it hoped, eggs to eat.

 

Then bring your gaze back down to the base of the tree. Notice the roots, how they splay out from the tree trunk and bury themselves into the ground, forming a strong, sturdy base for the tree. Imagine what it would be like for you to let strong pillars of support flow from your feet deep into the earth, letting the planet nurture you and help you feel stronger.

 

Once you feel well grounded as you enjoy that connection you have forged with the earth, stand quietly as you feel strength flow into you. Look up into the tree again. If you feel so inclined, say a prayer of blessing, gratitude or encouragement for it.

 

As you feel calmness resting like a warm, comfortable cloak around you, listen to impressions that go beyond the sounds of branches brushing against each other in a gentle breeze, beyond the rustle of dried leaves on the ground as a squirrel passes by. In that quietness that takes you into a place deep within yourself, listen for any impressions that come to your mind.

 

You may become aware of an encouraging thought, a supportive idea, a phrase to cling to when life seems too difficult, too overwhelming, too confusing. You may feel filled with love so deep that it fills you up and overflows in tears of joy.

 

Is the thought coming from the tree? Is it coming from the greater wisdom within you, from the divine presence that always surrounds you even when you forget it's there? You don't have to figure out where it's coming from. Just notice the message, repeat it so that you don't forget it, and thank the tree for helping you find your way into a meditative state that allowed that thought to give you the strength, courage and stamina to carry on.

 

When you feel ready, say goodbye to the tree and head back to your life full of challenges. No matter what you face, remember the message, the sense of love or joy that filled you with hope and strength. Carry it like a treasure in your mind and repeat it as often as you need to. Write it down somewhere so that in the coming days, when you need it most and have a hard time recalling it, you can find it and be strengthened once again by its powerful message.

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