Ancient wisdom

Last evening we sat with friends in the performing arts theatre at Bellingham High School and heard a conversation between Thor Hanson and Peter Wohlleben. Peter Wohlleben is a German forester and the author of the best selling book, “The Hidden Life of Trees.” His latest book, “The Power of Trees” is a passionate argument for protecting forests and a discussion of how forests are the key to our survival. Like other contemporary foresters whose works I have read, he speaks not only of the power and majesty of individual trees, but of the wisdom and integrity of entire forest systems. Just as we humans are incredible communities of bacteria, forests are communities of plants that have complex networks of communication and behavior.

The evening included real information about the danger that humans are facing in the current climate crisis. There was information about how modern forestry practices, based on harvesting trees at the current rate are simply unsustainable. The event, however, was not an evening of doom and gloom. It was surprisingly hopeful to hear these serious scientists and students of our planet talk about real changes that need to be made and about the ways in which those changes are possible.

As I listened to Wohlleben speak of the great wisdom of ancient forests that has been accumulating for hundreds of years, I reflected on some of my own teaching. In a class that I am leading about the book of Isaiah and in my preaching over four decades, I have often spoken passionately about human ideas, and concepts that are the product of multiple generations of thinking and reflecting. Some of the most important cornerstone ideas of theology took a long time to develop throughout the history of our people. We did not come to the radical monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all at once. Rather the important theological conviction that there is one God came about through generations of thinking, believing, and speaking about God and the nature of the divine. The multi-generational nature of theological thought is especially evident in the book of the prophet Isaiah which contains a vision of the relationship of God and humans that itself took hundreds of years to compile. While the historic figure name Isaiah lived in the 8th Century before the common era, the book reports events in the history of Israel that occurred hundreds of years after the life of the figure whose name the book bears. It is the product of a school of prophecy rather than just an individual prophet.

The practice of forestry is something that has only been a part of human history for perhaps three centuries. There are, however, ancient forests in our world where individual trees are more than a thousand years old. It shouldn’t surprise us that forestry practices are short-sighted, given the fact that its very nature is for individuals who have a life span of less than a century are attempting to “manage” a living network with individuals who have lived for more than ten times as long. Wohlleben spoke of the ancient wisdom of trees, developed over centuries and thousands of years. It is not possible for us as individuals to fully comprehend forests.

Hanson reminded us that while we think of trees as static, always staying in the same place, forests are incredibly nimble at moving around the planet. As forest ecology shifts in response to global climate change different species of trees spread to new locations on the planet. The spread of trees from one location to another is actually faster than the spread of species of birds. It was exciting to hear him speak of the incredible agility of forest systems to adapt and change.

Both authors reminded us of the power of observation. There is so much we can learn by simply paying attention to the living things in our world. Human memory is not the only kind of memory on our planet, and human wisdom is not the only kind of wisdom.

We received a hardcover copy of Wohlleben’s book, The Power of Trees at the event and I took a copy of “Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees” by Thor Hanson to the event and received an autograph from the author. We also have a copies of The Hidden Life of Trees and The Secret Wisdom of Nature in our home. I’ve known about Wohlleben for several years, while I only recently discovered Hanson’s books. I’m sure I will be reading more of his books as time passes. Both men are incredibly talented communicators whose books are challenging and interesting.

Wohlleben spoke of the simple fact that by participating in a book event we are all part of the business of cutting down trees for human consumption. We might be quick to criticize the forestry industry, but we all participate in the economy that extracts forest products while failing to fully comprehend the dynamics of forest health. it is a reminder of how much there is for us to learn.

Hope, however, comes not only from our ability to learn and to recognize that we are part of the problem. It comes also from understanding that ours is not the only generation of life on this planet. We are capable of learning the wisdom of previous generations and passing it on to future generations. It is necessary for us to tap into this multi-generational wisdom in order to face the complex problems of our time.

I also find great hope in my newfound hobby of caring for bee colonies. Individual bees have very short lives compared to humans, but the colony is incredibly resilient and has a life far beyond any individual bee. In caring for the bees in “my” hives, I have to think in terms of the life of the colony and understand how colonies create honey stores, reproduce and form additional colonies, and carry genetic wisdom that spans centuries. It doesn’t surprise me that the history of bee keeping is filled with the stories of clergy who have taken up the study and care of bees.

As I enter my seventies, I realize how short one human life is and how much there is to learn. Fortunately, we have discovered ways of tapping into wisdom that is far greater than a single generation. And I am fortunate to have the kind of friends who are as excited about listening to these talented writers as am I. Together we can explore wisdom far beyond ourselves and our time on this planet.

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