There are a couple of stories from the Talmud about trees. (The Talmud is a central text in Judaism, containing rabbinic conversations on topics such as ethics and customs.) In one story, a sage is walking along the road and sees a man planting a carob tree. The sage asks him, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replies the gardener. The sage then asks: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answers: “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.” (Talmud Ta’anit 23a)
We drink from wells we did not dig and eat from trees we did not plant (Deut. 6:11). Our physical, intellectual, and religious lives depend on those who have gone before. Following their example will lead us to plant literal and figurative trees for the world of the future.
I believe caring for ourselves AND others will help us sustain a shared life of meaning and compassion for a long time.
My first semester in seminary, I worked at one college in the south bay area, and went to school in the east bay area. I enjoyed the fragrance of eucalyptus trees around both campuses. The dry leaves rustled in the breeze, leaves rubbing together like the wings of singing crickets. Some people were distracted by the sound and allergic to the smell, but I liked them. The eucalyptus trees were tall and graceful. One might imagine that they had always been there. There’s a story about those trees. I don’t know if it happened exactly this way.
The American West in the late 1800’s was heavily influenced by the railroad industry. Non-native eucalyptus trees were brought from Australia because they grew quickly. Instant railroad ties, right? Not quite. Eucalyptus from Australian virgin forests, seasoned and treated properly, behaves differently than eucalyptus grown from seeds in California, hastily treated, and set down in the Nevada sand. Some of the railroad ties were so cracked they couldn’t hold spikes. Some decayed within four years. ( http://library.csustan.edu/bsantos/section2.htm )
The trees themselves grew like weeds. They did what non-native species are famous for doing: thriving in the new environment, edging out diverse native plants that provide food and habitat, with consequences for the entire food chain. (Eucalyptus turned out to have other industrial uses. It could be argued that the benefit to introducing them was not worth the risk.) An attempt at a quick fix turned out to have unintended consequences. Recently, there has been more attention in that region to restoring native trees. To say that it will take time to replace invasive plants with mature Valley Oaks and Live Oaks is an understatement. Then again, compare that to the 2,000-year growth of some living redwood trees. May we learn patience and commitment from slow-growing trees.
As people of faith, we are among those who have the hope and imagination it takes to envision a world of justice and compassion, a world of peace where people sit calmly in the shade of vines and fig trees (see Micah 4:4), or their local equivalents. In our neck of the woods, we might imagine a world where every person lives in safety and abundance, with access to the shade of a Black Walnut or Red Maple. The trees symbolize enough time for a generation to grow without being uprooted by hunger or violence.
The railroad eucalyptus story reminds us that some of the environmental mistakes we humans have made were decisions made by a few but using the resources and the risk pool of many. If we can make the wrong choices as a large group, we can certainly make the right choices. We can play an active role in the governments, corporations, and organizations to which we belong and who act on our behalf. Let us embody these relationships for repair and renewal.
As we hover in this uncertain place between winter and spring, unsure of what global climate change will mean for us in the next three months, one of the things I get out of the eucalyptus story is the need to take our time. Strong trees grow slowly. Strong communities learn and grow and make connections to other communities little by little over decades. Healing takes time. Repair takes time. And for all of these, we can’t always tell that it is happening. In most cases, we don’t see the seed unfolding under the soil. Our senses are not adjusted to notice the growth of trees right in front of us. Sometimes resilience is about knowing in your heart that change is possible, even when the evidence is not yet obvious.
Noticing the signs of change and preparing for the coming spring are some of the things that make the earth-honoring holiday of Imbolc or Bridget special to me. Imbolc is a cross-quarter day, halfway between the official beginning of winter and the official beginning of spring. One explanation for the word Imbolc is that it comes from a word for the milk of sheep, because this is the time of year in Ireland and Scotland when new lambs are born. It’s still cold! The lambs need a lot of help to stay warm and to survive. Yet their arrival shows the persistence of life. Sometimes resilience is about remembering that life is possible.
Tu B’Shevat, the new year of trees, is a minor holiday. It’s been around for hundreds of years, yet more people seem to be noticing it as we learn to connect spirituality with care for the earth. Sometimes people in Jewish homes and communities gather for a Tu B’Shevat seder to eat different kinds of fruit and nuts, to give thanks for ways of growing, and recommit to stewardship of the planet.
The Tu B’Shevat seder might be divided into four sections, reminiscent of the four seasons. In the first part, we eat nuts and fruits that are hard or tough on the outside, remembering that people and things and stories transcend outward appearances. In the second part, we eat fruits with pits at the center. Peach pits and cherry pits and avocado pits don’t look like much, but they are the seeds of new life. Growth can come from overlooked places. Third, we eat fruits with edible skins and small seeds, like strawberries, apples, and grapes. These remind us of wholeness. In the fourth section, we move from eating to savoring, and we give thanks for all that we have enjoyed.
Even with mild weather, it is still not the right time to plant a tree where we live, yet Tu B’Shevat reminds us to be grateful for the trees and the growth and the fruition of work that exist because of what has come before. The forces that create and uphold life and our ancestors who cooperated with them knew that growth and resilience don’t always look that way from the outside. They knew that growth can start with something tough or plain. They knew the importance of allowing time and of giving thanks.
We drink from wells we did not dig and eat from trees we did not plant. As a spiritual community, part of our task is to muster the hope and imagination it takes to consider growth and resilience over time. We think long-term. The blessings of earth, mind, and spirit are ours to enjoy and ours to grow for future generations.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.