by Karen Turner.
There’s a brilliant video that has been watched and shared thousands of times over the last few months featuring Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot talking about trees as natural climate solutions.[i] It feels like the world is beginning to notice that trees are both amazing and at risk.
I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’[ii] which has opened my eyes to woodland mysteries that I knew nothing about, like the ways that trees communicate and support each other; the clever ways they work with fungi and insects; and the methods they use to protect themselves from pests. According to Wohlleben, there is still much that we don’t know about trees, even something as fundamental as how water travels from the roots all the way up to the canopy of the tallest trees.
But it was something he wrote about seeds that made me think. In a 400-year lifetime, a wild beech can produce 1.8 million beechnuts, and from these only one will develop into a full-grown tree. Some seeds may be eaten by animals or not germinate. Some will sprout and begin to grow, but will struggle for light on the forest floor and eventually return to humus. Only one will fully grow.[iii]
No doubt we can think of similar odds in nature and signs of abundant generosity in the natural world, but this anecdote about beech trees made me wonder about the seeds of faith that fall from my life. If I were a tree, would I have a spiritual sapling? Not just a tender seedling, but someone with space and light to grow strong and sturdy, ready to take their place?
Like many of us, I am used to scattering seeds; whether with youth groups, among friends, in my work as a chaplain, or even online. Scattering should feel safe and not particularly vulnerable because it’s not about me; it’s up to God whether or not those seeds take root.[iv] And usually I tell myself that I don’t need to know what happened next. I may have had a part to play in someone’s faith journey, in the way many have had in mine.
In the familiar parable of the sower in Luke 8, the seed seems to be indiscriminately thrown all over the place, landing among thorns, with stones and on the path as well as on the good soil. The seeds even sprout in the poor conditions and grow for a bit, though they soon die. The magic of real growth only happens in the good soil. The point of this story might be God’s generosity and the various responses to Jesus’ teaching but I’m wondering what made that good soil have, as Jesus says, an ‘honest and good heart’ and ‘patient endurance’.[v]
And I wonder if a parable for our times could include a fifth type of soil? What would happen to seed that the sower scattered onto over-farmed, over-worked, exhausted soil? What if this soil was simply unable to support new growth, with the biodiversity drained out of it, having been worked to death without any variation?
The answer to tired soil might be ‘wilding’ and the answer to tired ways being church might be the same.
If good soil is diverse, integrated and rested, where can we find it? Is it going to be found in the furrows that we are farming, time and time again in the same ways? And if all we have around us are those same furrows, in soil that is worn out, what steps could we take to bring back some wildness?
Like the trees, we don’t really have another option but to scatter the seeds of God’s love on the wind and leave them grow (or not) on the soil below, but I wonder if instead of thinking of large-scale farming methods, each of us could make space for trees to come to maturity in our midst and consider that to be a legacy that could in time build a forest? What new life might the wild Spirit bring amongst us in soil that was able to grow all that it was intended for?
[ii] London: William Collins, 2017.
[iii] Ibid, p. 29.
[iv] Mark 4. 26-27.
[v] Luke 8.15.