What We Humans Can Learn from Trees

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (Chief Seattle, 1854)

DSCN3070I try not to make it a practice to write about things of which I know nothing. That just seems common sensical. But sometimes, there are things that are so grand and so mysterious that writing about them is how I can get closer, how I can touch the magic.

Recently, Bill and I spent a few days in the Olympic National Forest with some dear friends. After so many months of pandemic isolation, it felt wonderful to get away and to socialize among our fellow vaccinatees. When we move up to Seattle forty years ago, the place I wanted most to see was the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park. Life had other plans for us, however, and it took four decades for that expedition to take place.

It was worth the wait.

In anticipation of that adventure, and since our return, I’ve been reading about trees and forests. What I’ve learned has both inspired and disheartened me. There is so much we are only recently beginning to understand about forest ecology, or as some are calling it, the “Wood Wide Web.” What scientists are discovering is a game-changer for planetary health, but human action—or inaction—puts us in a race to heal the earth before it’s too late.

When most of us look at trees, we see only what is above-ground: the trunk, the branches, the leaves, maybe some of the creatures inhabiting it. We may notice that this tree is growing very closely to that one, or that mosses, fungi, and other smaller vegetation cluster in their vicinity, but we tend to see everything as separate—just as we view people as separate from one another.

attribution: Donna Cameron

A Mother Tree, nurturing seedlings and providing nutrients for its neighbors

Evidence from science now clearly indicates the interrelatedness of all these living florae. Trees and plants and fungi are not only intertwined physically, they communicate in complex and sophisticated ways. They protect one another, they share essential nutrients, they warn of danger from insects, weather, or chemicals. If a tree is ailing, other trees—regardless of species—send nourishment its way. If a tree is dying, it “wills” its remaining vital nutrients to its neighbors. And even in death, a “mother tree” continues to nurture the forest, providing sustenance for the next generation of seedlings.

The beauty and complexity of these ecosystems is staggering and our ignorance of them is contributing to their demise, which may, in turn, contribute to our own. These essential forests help sustain our breathable atmosphere. They cool the earth by reflecting sunlight and providing precipitation; they capture and store carbon emissions and help regulate climate; they contribute to rich and fertile soil. Yet in much of the world, sustainable logging practices have been superseded by clear-cutting and other destructive practices that jeopardize land, soil, water, atmosphere, and living organisms across the planet.

Even now, as we are beginning to understand the critical importance of forests—especially old growth forests—we struggle to communicate it. Somewhere I read that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary to comprehend the complex bionetwork that has been evolving for as much as 600 million years into a vast and intricate symbiotic community. And we puny human newcomers pretend to have all the answers…. Our adorable arrogance may be our ultimate downfall.

In his extensively researched novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers explores the parallel world of the forest, revealing its magnificence and interconnectedness, and the potential catastrophe awaiting us if we fail to learn from it. The novel’s characters, settings, and stories are as interwoven as the forest itself, making for a read that is dense, breathtaking, and unputdownable. The book is well-deserving of its 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. I recommend it highly.

There are plenty of non-fiction explorations of forests, as well. A good place to start is Ferris Jabr’s recent article for The New York Times Magazine, “The Social Life of Forests,” which follows Professor Suzanne Simard, ground-breaking forest ecologist and pioneer who is leading the way in this new  field of research. Her own recent book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, is also a page-turner. Another book I just finished and absolutely loved was Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Rooted, which talks extensively about trees, but also explores other amazing and complicated ways humans are connected to our wild and mysterious natural world.

There is still so much I want to learn and understand about forests and trees. They have a lot to teach the human community—if we would only listen. I feel blessed to have had a recent opportunity to see one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on the planet. I hope what I saw and felt in the Rainforest will help me become a better and more responsible citizen of the earth.

“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.” (Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe)

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Just Show Up

“We cannot, of course, save the World because we do not have authority over its parts. We can serve the world though. That is everyone’s calling, to lead a life that helps.” (Barry Lopez)

Yesterday, I participated in a Saging International webinar on “Cultivating Compassion.” I signed up for it weeks ago, not noticing that it was scheduled for the day after the inauguration. As it turned out, it was a perfect follow-up to President Biden’s powerful and beautifully inclusive speech, and also to Amanda Gorman’s luminous poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

Both asked us to step up to this moment in history with a commitment to unity and to bringing our best selves to the task. Each, in their own way, acknowledged that it will not be easy and there may be some who do not share the vision. Nonetheless, the time is now. Continue reading

Restoring Trust, Restoring Hope….

“Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

attribution Donna CameronGeorge Shultz is not a man I ever expected to write about with any admiration. Or at all, for that matter.

Having served in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations—as Secretary of Labor, Treasury, and State—it’s safe to say that our political leanings are in opposite directions. Yet, I believe he is a man of honor, and a voice to be listened to as we seek to find light after this year of so much darkness. On more than one occasion in the last couple of years, Shultz has lamented the climate of distrust at home and abroad that the current administration has fostered, noting that it will take years to reverse.

On the occasion of his 100th birthday, which happens to be today, December 13, he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that is worth your attention. It’s a reminder of a time when we may not have agreed with politicians, but we could still believe that their motives were honorable and their commitment to public service genuine.

In “The 10 Most Important Things I’ve Learned About Trust Over My 100 Years,” Shultz recounts moments—some personal, some significantly political—when he saw that trust is the essential element that must be present if we humans are to accomplish great things together. As he put it, “When trust was in the room, whatever room that was—the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room—good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen.”

Perhaps that is one explanation for the world we find ourselves in today. Trust is not in the room.

Years ago, I used to teach seminars on trust, and, like, Shultz, I saw it as the quality that must come first—in a friendship, a marriage, a business, and a community. Once trust is established, you can deal with just about anything. Trust serves as the solid foundation upon which futures are built.

In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey contends that the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the number-one leadership competency. Where trust is low, you find hidden agendas, interpersonal conflict, win-lose thinking, and defensive communication—all of which impede progress.

Where trust is high, you find transparency, confidence, win-win thinking, effective communication … and progress. Doesn’t this explain a lot about our country today?

Covey further explains that for trust to be present, a leader must display both character—which he defines as integrity and good intent, and competence—which comprises both capabilities and results. Again, we can readily see how trust has been eroded.

How do we establish trust once it has been lost? That’s the question we are facing today. Fortunately, it’s not rocket science, but it will require effort. As individuals and as a nation, we must consistently model behaviors that generate trust:

  • Speaking the truth
  • Following through on our promises—both the big ones and the little ones
  • Showing respect for others
  • Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility to fix them
  • Holding ourselves accountable and expecting others to do the same
  • Confronting reality—having the courage to tackle the tough issues head-on
  • Listening to one another with the desire to understand
  • Extending trust to others, while at the same time not being gullible

All of these take awareness and practice. But all are doable if we have the genuine desire to come together as a nation. There’s evidence that many Americans do not share that desire, but if enough of us do—and are willing to do the necessary work—perhaps a year from now we can look back with pride on the changes we made in 2021.

I’ll give George Shultz, on his 100th birthday, the last word:

“The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back. With that bond, they can do big, hard things together, changing the world for the better.”

Don’t Settle for Nice

“Mean is easy. Mean is lazy. Mean is self-satisfied and slothful. You know what takes effort? Being kind. Being patient. Being respectful.” (Jake Tapper)

[In the six years I’ve been blogging about kindness I’ve sometimes strayed to other topics, but kindness remains my North Star. Usually, I feel confident that kindness will surmount the evil, greed, intolerance, and disregard that threatens the world, but sometimes I am stunned and baffled by the meanness of many of my fellow humans. As we approach the most important election America has ever faced, amidst a global pandemic, I am periodically going to revisit and reexamine some of my earliest thoughts about kindness and explore them in context of today’s circumstances.]

Since the publication of A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities to talk about kindness—at bookstores, libraries, service organizations, conferences, radio shows, and podcasts. The question I am asked most often is, “What’s the difference between kind and nice? Aren’t they the same thing?”

To some, the difference may be wholly semantic, but I believe there is a vast difference, and the times we are currently living in require that we choose kindness.

It’s fairly easy to be nice. Nice is polite. It’s doing what is expected: smiling at the cashier, holding a door, speaking courteously, not offending. Nice is safe. It doesn’t ask me to take any risk or to make a connection. I can be nice and still make judgments about people. I can be nice and still merely tolerate others, with an insincere smile on my face. I can be nice and remain indifferent, not caring if the person I’m interacting with is getting what they need.

But kind asks more of me. Continue reading

Hindsight 2020: How Will Our Children Remember COVID-19?

“If you can control your behavior when everything around you is out of control, you can model for your children a valuable lesson in patience and understanding…and snatch an opportunity to shape character.” (Jane Clayson Johnson)

When you were a child or adolescent, were there momentous historical events that altered your life and shaped who you ultimately became?

For me, it was the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and also the war in Vietnam. For my parents, it was the Great Depression and World War II. For other generations, the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina may have etched permanent impressions.

The noteworthy historical event for today’s children or grandchildren could well be the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll remember it not just as that year schools closed and we stayed home a lot, but also for the way we as individuals and as a nation responded to adversity.

Will they tell their own children and grandchildren stories of scuffles over toilet paper, of hoarding and profiteering, of finger-pointing at people of different nationalities? Will they recount the politicization of life-saving, common-sense measures? Or will they describe how, even in isolation, people found ways to connect with and support one another? How neighbor checked on neighbor, shared provisions, and made sure that those who were most vulnerable were not overlooked. Continue reading