On the Gratitude of Trees
A Thanksgiving Meditation
Patricia Adams Farmer
TREES ARE EVERYTHING I long to be: deep, tall, gorgeous, hospitable, and unapologetically assertive as they stretch upward in hungry yearning for the sky. Trees are like souls, fat souls, lively souls, and like us, they change. They just can’t stay the same. No one ever wrote in the school year book of a tree “Never change,” for that would be the silliest idea for a tree (and for people, too). For trees are all about change and growth and loss and rebirth. But they don’t mind—they really don’t. In fact, trees are monuments to gratitude and worthy of recognition at Thanksgiving. That’s because trees are wise and grateful even in late autumn when their leaves fall off, yes, even while they are shivering and naked and vulnerable and quite lacking in leafy frills and fruit. They may prefer to be green or vermilion or yellow-gold or studded with ripe, red berries--who wouldn't?--but still, they appreciate what the emptiness reveals.
At Thanksgiving we tend to list the things that are already realized in our life, like family and friends, food and shelter, things and loves that we possess in one way or another. It is good to be thankful for what we have. But if take a walk in the park in autumn, we find that trees ask us to stretch our souls a bit further by adding to the list a few things that we do not possess, but that perhaps possess us: like change itself, the moments of becoming and freshness, the seasons of life, the possibilities, the surprises.
Sometimes gratitude in any form feels like a stretch, especially when we are losing leaves by the barrel full. We may have lost a love, a hope, a dream; perhaps we are old and losing our hearing or our eyesight; youth itself may have come and gone before we knew what was happening. We may have even lost faith in people, in peace, in justice, like leaves devoid of nutrients, turning and torn. Discontent sets in. Trees know all about that wintry discontent, that quiet patience—faith, if you will—that spring will come. Patience born on faith: this quiet, invisible blessing, must be counted too, says the tree.
Trees teach us about widening out, stretching our souls toward the sky of possibility, toward God, toward love. They teach us about being aware of more than our little patch of earth, a mindfulness which promulgates a wider sense of gratitude. The Chinese Pistache is a case in point. Of all the trees in the park in autumn, nothing can touch the Chinese Pistache when it comes to color—a show-stopping rubicund of tree perfection, its radiance catching fire in the attenuated sun. The Chinese Pastiche is a god in the community of trees, at least for a month or two. These delicate, perfectly shaped trees sporting the most delicious shades of red, tend to feel a bit smug around early November; but by the end of the month, they find themselves invisible, sticks in the wind, spiny and colorless, bowing humbly before the giant, husky cottonwood, which knows how to keep its luscious leaves of shimmering gold intact a bit longer. And then there is that annoying Evergreen, which never seems to change at all. If the Chinese Pistache can ever get over its envy, it can become a Zen master, and learn to look outside oneself to the beauty of the whole.
The community of trees in a park reminds us that if we want to become larger souls—buoyant, resilient, gorgeously fat souls—we might consider giving thanks for wider things than what we have now, for the ability to get over ourselves and our grasping after things, yes, to be grateful even for change itself. For change means possibility, and possibility means hope.
Sometimes our leafy branches blind us to this a wider world of beauty, diversity, interconnection, and deep belonging. During winter, we have a clearer vision. In our wider, unobstructed view of things, we can learn to be grateful for the beauty beyond our own state of affairs. We can grateful that we are not alone in this unpredictable and scary world, but part of a community of fellow-trees rooted in the earth on a planet chock- full of beauty-in-motion. We can be thankful for futures not yet written, for buds not yet formed, for fruit tasted only in the imagination, for the sheer possibilities within our wintry branches.
We can become like trees, Zen masters of gratitude during every season. Just take a walk in the park after the Thanksgiving feast and all will be made clear.
Patricia Adams Farmer is a "fat soul philosopher" and author of several books and numerous essays highlighting process theology and philosophy. A retired minister and educator, she has written many essays on this site from Ecuador, where she lived for five years. For more on the wisdom of trees and other things, see her book Fat Soul: Reflections on a Spirituality of S-I-Z-E, or visit her website at patriciadamsfarmer.com.