building a network for health and a foundation for life learning
Bonsai. Existing in the convergence of nature and art, and putting roots down with little or no organic matter illustrates the building of a foundation for life no matter what the environment or cultural circumstances are. Much like the the juniper that grows in barron regions, pushing its way through solid rock in search of water, trees, like this Bonsai, adapt to the environment they find themselves in. Roots that are often hidden from sight go deep and anchor the above ground structures; drawing water and nutrients from the soil – Trees can teach us to build strong roots.
Nebri (Japanese) or root-flare are the surface roots that provide visual balance and stability crucial to design of Bonsai and are created with methods of regular root pruning.
What is true for trees, is true for humans: a solid and healthy root system is needed to grow in health, maturity and stature – “All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted.” Teresa of Ávila, Saint
The root systems of trees have many symbolic and metaphorical meanings for wellness. Healthy support networks encompass love and nurturing, and the emotional and spiritual sustenance derived from family, friends and ancestors is as essential to humans as the soil, water and air that provides life sustenance to trees. For a tree to bear fruit, it must have strong healthy roots. If the roots begin to deteriorate, the rest of the tree will also decline, just as we do when our support networks deteriorate.
The forest is a network and the root systems are a “Nervous System” for the forest – intertwining with other tree roots forming a stable community. Covering over 30% of the Earth’s land surface, forests hold and nurture over a billion trees. The complex network connecting trees is dependant on symbiotic relationships with soil fungi and bacteria and these Mycorrhizal networks facilitate tree resilience when tree health is in danger from environmental stressors such as predators, toxins, and pathogenic microbes that invade an ecosystem. Chemical signals, allelopathy, are sent through the mycorrhizal network to warn neighboring trees so they may defend themselves by releasing volatile hormones to deter predators or pests. They can also send stress signals to nearby trees after a major disturbance. Communities keep humans socially accountable to one another, supporting and protecting one another so we can grow.
What does it mean for humans to have a supportive network of family and friends? We are social creatures and tend to languish when alone. Without basic community networks, our species would not have survived, and after our basic physiological needs (air, water etc) and safety needs (safe neighbourhood, job security etc) are met, fulfilling our social needs is the next level. Social support, especially during difficult and stressful times, and having a network can strengthen our emotional and mental wellness. Having a network does not mean that we should ‘friend’ everyone on social media, in point, the isolation of a virtual world alone, and the lack of face-to-face interaction, has lead to depression, passive-aggressive communication and the breakdown of mental health. Building a community, a network, means that focusing and investing in the important relationships within your social circle is key to your wellness. Strengthen and build on relationships with a trusted group of people.
“If you know where you are from, it will be harder for people to stop you where you are going.”
Matshona Dhliwayo, Canadian based Philosopher, Entrepreneur, and author
Individual trees and their root systems cannot pick-up and move when times get tough, but trees as a species, do move and migrate in response to environmental changes. The phenomenon is called “range migration,” which means that tree species are shifting into landscapes in which they don’t typically grow. Trees will find a way to build a foundation for life no matter what the environment or cultural circumstances are, seeking a favorable habitat to survive and thrive.
Knowing your cultural background and where you came from can help develop a strong sense of who you are and develop how you relate to our family stories and create your own narrative – it’s what makes us unique and establishes our authentic self…your core identity.
Spend time with trees and learn patience. Everything in my life was moving so fast and it seemed all around me was obsessed with moving even faster. The pace of communication and the urban life was dizzying. I found myself reflecting on the words of John Muir “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news”. Trees, the forest, and all plant life contributes to the existence of life on earth in a complex and essential way, slowly, deliberately, and without flamboyance, just grace and beauty. If I could harness just a portion of this contribution and learn the patience to appreciate its value than my life would be well lived and lived in health and balance.
Looking at the life of trees and plants is a lesson in slowing down. Plants do move…just very, very slowly and not in the way that we interpret movement. They do migrate – more as a species or a community – and they do send their seeds out in search of better environments to thrive and they move and grow toward light – even some algae can swim towards light.
I am currently reading Tree Story by Valerie Trout, Dendrochronologist and exploring what tree rings can tell us about the history of earth and also how intertwined human and tree history is. Each year the tree forms new cells exhibiting in a concentric pattern or annual growth rings. One light ring – one dark ring represent a year of the tree’s life. Trees are sensitive to climate conditions such as rain and temperature. They usually grow wider in warm wet years and thinner growth in cold or dry climate. If the tree has experienced stress from conditions such as drought or from damage from pests or mechanical damage it would be visible in the written tree history of the rings.
For a tree to grow strong and healthy it takes time, a little luck, and good management practices. So when you look at the rings and they are even and close together the tree has experienced strong growth over time – when there are gaps, unevenness or damage, places where disease or rot can set in, the tree has endured stress. Like trees, growth for humans – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – takes time and work to build on the dry seasons as well as the fair seasons.
There are many differences between plants and vertebrates – one is the ability for plants to regenerate and heal. If you cut off a tree limb..the tree responds with growth of a new – sustaining life with a continued supply of water and nutrients. We can learn from this and, although we cannot literally grow a new limb, it is in our power to interpret the idea of growth and adaptability and apply it to adversity and stress we may encounter.
Forest bathing. (Nothing to do with taking a dip!) Shinrin-yoku. Shinrin means forest in Japanese and yoku means bath or to immerse yourself in the forest and “soak’ up the forest environment-atmosphere through your senses, and with a growing body of evidence that immersion into nature is beneficial to health, organizations are providing opportunities and information internationally.
Part meditation, part hiking, and a large part slowing down and practicing awareness, “Forest Bathing” or nature and forest therapy can help ‘unclutter’ your mind, reduce stress and help boost the immune system and mood.
Slowing down and walking amongst the trees is like having a ‘Forest Pharmacy”. Trees release compounds into the air that research links to benefits for humans. One such study published in 2009, found inhaling phytoncides, tree-derived compounds, reduced concentrations of stress hormones and enhanced the activity of white-blood cells known as natural killer cells. Li Q, Kobayashi M, Wakayama Y, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Shimizu T, Kawada T, Park BJ, Ohira T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2009 Oct-Dec;22(4):951-9. doi: 10.1177/039463200902200410. PMID: 20074458.
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
Herman Hesse, Swiss poet, novelist, painter
You don’t have to travel to Japan and you really do not need a guide – any natural area, forest, or park will be a great start. The denser the vegetation the better, but look for a quiet place with good trails or walk paths. Make sure it is safe with lots of fresh air where you can relax and be comfortable. Online information on Forest Bathing Experiences recommend that you leave electronics at home – but I am a “Safety Girl”. Take your phone – just don’t use it unless it is an emergency…. no music …. or internet, but have it for safety.
I advice not to use headphones for music – this is not a work out or run. You will want to be listening to the sounds of the outdoors – to nature. and emerge your senses, all of them in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the forest. Touch the trees, the moss, the soil and leaves. By practicing deep breathing you will naturally slow down.
For more information on Nature Therapy: