Hermann Karl Hesse was a German-born Swiss poet and Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose writing was little known in North America before his death in 1962. A few years later, though, his books suddenly became bestsellers here.
I was in high school in the late 1960s; Hesse’s books fuelled late-night conversation with friends about self-knowledge, spirituality and the evolution of society.
Hesse was the son and grandson of Protestant missionaries to India. Music, poetry and theology were important to him throughout his life, and in later years he said, “Christianity, one not preached but lived, was the strongest of the powers that shaped and moulded me.” He also honoured what he’d learned from Indian and Buddhist philosophers, as well as, it seems, from trees.
His words about the deep wisdom of trees appear in a chapter within Wandering, Notes and Sketches, written in 1920 and translated into English in 1972. He wrote, “Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. . . . They preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
I’ve been a tree hugger for a long time and teased accordingly. So I take solace in Hesse’s company. But what is this ancient law of life that the trees preach? According to Hesse, it’s about trusting that God is in us and that our labour is holy; it’s about how to be still and find a deep sense of home within, wherever we’re rooted; and it’s about discovering new metaphors for life in order to be more fully who we are.
Summer is my favourite time for listening to trees. As I sit under and near them, they cool hot air and beckon the breeze. My hot skin feels fresher, and my breathing is made easier in the silent exchange of CO2 and oxygen.
I have a few favourite preachers.
From a great white oak at Five Oaks Centre on the banks of the Grand River in Ontario, I hear a sermon that stretches back well over 400 years, to before the arrival of Europeans. The oak invites me to remember the symbiotic relationship between this land and its varied peoples, offering new translations of “That all may be one” (John 17:21) and of the Mohawk words “All my relations.” Its rustling leaves stir me to contribute actively to a larger unfolding story.
When I visit Kirkridge Center on the Kittatinny mountain range of eastern Pennsylvania, a large weeping willow welcomes me. It whispers about the importance of Sabbath, of getting the kind of rest that refreshes and brings greater clarity about the work to which I’m called. It offers a message resonant with Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
At home in Toronto, just outside my office window, I listen to the trinity of pine trees that glisten with loveliness in all seasons. As cones form and fall, they remind me of John 12:24-25, especially as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” They are indeed reckless in their love, adding grace and companionship, and seeding a promise of eternal life.
Trees both comfort and provoke. They invite me to be more satisfied with life and to be more creative about what each season requires. With every new summer, I’m less embarrassed to give them a word of thanks — and sometimes a hug.
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.