The Earth Made Fair and All Her People Whole

As we celebrate Earth Day, Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Kathy Alston reflect on how the earth provides a model for our own wholeness, and how our wholeness is dependent on the wholeness of the Earth. 

Sermon: "The Earth Made Fair and All Her People Whole"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

What is the largest living thing on the planet? Any guesses? Yes, the blue whale is the largest mammal and the largest animal. But it’s not the largest living thing. A great sequoia tree? You’re close, but wrong. The General Sherman giant sequoia, regarded as the world’s largest, is about 275 feet tall, 103 feet around and weighs in at around 4.2 million pounds. But it’s not the largest living thing on Earth. No, that honor goes to “Pando.” Pando is a populus tremuloides, or a quaking aspen. Now, when you look at a quaking aspen, the individual trees aren’t all that impressive. Certainly nothing like the mighty sequoias of California. But in reality, each of those individual trunks are part of a vast network of roots that are all connected, and they all grew from a single seed. Although, above-ground, Pando has more than 47,000 trees, all those trees make up a single living organism. An organism that spans some 107 acres across Fishlake National Forest in Utah and weighs more than 6,600 tons. No one knows exactly how old Pando is; it’s impossible to determine when the first plant grew from its original seed, but some scientists estimate it could be more than 85,000 years old. All those 47,000 tree trunks that appear to be separate and individual plants, are what are called “ramets,” or clones of the original plant to which it’s connected, all one organism.

Now, that’s pretty impressive, I”ll admit. But what might be even more impressive is what scientists are discovering about how separate trees of the same, and even of different species, are linked. Not the way the quaking aspen is linked, as one entity, but connected nevertheless. Some scientists have begun to call it the “Wood-Wide Web.” This web is made up of microscopic fungi in the soil that send out tubes called hyphae. These tubes weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form a symbiotic relationship, where they share nutrients in the soil like nitrogen and phosphate. That’s not all that impressive, really. But what is really impressive is that we’re discovering that they don’t just share nutrients. They also share information. Information about diseases and other existential threats, about carbon levels resulting from air pollution, about plants in the network that are thriving and those that are dying. Through these fungal connections, trees and plants are able to “talk” to each other. Scientists stop short of saying that trees actually think or have feelings, but some refer to this fungal network as “the brain” of the forest, the place where the intelligence of the community resides. This network is so complex and so powerful that when one tree is affected, say, by a kind of blight, other trees, sometimes miles away, will begin to produce substances to inoculate themselves against the disease. In a recent magazine article, writer Robert MacFarlane explains that this “Wood Wide Web” calls into question where species begin and end and “whether a forest might be better imagined as a single superorganism, rather than a grouping of independent individualistic ones.”[1]

Bear with me as I offer up just a little more about trees and their relationships with each other. In his book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” author Peter Wohlleben turns the evolutionary principle of “survival of the fittest” on its head. He describes the very real phenomenon of the interdependence of the forest. When a forest is managed with the intention of allowing the strongest, tallest trees to thrive, he tells us, it actually impairs the growth of the remaining trees. He writes: “When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you ‘help’ individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren't particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.[2]

You might think that, as we approach Earth Day later this week, the 49th anniversary of the first Earth Day, to be exact, that this is going to be a sermon about the evils of deforestation and how this and other human activities are a direct threat to our very way of life. After all, we are destroying nearly 19 million acres of forest every year, the equivalent of 27 football fields every minute. I could certainly spend the next fifteen minutes or so talking about the impact of deforestation on the climate and what we can, should and must do about it. And don’t get me wrong, all that’s important. And I’m glad we’ve got a reinvigorated Climate Justice Team here at UUCDC and that we’re composting coffee hour waste and that our Family Promise meals are going green. But that’s not what’s on my mind today.

What’s on my mind is all the ways, seen and unseen, that we’re connected, and how those connections contribute to our wholeness. How they make us who we are and how they have the potential to make each of us the fullest and most complete “self” that we can be. The Seventh Principle of Unitarian Universalism calls us to affirm and promote the interdependent web of which we’re a part, and for the next few minutes I’d like to take a look at the myriad ways that we’re connected, and just how deep that interdependent web goes. Because, just like trees in a forest, there are lots of obvious ways in which we’re connected and there are some that are hidden deep below the surface.

One of the obvious ways we’re connected and in relationship is by blood and birth. As Harper Lee said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family, an' they're still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge 'em or not.” Some of our closest and most influential relationships are those that we’re born into. The ones that, from our birth, both nurture and challenge us. These bonds influence us throughout our lives, for both good and, far too often, for ill. The apple, for better or worse, never falls far from the tree.

We’re also related in a similarly involuntary way to those who share aspects of our own identity, like our ethnicity, our race, our gender, our social location. Whether or not we actively identify with our kin through color or class, we’re part of the larger fabric of these identities. As such, we are influenced by the relationship of these groups to the larger society. We share in both the privilege and the peril of those who walk the same path that we do based on our God-given, and often very visible natures.

More malleable than our identities and social location is our geography. The neighborhoods we live in, the towns, the boroughs, the states and the countries where we reside all contribute to who we are, how we act and how we’re viewed by others. Having grown up in New England, my experiences and thus my identity were shaped by the Puritan work ethic and the long, cold winters. If you grew up in sunny southern California, your outlook was probably less grim than mine. Another example of how geography molds us and binds us: My lived experience as a resident of Swarthmore is quite distinct from those who live in Chester, even though we’re just a couple miles apart. Some of us are able to change our geography, but many others are not, and the ability to move – whether it is to pursue a job or escape violence or other unfavorable conditions – is a great privilege, because the environment in which we live shapes who we are.

Then there are those relationships that we enter into by choice. The friendships, associations, intimate relationships that we make and retain voluntarily. Who do we spend time with? What groups or organizations do we join? What congregations and faith traditions? How do we become a part of these and how do they become a part of us? Do we proudly wear our MAGA hats or drive our bumper-sticker-laden Priuses? Who do we consider to be our compadres, our kindred spirits, those who share our values and principles? These relationships shape us and inform our living like few others. Unlike a tree, we get to choose the particular forest or forests we want to be a part of. But like a tree in a forest, we’re influenced by and we actively participate to influence whatever forest we choose.

All of these are the overt and obvious ways that we share parts of ourselves with each other, the myriad ways our wholeness is linked to and dependent upon others. The ways, if you will, that we exist as trees within our own personal forests. But I wonder about the hidden connections. The “fungal” links and the mychorrial connections, to borrow the biological term. Where and how, deep within our soil – which sounds an awful lot like “soul,” doesn’t it? – are we communicating with each other and with our surrounding environment? How are we sharing nutrients? How are we inextricably linked in ways mysterious and maybe even mystical?

Have you ever met someone and felt an immediate connection? Like you were twins separated at birth, long lost siblings? Like you know them from somewhere in your past, and yet you’ve never actually met them before? Have you ever visited a place for the first time and felt like you’d been there before, or had that unshakeable sensation that it had the familiar feeling of home?  You know, that feeling we call deja vu? Maybe it’s not even as powerful as that. It might be more subtle. Like the sense of inner peace that we have watching a sunset, or the deep contentment we experience when we snuggle with a beloved pet. Maybe we catch just a glimpse of it when we’re meditating, or lost in concentration. Somehow, on some level, we’re being fed by these moments of connection. Connection with nature. Connection with other living things. Connection with that which is beyond the boundary of what we think of as “self.” There is something triggered or stimulated in us that we know is true, but can’t necessarily explain or even name. And when we try to name it we use terms like “Grace.” Or “Love.” Or “an experience of the Divine.” But words generally fail us.

I remember a night, many years ago, when I was camping at the base of Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park in northern Maine. There was a group of us sitting around a fire, chatting and laughing. We were all looking forward to the coming day, when we’d scale the peak and walk along the Knife’s Edge, a precarious ridge walk with precipitous drops on either side. As we sat there, I felt connected to my friends in a close and intimate way. These were my brothers and sisters. And then I looked up. Up above the ridge line above me, and the curve of the moon was peeking above it. As I watched, slowly but surely the full moon revealed itself to us. Its pock-marked face gazed down upon our up-turned faces as we gazed back at it. In that moment, I traveled the 240 million miles between it and me. The distance collapsed to nothing. The distance meant nothing. For a brief moment, I wasn’t just a person sitting by a fire on a mountain. I was the moon and the moon was me. I was as expansive as the universe itself, and the entire universe was in me. As I said, words can’t describe the one-ness I felt with all that is, but the feeling was real and true. We can reject experiences like these as illogical and unreasonable, or we can embrace them as inexplicable and mysterious gifts, but I’m guessing most of us here today, I’m hoping that most of us here today know what I’m talking about.

Remember what Peter Wohlleben said in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” We may not all be physically connected as one massive organism like Pando, sprung from the same seed and simultaneously sharing the same root. Yet, like a forest, we are connected, intimately and intricately, in ways seen and unseen, known and not yet known, to all. To everyone and everything around us. And, like a tree, we can be only as strong as the forest of which we are all a part.

Happy Earth Day. This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

[1] “The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web” The New Yorker April 4, 2019

[2] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, 16-17


Closing Words

These words come from Richard Powers in his novel, The Overstory:

“A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”