Ancient olive trees are a familiar sight in Jerusalem.
Farmers call them “Rumi” which, David George Haskell explains, is “a name for the Romans, whose hands may have planted some of these ancient trees.”
Attempts have been made to discern whether the gnarled trees that grow in the Garden of Gethsemane today are the same “Rumi” under which Jesus prayed on the night before he became a victim of their eponymous empire. While the trees seem to post-date Jesus, they were found to have been propagated from the same parent plant indicating some attempt to continue the line of an older tree.
That’s the thing about trees – they remind us of our connection to the generations that have gone before us, and our commitment to those that will come after us.
In his study of the role of trees in the Bible, Matthew Sleeth points out that trees are used “to teach short-lived humanity about time on a vaster scale”. We are reminded that:
Other than God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing. There is a tree on the first and last page of Genesis, the first psalm, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. Every significant theological event in the Bible is marked by a tree … [and] every major character in the Bible appears in conjunction with a tree.
If our study of God points us to trees, then studying trees must also reveal to us something about God.
People are often bemused that, despite being an empirical researcher, I am also a person of faith. I consider there to be no contradiction; rather, science is one of the ways that I enter into a closer relationship with a God of mysterious creation.
As the researcher Steve Talbott puts it, “nature is a speaking and science is one sort of translation of this speaking”. So, what does science have to tell us about the trees that form a forest in the Word of God? What does the study of creation reveal about the Voice of Creation?
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohllben attempts to synthesise the latest science about trees. We learn that trees in forests are profoundly social beings. Strong trees use interconnected root systems to transfer nutrients to sick ones until they are able to recover. Trees that are under attack from pests use vast underground fungal webs to send warning messages to other trees, enabling them to begin releasing defensive compounds. And beech trees synchronise rates of photosynthesis with one another, such that those who find themselves with the good fortune of ideal growing conditions do not leave their less fortunate neighbours for dead: “The trees, it seems, are equalizing differences between the strong and the weak ... Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.”
These behaviours are not motivated by ideology. Instead, they reflect a natural logic. The forest is a delicate ecosystem. If a tree dies, that ecosystem is disrupted – light streams in through the gap in the canopy, the temperature on the forest floor rises, precious water evaporates. For Wohllben, “The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together.”
It is not surprising then that Isaiah should prophesise the coming of Jesus by saying that “a small tree will begin to grow” (Isaiah 11:1-4). The glory of interconnectedness is the central message of Christianity.
As we continue to learn from the scientists about the urgency of this moment of climate change and environmental crisis, so might we learn from our faith tradition about the importance of Christian collaboration in meeting this challenge.
This reflection was written by Dr Daniel Vujcich as part of Common Grace's Season of Creation 2022 celebrations as we come together in a time of prayer, action, renewed commitment and advocacy for God’s beautiful creation, guided by this year's focus to ‘Listen to the Voice of Creation’. You can explore further Season of Creation 2022 resources here.
Dr Daniel Vujcich is a public health academic undertaking a period of discernment in the Uniting Church. A selection of his religious reflections can be found at https://sottovoce.home.blog/