Fulfilling Christ's call to love God, live in community, and serve our neighbor

Trees, Our Distant Cousins

January 2016: The Earth Stewards Team presents a photo essay by Tom Haupert

Compared to trees, we humans are relative newcomers on our planet.

Before any animal or mammal came to be, trees were.

But, as newcomers, we inherited their genetic way of keeping the line going.

The result of this sequence? We share many of the same genes that trees depend on, not only to keep their line going, but to determine their shape and development.

Trees and we ... are distant cousins.

At the core of a tree's life is a process which mirrors a process central to every human life.

The 'green' of trees does for them the mirror opposite of what our 'red' does for us.

That is, their green chlorophyll takes up carbon dioxide from the air and puts out oxygen. Our red hemoglobin, which gives color to our blood, and our cheeks, takes up that oxygen and puts out carbon dioxide, the exact reverse.

We not only carry many of the same genes as trees, but our core processes are intimately related and work together in tandem.

For centuries in the Far East, trees have been thought to be conscious.  Not conscious as we are conscious, yet intimately and responsively in touch with the world around them.

(Early morning wood-stove smoke brings trees into relief.)

Scientific research is uncovering ways in which trees and other plants detect and respond to their environment. They're just slower than animals in responding.

"Plants are much more sensitive than animals. Every root apex [Botany: growing point of a shoot] can detect 20 different physical and chemical parameters – light, gravity, magnetic field, pathogens and so on," according to Professor Stefano Mancuso, who leads the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence in Italy (link to source is given below).

"Every tree is linked to every other tree underground – the 'wood wide web.' Through these pathways they talk to each other and then behave in certain ways," (Suzanne Simard, professor of Forest Ecology, University of British Columbia. See link below.).

"We did an experiment with two climbing bean plants. If you put a single support between them, they compete for it.

"What is interesting is the behavior of the loser: it immediately sensed the other plant had reached the pole and started to find an alternative. This was astonishing and it demonstrates the plants were aware of their physical environment and the behavior of the other plant. In animals we call this consciousness" (Stefano Mancuso, ibid).

(Link to the BBC News article on this research)

Down through the ages trees have reminded us of our own human character and feelings.

From Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. ... He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away." (English Standard Version)

Poet Robert Frost addressed these words (below) to the distant cousin outside his bedroom window:

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

(Published in Robert Frost: West Running Brook, New York, 1928, Henry Holt and Co. )

In those times when life becomes empty to us, and we feel quite barren inside, even then images from nature can lift up, and in a sense articulate these inner states for us. In doing so, they can comfort us in their companionship.

In early adulthood Teddy Roosevelt fell into a deep depression. He went to live and work laying bricks in the badlands of North Dakota (now called the Theodore Roosevelt National Park), among desolate, barren, lunar kinds of landscapes. He found comfort in the way these landscapes echoed his painful, empty, lonesome inner life.

Trees can also echo our joy,


and our reaching out in prayer to the One who provides us heavenly light and love.


When I come home from a gathering where people have been in conflict or have been ugly to each other, and I feel weighed down, going out and walking among trees, looking up at their beauty and strength and structure, helps me bear the darkness within, quiets the pain, and makes me grateful for their nobility, aliveness and presence.


Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) took a walk in nature every day at the same time and place, often discovering something new. He admired the manner in which trees compete for light: nobly, they grow straight and tall. (In competing, we humans sometimes become "crooked” and “small.")


I have an Albanian trainer, whom I met in the Central Public Library downtown. He retired to this country to live with his daughter. He had coached the national Albanian athletics team. For all-round good health he advises walking daily where everything is green. And always come back a different route from the way you go out.


Trees offer us so much, not only wood for our homes, and places for birds to nest and squirrels to play, but vistas restful to tired eyes weighed down by the burdens of life. We should remember that they are alive, and can suffer not totally unlike us.

We might do well to walk daily among them for the multitude of good things which that could do for us – keeping calcium in our bones, improving brain and cardiovascular health, reminding us of our feelings, and our connectedness not only with the rest of humanity but with the rest of nature, and in particular with the fellowship of trees.

And we might protect them, as a heritage for those who follow us upon this earth.