Do You Know That Trees Talk?

Sunday, September 8, 2013
Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Park Forest
Service created and officiated by Jodi Libretti


Jodi Libretti

Good morning, and welcome to our first Sunday service in this new outdoor space.

I was honored and touched when I was asked to lead this service. Several summers ago, I was out here with kids of this church every Sunday for Religious Education. My goal was to build a connection between our young people and the land outside the church doors, to have them learn through nature, which, I believe, has so much to teach us. To open our service, I would like to share the words of Tatânga Mânî, Walking Buffalo, a Stoney Indian who lived in Alberta, Canada and served as a guide and advisor to his people until he died in 1967.

Do you know trees talk? Well, they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you, if you will listen. I have learned a lot from trees, sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.

The Great Spirit’s book is the whole of his creation. You can read a big part of that book if you study nature. You know, if you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature’s university: the forests, the rivers, the mountains and the animals which include us.

Dedication of the Outdoor Space

outdoor-serviceAs we sit here now, in the open air, surrounded by trees, let us feel a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for donation of these 5 acres of land to the church in the late 70s, which enabled our congregation to have a permanent home. Gratitude to Rev. Ellen Dohner and architect Nick Livingston, who designed a building that would integrate with the woodland around it.  Gratitude to the many individuals in our current congregation, whose contributions of time, creativity, hard work, and financial resources have resulted in an outdoor space for services, celebrations, and ceremonies. And gratitude toward the earth and the land itself, for the sacrifice of the trees and plants that once grew here, for gracefully adapting to our presence, and for presenting us with nature’s splendor as we gather here throughout the seasons.

outdoor-service-creating-mosaicAs a tangible record of this dedication, I would like to invite each one of you to participate in the creation of a stepping stone, which we will place in the ground near the patio. The actual stone can’t be created today, as we’re waiting on an engraved bronze plate to go in the center, but we have a clay replica. If you push your little item into the clay, we will make sure it ends up in the same position in the concrete version.

STONEWhen I twelve years old, growing up in the Chicago area, my sixth grade class went to an outdoor education camp for two or three days. We went during the winter when the ground was covered with snow, a deep snow through which you had no choice but to trod along very slowly.

At one point during our stay there, we had free time, and I decided to walk from the bunkhouse to the arts and crafts building, where I had a clay pot waiting to be finished. I had to cross a huge snow-covered meadow to get to the building, and as I crunch- crunch- crunched across that white expanse, I noticed the trees that circled the meadow.  Their bare forms struck me as utterly beautiful, the branching so complex, their presence so ancient and magnificent. The sky was blue, the air was crisp, the sun made the snow glitter and sparkle.

Suddenly, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of happiness, of completeness, of total belonging. I remember standing there, still, feeling that I had merged with the landscape around me. I was the snow, I was the tree, I was the sky. This feeling probably lasted for just a few seconds before I became a self-conscious pre-adolescent and began wondering if any of my classmates were around. I didn’t tell anyone about this experience until decades later, but that feeling of oneness with the world has formed the foundation of my spirituality, and that experience is at the heart of the reason I joined this church.

It was the seventh principle: we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part— that told me I had found my spiritual home. What struck me about this statement is that it places us humans on an equal footing with nature— we are part of the interdependent web of life, not in charge of it. There is no implication that we have dominion over nature or a God-given right to use nature. Our role here is one of interdependence.

Now — this does not always mean that we live as if we are part of nature. We all know that nature is under siege these days. But I decided not to spend my precious time telling you about the distressing state of the earth, the carbon levels which are continue to increase, the unbelievable rate at which we are destroying critical ecosystems: rain forests, coral reefs, wetlands.  This would be what evolutionary ecologist Walter Nichols calls a “data dump,” which will only causes people to up their production of the neurotransmitters that provoke either a ‘fight’ or “flight” response. The “fight” response causes people to become angry and aggressive, and the flight response causes people to either ignore or deny the information they’re hearing. This reaction to the data dump is why environmentalists are often unsuccessful at getting others on board.

Today, in the brief time remaining, I want to turn you on to the wonder of one small part of nature—trees.  Wendell Berry, the great naturalist writer, says the we will not save what we do not love. A few weeks ago, Pat mentioned the good work that the Great Lakes Coalition is doing to try to save the lakes. One of their main strategies is to educate young people about fresh water ecosystems and then take them out, several times, to the lake shore and out onto the lake. Many of these young people, even those who have grown up right in Chicago, have never been to the lake. And when they fall in love with the lake, they want to care for it.  So may strategy is to help you see the wonder of trees today.  I believe that if everyone could come to love a tree outside their front door, by their office, or in their school yard, we would work harder to protect the planet as a whole.

So I’ll start with some questions raised by the writer Stephanie Kaza, from The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees. Kaza is a naturalist, who, in her studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry, became interested in how the gospels of love applied to nonhuman beings. She began a series of human-tree conversations, which involved a practice based in the Zen tradition of “sitting.” She would sit in silence, close to trees, and do her best to simply be present and listen.  This excerpt is about a chapter she wrote in a forest in Port Townsend, Washington that was regenerating after having been cut down so that the military could build a fort there for strategic defense during World War I.

As a witness to this healing, I feel the wilderness affirmed. I hear the highly cultivated life force speaking powerfully on the landscape. The voice of a forest is an elusive thing. It sings in the sweet warbles of purple finches and Swainson’s thrushes. It rustles in the leaves dancing in the afternoon sunlight. It buzzes in the slim sounds of crickets and mosquitoes. It creaks in the sway of tree trunks rubbing against each other. I wonder when a tree gains its voice. How old must it be to speak from its position in the forest? Are the young ones part of the multitude, or do only the grand sages claim a voice? The conversation of a forest is a babble of energy flow, an explosion of growing, a richness of intelligence in tree form.

Is Stephanie Kaza correct? Is there a conversation going on in a forest? Trees — that is, the big woody plants the reproduce with seeds and not spores — have been around for over 360 million years. Many indigenous people, as Walking Buffalo did, have spoken about the ability of trees to communicate. Yet our science has always treated this topic with skepticism, and is just beginning to research some of these claims.

In Jane Goodall’s new book, Seeds of Hope, she shares some of these findings. Beginning in 1982, the National Science Foundation reported that trees being attacked by insects communicate their predicament to other trees through pheromones released into the air by damaged leaves. These chemicals are received by other trees, which respond with chemical changes that make the undamaged trees less suitable as food for leaf-chewing insects.

Other research shows that shows that trees in forests are connected below the ground by way of mycor-rhizal fungus, which coats the roots of 95 percent of all plant species. These threadlike fungi act a as a kind of secondary root system, creeping way out into the ground, extracting water and minerals. They share these resources with their host plants, which provide the fungi with sugars. And, in addition to discovering that all the trees are connected, studies have found that the largest and oldest trees serve as the mother tree, with younger trees growing within her root-fungi network. The mother tree passes nutrients to the seedlings, which desperately need a boost as they try to grow in the shade of larger trees.

Although this discovery is about nutrition, the root system appears to be an important mechanism for communication among plants. Plant physiologists in Australia released a report this spring about the ability of plants to respond to sounds of a certain frequency by emitting clicks of the same frequency via their roots. They say that the obvious purpose of sound might be for communicating with other plants. Scientists have known since the 60s that listening to leaves can reveal the health of plants— the drier the soil, the harder it is for a tree to suck water up from the soil and send it up to its leaves through the tiny tubes called “xylem.” There are membranes—essentially two-way valves, that connect each of the thousands of tiny tubes. The drier the soil, the more tension builds up in the xylem, until an air bubble is pulled in through the membrane, and POP!

While trees don’t have ears to “hear,” the researchers believe trees perceive and respond to the vibrations of sound. They’re still investigating how, exactly, trees might respond to and use the popping sounds they hear from other trees. But one of the primary researchers says this:  “Shamans say they learn from a plants’ sounds. Maybe they are attuned to things we don’t pay attention to.  We might have lost that connection and science is ready to discover it.”

And discoveries are happening! Researchers in China have found that different frequencies and intensities of sound change the metabolic processes, and therefore, the growth of plants. Scientists are still exploring this phenomenon, but considering the way trees use fungi as a sort of internet, they suspect that acoustic signals could be an important form of communication.

Meanwhile, in the Piedmont Alps, in Northern Italy, the residents of an intentional community called Damanhur have been researching the vibrational energies of trees since 1976. The researchers there have invented and developed equipment that captures electromagnetic changes on the surface of leaves and roots and transforms them into sounds that are produced through a synthesizer. They have found that trees seem to control their electrical responses as they listen to themselves, demonstrating a kind of awareness and preference for certain types of music. You can see a video of this by simply googling “singing trees.” What is most fascinating to me is that the trees appear to alter their music slightly as they are approached and touched by different people. The researchers maintain that you can tap into the trees’ vibrational energy just by sitting near them or touching them.

It’s amazing how, as we grow desperate to find ways to be healthy, more research around the world about the importance of trees and nature is emerging.  In 2005, the journalist Richard Louv became curious about the role nature plays in a person’s sense of well-being. His kids had asked him, “Why was life so much more fun when you were a kid?,” and he recalled all the time he had spent playing and exploring outdoors. He began to research the physical and emotional health of children who have access to nature and children who don’t, and the result was a groundbreaking book called “The Last Child in the Woods.”

Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” as he turned up more and more evidence that the absence of nature in children’s lives can be linked to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. In the book, Louv pulled together a huge body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and, as you might suspect, adults. The website of Louv’s organization, Children and Nature Network, for example, cites research showing that women who live in areas with a higher density of trees have a greater success rate of pregnancy.

The Japanese have produced some of the most influential research about the benefits of spending time in the woods, and, as a result, have created a kind of therapy called “forest bathing.” Forest bathing is what most of us would call walking or meditating in the woods. Believe it or not, these activities lower cortisol levels (stress hormones), lower blood pressure and pulse rate and increased activity of natural killer cells which help to fight both infection and cancer. Japanese researchers now report that three days spent in a forest raises the natural killer cells by 50 percent and lasts up to a month! And even just looking at forest or nature does us good, as researchers found when they compared the cortisol levels of prisoners in cells with windows looking out on rolling hills with the stress levels of prisoners in cells with no windows.

Dr.  Andrew Weil, the popular wellness guru, states that, as creatures of nature, we cannot enjoy optimal physical or emotional well-being if we have too little contact with the natural environment. Connecting with nature is an “innate human need – as real as our need for food, sex, love and community.”

Research has so profoundly influenced health professionals’ thinking about the human need for nature that this spring, The Nature Conservancy teamed up with Women’s Health magazine to poll women about their time spent outdoors. Based on the results that only 40 percent of women spend any time outside 1 to 2 times per week, they have started the #GetOutside Campaign to send women daily tips for getting outdoors. So you see, the scientific findings about the benefits of nature have seeped into popular culture.

outdoor-service-closing-cir211But enough of the research—I believe many of you have experienced nature or have important relationships with animals or plants or even rocks that bring you spiritual joy. Many of you know the feeling I’m talking about —you may feel calm, exhilarated, fortified, restored, or still. I think it’s feelings such as these that make our annual church camping trip such a popular event.

My wish for the space that has been created in the woods is that it will give people the opportunity to appreciate and connect with the life force. The power that is in the moss, the plants, the trees, the birds, the air—and the power that is within each and every one of us. My hope is that the sense of belonging and oneness I felt as a sixth grader that day in the snow will fill the hearts of all who come here.

~ Jodi Libretti

UU Community Church
70 Sycamore Drive
Park Forest, IL 60466
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