River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Holy Adaptations

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd
River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 21, 2013


The largest single interconnected root system in this world, perhaps one could even call it the largest living organism in this world, by pure biomass, is a stand of Aspens in Utah—the Pando grove, whose vast and completely interwoven support structure, combined with the expanse of trees above it, covers 106 acres and is estimated to weigh about 6000 tons.

These trees need one another—they don't exist without one another. They can't be broken off or considered separately, for the very source of their sustenance is in their remarkable interconnection. They are a community that does not exist unless the individuals within it can adapt together. Trees, after all, are complex creatures. They live a long time. They sustain themselves through stretches of history most human beings can scarcely imagine. They grow in unlikely places, and they adapt themselves to even some of the harshest circumstances that both nature and humankind can create.

Not just the interconnected groves of aspens, but all trees are the great adaptors of the natural world, somehow staying in one place yet moving themselves internally in response and reaction to the forces of destruction that crowd in on them at every turn. They are, in their silent steadiness, exemplars of the art of continued existence, in spite of it all, and the tools they use to persist are astonishing—almost as astonishing as the tools and mechanisms used by we ourselves, human beings in a world that sometimes feels so hostile we don't know where or if our spirits might grow again.

I don't really have words to describe this week in the life of our nation. We've all been living it, so perhaps I do not need to. Sometimes it feels like we've been living some version of this week's events over and over and over again. Senseless violence toward we know not what end, young people driven by forces we cannot wholly name to desperate actions. Toxic chemicals wreaking the havoc that toxic chemicals are made to wreak, in this case spewing not just fumes, but fire across the lives of innocent people, leaving homes leveled and perhaps as many as 60 dead and missing in Texas. A lone unstable person consumed by paranoia, sending letters that kill in the same mail system that brings us our coupons, and the US Senate blocked, unable to act, on issues that touch the violence of our days because they are too consumed by the mandates of politics and partisanship.

It has been, on many levels, a terrible, terrible week for the interconnected organism that is the United States of America—and the truth is that I am tired of it all, tired of speaking to such things and making meaning of such things, tired of reading the headlines and following twitter and wondering who will die next for no reason.

Frankly, there are times this week when I, and no doubt many of us, have simply felt all out of joint, bent in strange directions, distorted in my perceptions, when this age of human history just seems to be reaching in the wrong direction. While not exactly afraid, this week I have certainly been just plain weary. There are pressures in this world exerting themselves upon our souls and the soul of this nation. There are pressures, and the challenge for us, like the trees, like the city of Boston itself, like the whole inescapable natural web of which we are a part, is to adapt with a resilience that astonishes.

As Howard Thurman reminds us—we must look for "the growing edge." For it is, "the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor." And to look for the growing edge, where better to turn as a sacred scripture, than to the handwriting of nature herself?

Her handwriting is all over her most exemplary work, and people have been studying it and making meaning of it for as long as we could string two thoughts together. In the 1970's a botanist named Francis Halle and his colleagues saw the artistry and precision of nature's hard at work when he developed a system of identifying the genetic mandates at work in different kinds of trees and their defining characteristics as a species.

Halle discovered that each tree, and each tree species, has within itself a sort of internal architecture, a structure it was meant to carry out. The spacing of its branches, the particular curve of its limbs, the number of leaves it might bear on each twig and when along the length of a span each branch breaks into separate branches, each one in turn reaching toward the sun.

The architecture of a tree is less happenstance than you might imagine. It's all part of the adaptation, all part of the natural wonder of selection and development. If you'll allow me to stretch it a bit—it's all part of the plan, the internal architectural plan, of how each tree can grow. There is a shape that it reaches for. There is an ideal biological form that is not broken but whole, established in the evolution of each species. So every single tree you pass is always reaching, always stretching upward and outward toward that shape in which its very cellular structure conspires to create of it even while the world exerts its pressures.

And it is always true—both of a person and of a tree—that no matter what ideal form might exist, these external pressures push upon it. Each tree, like each human soul, must of necessity develop mechanisms for persisting in the presence of stressors of all kinds—from a kid leaning day after day on a slender branch to a hurricane wind threatening on the structure of the whole, there are plenty of forces that distract and detract from that tree's endless mission to grow into the perfect form nature has designed for it.

Of course, when researchers study the life-cycle of trees, one of the things they find, which will be no surprise to many of you, is that the events occurring in the spanning years of any given tree are recorded forever within its internal structure. The oak tree never loses the mark from droughts that sparked the dust bowl. The poplar always bears the scar from the pruning hook, and even 50 years later, if you look closely, you can watch the evidence of subtle resistance, etched indelibly in the rings of each branch. As writer David Quammen has put it, "the shape of a given tree represents an interaction between destiny and experience." 1

So it is with us. The shape, the scope, the particular arrangement of our being represents the interaction between the great possibility we were endowed with from our first moments and the experiences that surround us since the wailing of our natal breath. In the rings of our souls, we bear the marks of what we have seen and what we have known. Some will bear the scars of this week not just metaphorically or emotionally, but literally—forever. And the questions becomes, what will we do to persist, what mechanisms are at work already, setting to right some of what has been broken?

When stressors exert themselves on trees, they respond astonishingly effectively on a cellular level. Any time a new pressure from outside is exerted on a given limb, either pulling upward or pushing downward, pulling things all out of whack and distorting the shape of the whole, a tree responds with this remarkable adaptation—it produces something called reaction wood.

Reaction wood. It only develops in times of stress. It is always an indicator of an outside force, and it is fundamentally different than regular growth. Reaction wood. The wood formed in the midst of reaction to circumstances the solitary unmoving tree is powerless to prevent but wholly capable of responding to.

Quammen says that reaction wood is a muscle-like extra thickening that arises in the radial dimension of growth, exerting an opposing force against any distortion of the tree's natural shape or posture." 2  In hardwoods, it is also known, specifically, as tension wood.

On a cellular level, it is different than regular wood, characterized by gelatinous fibers in the cell walls that pull what has been distorted by whatever violence or pressure the tree has known back into the shape in which it was meant to grow. It's like a rubber band, developed to pull and pull and pull, until what has been broken can be put once again to right.

This is why, if you tie back branches, they will grow right through the wire you've tried to encumber them with, not only enclosing that wire in new growth, but beginning again the same trajectory briefly interrupted by a decade or two by whatever encumbered them for a time. Give it time and the tree will pull and pull until the wire you tried to choke it with is broken or subsumed and the plan its cellular structure designed for it all along is resumed. If you press downward on a single branch in a single place, it will, inch by inch, climb in zig-zag fashion right back up toward the sun.

"Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor." As Thurman reminds us—such is the growing edge. The upward reach of life. Right there, every day, in our own front yards.

Stronger than other wood, reaction wood is more muscle tissue than scar tissue—it exists not to protect the old injury, but to pull the whole once again to right. It is both evidence of trauma and lived example of utmost strength. It is hard to cut and impossible to wholly defeat. For as long as the tree lives, the reaction wood will grow. And for as long as the tree lives, it will continue to reach, every single day, for the inherent design structure it was made to manifest. It will always work to right what has been pulled out of balance. It will never stop seeking to mend what is pulled away from the true.

Reaction wood is not the same as scar tissue. Scar tissue just surrounds, encases. It grows a rigid barrier around a wound. But reaction wood is different—it works literally with every fiber of its being to heal the wound that has been inflicted, and it never ever stops until what was broken is whole again. It's what happens next after the scar has been formed, the biological mechanism for not simply closing the wound, but beginning once again the upward and indomitable reach of life.

I'm not quite willing to state that there is an inherent internal architecture for a human soul, not quite—but I will say that human beings know what it is to have our perceptions distorted by external forces that bear down on us with great force. What do we do when our souls are twisted up again and again, by the pressures and violence and even the hatred of a broken world? What do we do as individuals, and as a society, when the world around us and the pressures within us distort the direction of our aspirations?

We can, as we often do, form scar tissue of the soul and scar tissue of society. We can surround our wounds with newfound toughness. We can harden our hearts and hunker down into categories and protective shells while we seek to identify the enemy. As some denizens of the media and the internet propounded this week while one bomber was still at large in Boston, "don't you wish you had a gun now?"

Don't you wish you had cold steel to protect you, say the frightened ones again and again, scar tissue of the soul forming around the wound of their fear. Don't you know those Chechnyan boys are Muslims? Don't you know that fertilizer is the stuff bombs are made of? And the scar tissue of the community is formed layer by layer by layer, preserving the wound, treasuring it even, and the shape in which we were meant to grow as human beings is distorted over and over again by fear, by anger, by hate—until we find ourselves on youtube or reddit scanning every brown face in the crowd or telling ourselves that if we just put up enough barricades and roadblocks and TSA security checkpoints, we'll be safe again.

And so the branches of our souls and the growing life of our society continue to grow misshapen, failing to reach toward the sun, extending in directions utterly alien to the very best of which we are capable of becoming. And so the internal architecture of our society is bent and twisted into a gnarled winding malformation of what it was meant to be. Yes, we can grow scar tissue, personally or socially. We can protect the wound. But what comes next?

Reaction wood is not scar tissue. It is muscle that reaches toward healing. Strength that yearns for wholeness. Fibers that pull and pull and pull until what is so very wrong can begin to be righted. It is the next step—not just hurting or mourning the loss or entrenching ourselves in blame, but finding out how to reach for the sun once again.

And it's that next step, the growing edge, the fibers of our communal being that stretch toward wholeness, which I'm looking for in the days and weeks ahead. I've long felt that after 9-11 we took advantage of the vast network of national scar tissue formed when those towers fell. We used that hurt and the gaping mouth of that wound to propel us into further destruction, division and thoughtlessness. Instead of reaching back toward where we were meant to head as a nation, we distorted ourselves through the mechanism of our own pain.

But not this time. Not now. We will not, cannot, turn these tragedies into more reasons to hate one another, more excuses to hunker down into the perceived safety of our precious fear. Instead, we are choosing to turn these tragedies into the impetus for some lasting change. If, just this once, we really do refuse to be terrorized, we reach upward toward growth beyond measure.

Reflecting on the tragedy in Boston, my friend Rev. Lisa Ward wrote that we should see in one another a collective "will toward wellness." Rather than talking about how paralyzed we are, how like a "ghost town," Boston became, we should see in this nation at this moment a yearning for what comes next.

What pulls you up in the direction of you aspirations when the rest of the world is pressing you all out of shape? Where is the muscle tissue of our national spirit, pulling and pulling without ceasing, until we are moving once again in the direction of our dreams? When we see it—the formation of this reaction wood—let us gather to support it, build it ever stronger, let it take us where we need to go.

Enough with the scar tissue already. Enough with the protection and nurturance of our hard-fought wounds. What comes next?

Cut a cross-section of any mighty oak and you can see a history of its wounds, etched right there in the rings of annual growth. You can read the signs of drought. You can see the mark of the axe, but look closer. Look deeper, down to the very essence, and you can see also the evidence of resilience. The mighty, silent strength that lasts a hundred years and more, indomitable fibers reaching ever upward, ever onward, toward the sun.



1 This quote can be found on pg. 103 Quammen's wonderful book of essays, "Wild Thoughts from Wild Places," (1998, Scribner and Sons) embedded within an essay called "Reaction Wood" that inspired and provided the basis for this sermon. His reflections are worth reading in their entirety for anyone interested in the subject of the natural adaptation mechanisms of trees.

2 Ibid, p. 106.