Conditions of Sun and Shadow

By Freya Secrest

Knowing of my interest in trees and nature, a friend gave me a lovely book this Christmas, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllenben. In it Wohllenben shares his experience in forestry, and as a manager of an ecologically friendly woodland in Hummel, Germany. His stories illuminate the lives of trees and other observations of the interconnected ‘social’ and ecological dynamics that help a woodland thrive. It includes many thought-provoking discoveries but one in particular struck me as I was reading:

“Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age.”

Wohllenben's supporting facts for such a claim were enlightening. “Under natural conditions, trees of 80 – 120 years are no thicker than a pencil and no taller than a person. Thanks to their slow growth (brought about by growing in the canopy shadow of the larger/older trees), their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms. Even more important is their heightened resistance to fungi, which have difficulty spreading through the tough little trunks.”

I am struck by the idea that shadow and growing slowly contributes in an important way to the health of the trees. I wonder if this principle applies to humans as well. How might slowing down deepen our vitality? How does embracing all of our life’s conditions – sunny and shadowed – strengthen us? What might this mean for us as individuals and how can we flow with our life systems to allow for the most resilient conditions of self in meeting our future?

Several years ago I wrote a short essay comparing the slow food movement to a “slow spirituality.” I noted then that the slow food movement advocates attention to the natural and essential qualities of food. A cook highlights those qualities by taking the time to purchase fresh, local products and then draw out the inherent nutrition and flavor through thoughtful preparation and presentation. A Slow Spirituality suggests that we focus on the inherent and essential qualities within ourselves and honor the natural field of life experience that molds those capacities. We can then direct our time and choices to bring our uniqueness into mindful service through our lives.

What is interesting for me to notice is that whether it is in the woodland forest, in the slow food movement or in ourselves, there is a delicately balanced interconnected system that facilitates the overall field of health. Slow or deep growth is not a single intention that limits focus, but a widening embrace that accepts and includes. All of life grows as part of an interconnected ecology that includes sun and shadow, soil and water, limits and opportunity. When we embrace the full range of our life experience with a respectful attitude, we are like the mature and shadowed forest community that prevents young trees from growing quickly. It is when we engage the whole system of interconnected life experience that we develop the most strength, vitality and sense of fulfillment. Slowing down to listen to, honor and participate in this interconnected field – the subtle and physical web of consciousness that is the wholeness of our planet – may have actual structural implications for each of us as it does in the health of the trees that Wohllenben observed.

The shadow of a dense and diverse woodland community slows growth and creates a condition that strengthens a tree’s core and contributes to its longevity and to the overall health of all trees in the forest. I find myself considering what conditions encourage me to grow "in", densify my core, and slow my one-pointed movement to build flexibility, strength and vitality so that I too contribute to the overall health of my community.

There's still time to join Julie Spangler and Susan Sherman, with guest David Spangler, for  Journey Into Fire. During this six week online class, we will explore our unique, human journeys and practical ways to experience the sacredness within.  For more information or to sign-up, click here.