Lessons from trees

We experience gratitude in different ways. The other day I was walking along a side street obsessing about the past. On my approach to Twin Oaks Woods, the sight of its trees lifted me suddenly. I could describe that emotion simply as joy, but it arose from a deep updraft of gratitude.

Decades ago, some farsighted city planner elected to preserve this woodland rather than leveling it to make more room for suburban dwellings and plazas. The woods behind our house was a benefit I noted when my partner and I chose this neighbourhood three years ago. Perhaps I believed too strongly that this home would be temporary, because I didn’t readily form an attachment.

Over the past year I have deliberately drawn close to Twin Oaks Woods. This week, busy with multiple story deadlines, I find myself drawn instinctively to the path whenever I can manage a 20-minute break. Exercise for it’s own sake hardly appeals to me, so I’m grateful for any motivation. Recently I discovered I can make a pleasant 0.75-mile double loop through the woods, without retracing my steps, and avoid having to follow the busier surrounding streets.

I’m grateful for the pleasure, exercise, and refreshment. I’m grateful for the numerous saplings of American beech, my favourite deciduous tree for its clear bark and golden-orange leaves that hang on till spring.

I’m grateful for the splendid ephemereal spring wildflowers that will erupt from the ground in a few more weeks. But more than that I’m grateful to be falling deeper in love with the woods during this long, cold, bleak Ontario winter.

Trees themselves offer us many lessons. They communicate with one another under the ground (though not in a language we readily understand) via natural chemicals in their roots and networks of symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Sometimes I wonder whether trees speak too slowly for us to hear. What’s the meaning of that baleful howl of winter wind in their bare branches? Tree bark looks broken and pockmarked, but it’s a kind of armour.


Trees in this northern climate provide a lesson in resilience. It’s hard to fathom how a large organism with so much surface area can endure months of turbulent freezing weather, but they do. When a branch doesn’t receive enough sunlight to produce nourishment, they know to let it die. Humans would do well to study trees and how they handle the inherent tragedy of life.

Gratitude seldom comes to me spontaneously as it did the other day. Most of the time I need to practice it.

When we experience emotional pain, we raise walls to protect ourselves. This is natural and healthy. It provides time and space to heal. It’s like the protective bark of a tree in winter. I’m impressed with the knots and gnarls displaying a tree’s life history, how it overcame difficult weather or injury, and sometimes how it died. Meanwhile life continues underground as the roots delve more deeply in the esoteric wisdom of their connections.

But the tree also knows when and how to sprout outside the bark. We must extend ourselves in order to live and work. Progress takes practice, risk, learning from what doesn’t work, and learning to keep doing whatever works well.

Gratitude works well, I’ve learned. It takes practice during the hard times. It displaces grief and disappointment with an appreciation for good things in the present, however small. In noticing them, appreciation grows.

Practice opens the mind for unexpected joy: the kind of gratitude that is deeply felt, but takes nothing for granted.

January afternoon

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