Tag Archives: ecosystems

Spiritual Seasons

A large, mature black-walnut tree stretches its limbs to embrace the sky.

In our backyard, this tree’s trunk is so substantial that, for the tree itself to be embraced, two people would need to reach out, press the sides of their faces and their unguarded hearts against the tree’s bark to clasp hands. Only then would another circle of awareness be able to touch the tree’s Being.


Some urban yard keepers consider the black walnut a high-maintenance tree. During good years, the walnut bears large seeds, with nut meats firmly ensconced in hard protective shells, guarded by yet another layer or husk of a pithy bright green.

All of this fruit is of a substantial diameter and mowing becomes impossible without its timely collection. In addition to black walnuts, every autumnal season, our yard fills with a layer of detritus from the tree’s fine, needle-like leaf stems or petioles (black walnuts have a composite leaf structure), as well as a traditional cascade of deciduous leaves.

One of the walnut tree’s functions, as a “community citizen” engaged in selfless service, is that of neighborhood fresh-food market. When there is a good year or season, this tree produces enough walnuts to help sustain, not only a thriving community of squirrels, but our own.

We collect and fill gigantic tubs with the unhulled walnuts, which may be sold to a local processing facility. This processing facility, in turn, sells the shelled black walnuts back to the community. There is not a great deal of money to be made in this endeavor, but the collection of the walnuts is part of honoring the tree’s natural labor and the more general circle-of-life.

The act of producing fruit is not an annual constant. We have lived through two years of severe drought with this tree, thinking there might be few walnuts during those years. Nonetheless, during the years of severest drought, we were surprised to observe the tree ramp up nut “production” to bring forth not one but two bumper crops.

For two consecutive years, the black walnut seemed to produce something out of nothing—fleshy moistness out of the earth’s brittle dryness, as if striving to reaffirm its own life as well as the lives of those around and seeming to draw from its own internal stores of water to give more than it received.

Sometimes, when our own lives are endangered, we push our children forth into the world to take our places—whether we sink our roots deeply into the soil to commit to serving in one location or roam the earth to find our place of service, while walking on just two legs.

During the drought years, as I observed the phenomenon of this tree’s abundant fruit-bearing with amazement, I could not help but be reminded of the European Jews who were recorded throwing their babies to the outstretched arms of other Jews fortunate enough to be leaving Europe on departing ships at the outset of World War II.

In reality, the walnut tree standing in our yard is not “ours.” We share a place in the world with this tree, and this black walnut shares itself with us and our outdoor neighbors, the squirrels.

The tree stands as a source of food, shade, playful respite and shelter. In our own ways, “we”—the squirrels and members of our household—each try to give back in support of the tree by assisting the walnut with its process of propagation.

Gathering and planting black walnuts in the soil, where they hope the seeds will winter-over and become late-winter or spring meals, the squirrels busy themselves with the act of putting food by, all autumn long. Sometimes these walnuts become breakfast, lunch or dinner; sometimes these walnuts are forgotten and, in remaining unclaimed, take root in the soil to become seedlings.

For our part in the process of propagation, whenever our household is able, we dig these seedlings, pot them and eventually drive to replant them in remote places on rural land. It might be stealth reforestation or guerilla forestry. It is part of a spiritual practice which assuages feelings of modern isolation or urban disconnectedness from the natural world.

Looking for sunlight amid an opening in an already full canopy of foliage outside of the city, we plant seedlings where they might thrive. It is a process of hike, search, dig, plant, water, then, retreat. We say farewells, “We wish you well. Grow tall, majestic, become who you were meant to become,” because, after all is said and done, that is what each of us was brought here to do—affirm one another’s lives in the context of Community.

Spirituality, Species & Scripture

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved a whole world.”

—The Talmud

“You weren’t here, but you should have seen it,” my neighbor from across the hall is talking to me in the entry of our triplex. “The man drove up to the building in his van, hopped out and suited up until he was covered from head to toe in something that made him look like he was going to handle radioactive material. Then, he unwound a hose that was almost as large in circumference as a fire hose and started spraying poison all over the tree in the front yard. I thought you asked Mr. Roehler not to spray? I kept thinking about Matthew and his asthma.


“The overspray went everywhere—on the front porch, the outside furniture, the picture windows and, of course, all over the lawn and tree. Evan should be careful to wear gloves if he digs dandelions in the yard. I just wanted you to know.”

Retreating to my own apartment, I watch as the neighbor closes his door; then I close our door in mild disbelief.

When our family moved into the building, we negotiated a special rental rate which required us to shovel the walks during the winter season and maintain the yard organically during the spring, summer and fall seasons.

My husband, Evan, was out with his dandelion digger almost every-other day. Mr. Roehler had said that he would spray if he saw even one yellow dandelion head.

We made these arrangements in exchange for a reduced rate in rent and because we had hoped that the agreement would help us protect our asthmatic child, as well as reducing chemical runoff to the small lake immediately across the street.

Initially, finding this apartment had been a dream-come-true in that we were able to portage our canoe directly from storage in the garage and put in to the lake by walking across the street. The community is full of natural lakes with a myriad of interesting waterways to explore. Many local people have sizeable sailboats, canoes or motorboats, which are enjoyed when the waterways are not frozen.

A week later, I see Mr. Roehler and stop to have a brief conversation with him.

“What’s one or two downy woodpeckers?” Mr. Roehler responds to my expressed concern about the pesticides, as he faces me—smiling—when I ask him about why he had the tree sprayed.

According to Mr. Roehler, the tree “needed” to be sprayed because of the “unsightly mess” that the caterpillars—one of the food sources for the downy woodpeckers—make in the tree and in the corners of the large picture windows on the front porch.

Without bringing up our family’s personal health concerns, our previous agreement involving organic lawn care or the broader issue regarding the damage the pesticides will do to the ecological systems in the lake across the street, I had mentioned to Mr. Roehler, who loves birdwatching, that the woodpeckers would be harmed by his actions. His response amazes me.

What is one or two downy woodpeckers?

There is some deep disconnect, not only in the psyche of this now dead old man, but in all of our psyches causing us to disassociate our consumer-based, often misguided “aesthetic” choices and myopic habits with the profound damage being done to the natural world.

This is not a statement of despair or harsh ridicule; it is a statement asking us to begin making more conscientious lifestyle and consumer choices because we, as a species, need to begin attending to the well-being of the ecological systems and creatures with which and whom we share the planet. Life is sacred-all life.