Christmas Column 2020 – Eleanor
Suzanne Simard, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has a thesis about forests. Where some see a group of independent, self-sufficient trees, Dr. Simard see a gathering of “connected, communicative and codependent” organisms that are perceptive and collaborative in their living. Simard’s research, prompted by her deep interest as a child wandering the forests in wonder and awe, has taken the scientific world by surprise. Trees, traditionally viewed as being autonomous, competing for air, water and sun with those surrounding them, in Simard’s understanding, are a community in which members exchange resources of nutrients and even knowledge.
As you might expect, Simard’s views have taken time to be accepted by many, challenging the long-held beliefs of Darwin and others, that competition is the driving force in nature. The idea that resources might flow from more mature trees to younger and smaller saplings to help them survive, might fly in the face of some scientists, but Simard has managed to cultivate a following of her own, and her ideas are now con-links among different species, a theory she developed when discerning the difference between forests where selective harvesting was undertaken and those where the less sustainable “clear-cutting” method was employed.
Selective harvesting leaves many different types of trees behind, where the clear-cutting results in neat rows of the same species of tree being planted, with ample room for sun, water and air. Amazingly, these carefully planned “replantings” fare poorly when compared with the mixed bag of a natural evolution of several species. Dr. Simard’s findings affirm her belief that a forest is more than just a collection of trees.
Very interesting, but what does this have to do with Christmas?
When I heard this story on NPR it intrigued me, so I went to other sources to read more about Dr. Simard and her findings. I found that her conclusions about forests resonated with some of my own about the parish. For instance, this parish is more than just a collection of people gathered to celebrate the Eucharist together, although that is an integral part of our identity. Standing in the back of the church at Mass (in pre-Covid days) I was privileged to witness the interesting mix of people, certainly not all like-minded, but all wanting to be together in this sacred space to witness to their faith in Christ. People were happy to be together, praising God and feeling the joy of community, and even if they didn’t know the names of the persons next to them, they somehow recognized them. The environment itself was affirming and invited “the something more”…an introduction, a conversation, an incipient friendship. The joy of being a part of such an assembly, each participant with his/her own joys and sorrows but happy to be together, is palpable. These people are connected; there is a web of mycorrhizas among them, lifting them up and nourishing them, helping them to share their burdens and celebrate their happy times, sometimes without ever discussing them. This parish is more than just a collection of people!
On this Christmas of 2020, a year that will live in infamy in our minds, I find that I am so grateful for the mixed bag that we are, holding so much in common, and yet being so different in many ways. I like to think that the system of mycorrhizas extant in our midst keeps us together. That web of relationships is what nourishes and protects, caring for those in need while allowing us to be who we are, different species within the same genus, if you will, as we share resources, wisdom and friendship; and maybe, just maybe, proving that collaboration and not necessarily competition, can be the foundation upon which a community such as ours can flourish, as we do our best to help the reign of Godunfold. For that, and for each of you, I give thanks to the One who became one of us, and who continues to be among us to this day.