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The Sweetgum Tree

Though it grows mostly in the southeastern United States, the sweetgum strikes me as an All-American tree. It is, as it were, nature’s version of good old American ingenuity: a supremely versatile resource in the nation’s arboretum that has, over the generations, yielded easily to inventive people who transformed its botanical riches. Its popular wood serves multiple purposes in the production of furniture and textiles, and its turpentine-like amber resin was traditionally used to make chewing gum, that most American (and most crassly consumed) of candies. Numerous Native American cultures recognized the sweetgum’s versatile medicinal properties that could be extracted from every part of the tree to treat ailments as diverse as fever, wounds, sores, and even dysentery. 

All these material gifts of the sweetgum tree are profound blessings. But they weren’t what I was thinking about as I stood praying near one on a sunny, cold morning this past February. Leaf-bare but still full of its brown, prickly gumballs, the tree stood high on a cliff overlooking the old Esopus Meadows Lighthouse in the Hudson River near Rhinebeck, New York. It grows on the property of the magnificent Linwood Spiritual Center, run by the religious order, the Sisters of Saint Ursula. I do personal retreats at Linwood during the year. I’ve been fortunate to spend time with the tree in different seasons, when the sun highlights the changing colors of its fissured bark, deep five-lobed leaves, and those ubiquitous gumballs that are seed pods. Looking out toward its massive trunk and its many limbs that extend with glorious fractal precision, I never fail to notice its curious but challenging posture. The tree’s branches are flexed like mighty biceps, but they’ve grown outward and upward in a sweeping and bending arc; it reminds me of how we humans extend our arms when we’re asking an urgent, emotion-filled question. Science increasingly convinces me that trees possess a distinctive consciousness by which they live together in natural community, though it’s too anthropocentric to assume that they have or need to have human characteristics. Nonetheless, that morning, I found myself hopelessly distracted from the serenity of prayer by the question with which I imagined the tree was haranguing me. Walking closer to the sweetgum, I looked up, and with an exasperated whisper, I asked, “What do you want?” 

The old tree said nothing in response, at least nothing that would pass for an explicit question in human words. Its query-posed arms trembled gently in the light winter wind, causing more of its gumballs to drop to the earth, joining the ones lying by the hundreds around the trunk’s base. Reaching down, I picked up two of the desiccated seed pods. I was shocked to notice that their spiky, globular shape bears an imperfect but striking resemblance to the coronavirus. I have no idea if this is an adaptive coevolved trait that somehow benefits the virus and the tree’s seeds in similar ways. Yet as I contemplated their similar shapes, I imagined the sweetgum saying the following to me: 

The purpose of life is for living things to perpetuate themselves, at times through cooperation, yet more often through morally neutral competition.  My seeds nourish animals that spread them far and wide for my benefit.  The virus nourishes itself by attaching to hapless hosts that it will kill in its quest for survival.  I live by giving life, it lives by taking it away.  We are both doing what we need to do, with no actual regard for the health or harm we bring in our wake.  Together with us, you humans are a part of life; but you are also apart from it, for with unparalleled force, you know and can choose between living that brings more life and living that promotes death.  This morning, I raise my woody arms and hands skyward, demanding an answer from you and your fellow humans to my awesome and awful question:  which will you choose?  

Silent in its presence, its seed pod spikes gently pricking my palms, I could not, nor did I need to say anything in response to the sweetgum’s challenge. My task at that moment was just to listen. Yet every day, in my interactions with my fellow citizens of earth – the humans and the more-than-humans - I am making efforts to respond in ways that make a difference for the better, that make a difference for life.

Dan Ornstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v Abel:  A Jewish Courtroom Drama (2020, The Jewish Publication Society.) Check out his writings at danornstein.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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