As everyone knows, roots are the critical parts of a plant that keep it grounded. They convey nourishment and hold the plant’s surroundings in place. They are the network that provides or passes on food and stability. They are the life of the plant. Cut them off, and it dies. Pull them out and leave them exposed, and it withers.
On a recent walk with my permanent roommate, we passed by one oak tree after another, strong, solid, capable of surviving even on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Down nearer the creek and a more constant source of water were a variety of other trees: willows, birch, and some types I couldn’t name.
The thing they all have in common is roots. And I had a thought that we are a lot like trees.
On our local library door, someone taped a sign that read, “Who’s in your family tree? Let us help you discover your ancestors.” Compliments of the Genealogy League, complete with a flourishing, green tree. My first reaction, I have to admit, upon reading that sign was mild aversion. Why would I want to do that?
I doubt I’m alone in this. As the saying goes, “Our family is full of nuts” or “He’s a bad apple, that one.” Neither annoying little comment bodes well for business in the Genealogy League. If you have concerns only of nuts and bad apples, why look and subject yourself to that kind of misery?
As a fan of history, I can see the merits of checking into your family tree, digging up long-forgotten relatives and making connections with the past. Permanent roommate’s late grandmother made a hobby of it, in fact. From one of my aunts, I was given an envelope full of old photos, black and white, labeled on the back from an era gone by in my family: grandparents, uncles, and assorted greats. I kept those pictures, was happy to have them, and occasionally, I pull them out and wonder what my relatives may have been like as actual three-dimensional people rather than the somber, dour shades of ink on the photo paper.
A good friend just lost his grandpa this past weekend. ( Maybe “lost” isn’t the right word for it; it’s not like he was merely misplaced or wandered off. He died. But we all know that, because we all use euphemisms to help soften the harsh, yet unchangeable, aspects of life.) This particular relative will be missed, and I know this because my friend has lots of memories and good stories that he shares about his grandpa and their times together. Not all roots are best forgotten. Those that are strong and healthy need to be fiercely cherished and protected, both for ourselves and for the coming generations. Those of us with a few such dependable roots in our heritage are blessed indeed.
But what about the ancestors we don’t want to remember? Or the past that’s better forgotten and left there, in the past?
Another family friend has a tattoo that he designed himself: a gnarly, bent tree with a red apple sitting in the foreground and the lettering which reads, “Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.” I like it. This particular friend is a fighter, and has had to be, to come out of his past and redeem his setbacks into successes. His tattoo is a reminder, etched into his skin, that he isn’t like that, that he isn’t the sum total of his past, that he isn’t bound to where he came from.
Isn’t that the fear for all of us? If we have shadows and demons in our pasts, we want to never be associated. No happy trips back down memory lane. No proud family crest on display over the mantle. We want guarantees we aren’t like that, that we can be different. When roots offer — instead of nourishment — a toxic blend of survival and shame. Or violence. Or cheating. Abuse. Dishonor. Murder. Neglect… the list could go on. The end result is the same: we feel no desire to dig it all back up and let the world look on and wonder if we are a repeat of our history.
So if we are like trees and our roots are rotten, where does that leave us?
Fortunately, we are not trees, yet we can still be re-rooted, transplanted, grafted into a better foundation, and planted into healthy environments. Ultimately, we have the gift of choice. Whether your roots were life-giving and supportive or damaged and unhealthy, you are not stuck being a carbon copy of the tree you were born into. Like my friend’s tattoo, we get to choose who we become and are free to wander far from our roots.
That choice begs the question, then…
Will we be the placid, outwardly healthy tree, with no disturbance at its base, but with hidden decay and closed off sources of life under the dirt? Will we be the more tender trees, capable of growth only in the ideal conditions, not hardy enough to thrive outside the creek bed? Or maybe the tree, uprooted by storms and earthquakes, the majestic giant fallen to live horizontally, roots exposed and withered and dead?
Or will we be the tree with gnarled, aged roots pushing up like knobby knees and knuckles from the eroded places in our lives, and yet pressing ever deeper into solid ground, seeking life and water, refusing to give up, fall down, and die, undeterred by rocks, no matter that our roots are showing, so long as they are still gripping the earth, still pursuing a source of nourishment, still passing life on to our limbs?
Because life will erode us all.
Some of us will live only in the creek bottom, sheltered, playing it safe and receiving everything we need. Some of us will remain distant and never-changing, due to either apathy or tradition or perhaps a genuine connection to a root system that is, and has been, healthy and thriving for us since we were acorns and sprouts.
Others will live on the edge, in the boundary between desert and creek bottom; their roots will be weathered, exposed, hardened, and tangled. It is these, who don’t give up. They have not had the sheltered existence, nor have they had the advantage of a deep support system. They have had to stand alone at times, forced to seek out their own source of life; they are the ones who have withstood the elements, who have had to toughen up or die, who provide homes for little animals in the ground under the very roots that push for more of a grip, for more nutrients, more water. These are the ones the kids scamper over, for they offer the best climbing. The ones lovers picnic under because the very roots that show evidence of tough times, now provide a safe, comfortable resting place. This is the one who has grown tall and strong and has seen enough in its lifetime that others around it feel secure in its presence. They gravitate to it, and in noticing the snarled system of roots, see only beauty where erosion tried to cause death.
I’m thinking we are a lot like trees.