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If A Tree Falls in the Forest

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?


I’ve never seen the California redwoods, but when I was a junior in high school, I studied their root systems in my earth science class. I don’t remember much I learned in the course, but I remember the redwoods, three families of sequoias, and how they grow in thick groves, and how their roots intertwine and fuse together. Most redwoods grow to about three hundred feet high and weigh nearly two million pounds. Their roots range from five- to twenty-feet deep and spread out over an acre of land, claiming 90,000 cubic feet of soil. Yet the burden of their own lives is simply too much for them to hold up themselves, and the only way for them to bear their own weight is to intertwine their roots with those of the other sequoias in their grove. So they grow and fuse together, forming a mass of roots and soil that keeps them all standing.


When I was studying earth science as a junior in high school, one of my best friends was a tiny, vivacious, beautiful girl named Ann. She loved faerie tales (always spelled like this) and philosophy and poetry. She loved nature and trees, and she always loved the thought of California.


Redwoods grow along the coast, soaking up the Pacific Ocean through their matted roots in a 450-mile-long belt of forest. It’s windy there and floods easily. There are forest fires, and far deeper than sequoia roots can grow, there are fault lines from which earthquakes rise. With wind and rain and fire and moving earth, it is not an easy place to grow. It’s an easy place to fall, actually.


If a redwood falls, but no one can hear it over the grind of moving earth, does it make a sound?


The more I grew to know my friend Ann, the more I grew to know what she loved. She loved independence and being okay. When she wasn’t okay, she tried to seem okay. She loved dresses with sleeves long enough to cover the scars on her arms. As the school year went on, I could see the fault lines beneath her roots. The burden of her life, beautiful as it seemed, was too much for her to hold up herself. She couldn’t bear her own weight.


The most common cause of a sequoia’s death is not age or lack of nutrition; it’s falling down. Somehow, the seed germinates too far from the grove; somehow, the roots fail to sufficiently intertwine with others. The tree grows for a while on its own, and on the surface of the earth, it looks beautiful and independent and okay. But the roots below the soil strain against the weight of their own trunk, and the foundation grows weak against the branches’ mass. King David writes, “How the mighty have fallen,” and we feel the ground tremble and crack. For a sequoia, independence is death.


Are you a tree with six-foot roots or twenty-foot roots? Do you know the depth of your roots doesn’t matter if you grow alone? Does your nutrient system cover an acre of land all by itself? Do you claim 90,000 cubic feet of soil as your very own? You are mighty and beautiful, and you are in a dangerous place, my friend. We all are, without a grove.


What can we do with the sound of a tree’s fall, if it has insisted that no one be around to hear it?


When I saw Ann’s tree falling, I wanted to offer hope to her, to help her and hold her up, to give her my root system for support. Yet when Ann’s tree began falling, it began falling into the trees around her, including mine. She had questions, and we didn’t all have answers. She needed guidance, and I didn’t very well know the way. My roots weren’t strong enough to keep hers planted.


You are mighty and beautiful, and you are in a dangerous place, my friend. We all are, without a grove. Hannah Hubin

Yet in the beautiful communities of this world, the roots of friends who are falling intertwine with the roots of friends who are being fallen into, whose roots are themselves intertwined with others. Do you see how it continues? When roots begin to lose hold, there are always other sequoias further back—friends, family, neighbors, pastors, mentors, counselors. Eventually, the earthquake subsides. Until then, the entire grove, interconnected as it is, will feel it and share the thrust of it. Ann could lean on me only insofar as I leaned on others. This, I think, is a good thing.


The oldest sequoia in the world is named General Sherman. It is the largest known single-stem tree on earth, weighing 2.7 million pounds. Scientists have estimated that its seed germinated over 2,200 years ago. How many redwoods have intertwined their roots with those of the good General in 2,200 years? How many redwoods does the General depend upon to live? Even after all these years and all this weight—especially in all this weight—the General must lean on others for his survival. There is no room for arrogance in the grove.


Do I know independence is death? I know it better than I knew it before my junior year of high school. I also know I need people to remind me. I don’t want to grow arrogant. I don’t want to forget.


Ann is well. She’s studying art at a local college now; it’s a messy practice, and she’s prone to wear t-shirts for it. She is mighty and beautiful in her dependency.


Nothing stands forever; not in this world. Someday, the good General will fall in battle. When sequoias die, their roots break off close to the base of the tree. When the General falls, he won’t take his roots with him; he’ll leave them here, interconnected as they are, still supporting those he leaves behind.


I’ve never seen the California redwoods. But I have seen my community gathered around someone I love—many times. I have joined my community in gathering around someone I love. And I have seen my community gathered around me, too. Often, I see all three at once.


Someday, my tree will fall in the forest, and when it does, there will be a community there to hear its sound, for the community I’m leaving behind has kept it standing until the end.

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