By Maureen Keil
I was incredibly pleased when my son and his wife chose “Sylvia Rue” for their daughter’s name. Her first name means “from the woods.” Her middle name is not from the word that means regret, but rather the name of a healing herb. I love all plants, but especially trees. I grew up in the mountains of northern California, and am never entirely comfortable unless I’m surrounded by a forest. One of the truly consoling things about living in Wheaton is that I have two aged white pine trees in front of my house. One of them shades the sidewalk. Unfortunately, about ten years ago several limbs broke off in a heavy wet snow storm. Every time we have a wind storm or heavy snow I now pray that no more limbs will break off and possibly injure someone walking under the branches. I also pray when they shed their massive amounts of excess needles in the Fall that no careless and carefree child, careening down the sidewalk on his bike, will skid out on the needles. But I am so thankful that the pines are there. They make me feel closer to God.
All trees can have problem branches. Pear trees are a springtime promise of the hope of warmer weather, but they also have an annoying habit of sending up a kind of secondary trunk. This large secondary trunk is actually an overgrown branch that fights for dominance and unbalances the tree. Sometimes when this happens, the weight of that large branch pulls down so much from the true leader trunk that it splits off of the tree, leaving a terrible wound. When this happens, bark, which is meant to protect the tree from disease and insects, peels off in a huge gash down the trunk.
God has created branches with a system to cover over old wounds. It is called the branch collar.
You can see branch collars, if you look. They are rings of bark that are shoved up against the trunk, at the base of the branch. They kind of look like knee socks that have been pushed down to your ankles, but made of bark. Bark collars are formed in such a way as to make sure that more water goes up the trunk than out to the branch. Without that water the tree will never be healthy. If the branch collar isn’t damaged, it forms a kind of very slow-growing scab over the place where a branch is cut off. If the tree is pruned carefully, the branch collar isn’t damaged and emits chemicals that help protect the tree from disease. If the overlarge branch tears away from the trunk, it takes some of that branch collar tissue with it, leaving a poorly healing wound.
Trees occasionally use their branch collars to essentially strangle and cut off a diseased branch. They self-prune. Unfortunately for my pines, the branches that snapped off in that snow storm left behind short jagged spikes of dead branches. The poor trees are trying so hard to cover up those dead limbs with branch collar repair, but the stubs are too long. The effort to try to grow over the stubs is draining the trees of health and energy. We should have pruned them at the time the branches broke off.
We did cut up the branches and burn them in our fire pit.
Oddly enough fire can also be a natural means to keep a tree healthy. In the west, where we spend our summers, there can be such a fear of forest fires damaging property that natural fires are fought at all costs. One of the most common trees there is the Ponderosa Pine tree. It’s actually a tree that God created to survive forest fires, provided that natural fires are allowed to burn. The bark is thin, but thick enough to survive a quickly moving fire. The lower branches tend to die and fall off, allowing space beneath the green needled branches higher up for a fire to sweep by. In a fire suppressed area, millions of acres of trees crowd together too closely. Trees need sunlight. God made them to seek light. When they are too crowded, they compete with each other and shoot spindly weak trunks up to the sky to find the sun. In such a setting forest fires move slowly and become raging infernos of intense heat. They turn everything in their wake to ash. If, however, humans create firebreaks around their homes, removing extra shrubs and thinning out some trees, a fire rushes through and doesn’t catch on much because there isn’t as much there to burn. The fire isn’t able to get to the crowns of the trees and spread quickly. In 2021, I watched about two thirds of my high school district burn up in a series of forest fires. The largest fire, the Caldor Fire, spanned the Sierra Nevada mountain range. By the time it reached South Lake Tahoe, the residents there wisely had taken measures to thin the undergrowth, and much of the forest surrounding their homes survived. The Lodgepole Pine, also called the fire pine, grows in that area, too. Lodgepole pines are stunted, short trees. When a fire comes through they are usually all burned up. They come back, though. God created their cones with such a thick layer of pitch that the cones won’t open unless there’s enough heat to melt the pitch. The seeds spill out, shooting up new trees through newly fertilized soil, given life from the ash of their parents.
In 2018, the Camp Fire swept through the heavily forested town of Paradise, to the north of where I grew up. Eighty-five people died in that fire. A pastor in Paradise, Samuel Walker, still struggles with deep emotional wounds from the fire. He lives with anger at God and guilt about who he wasn’t able to rescue. The Tribune quoted him as saying, “How am I going to minister to a congregation with all of these people with all of their issues, if I’m still trying to get through mine?” Finally, hitting bottom, he was reminded of the verse, “The Lord disciplines everyone He loves.” His humility and willingness to consider God’s discipline in his life helped him start healing from the trauma of the fire. A recent article about how the town of Paradise is doing now asked what it’s like for new people who move into the community. One young father, a new resident, said, “There’s a humility and a resilience here that I don’t think would be in a town like this had they not gone through the fire. I’ve never once felt excluded up here. I’ve never felt judged. I’ve only felt love and welcome from literally every single person I’ve met.” Paradise is now growing and thriving.
My prayer for my beautiful granddaughter of the woods is that she experience paradise, Eden on earth. That she loves the Lord her God with all her heart, soul, and mind, and that she loves her neighbor as herself. That she only needs small quickly healing branches pruned and grows strong. That people who love her prune her when she needs it so she thrives and does not hurt anyone else. That she has no unbalanced large extra branches competing for living water and pulling her apart from her best life in God. That she would be willing to self-prune. That God grants her wisdom and humility to learn what he would teach her and that she would bounce back from his discipline with resilience. That she would take action, not resting in complacency. That she bears fruit she can use to love others and help them heal as well. Amen.
Maureen Keil gets the wonderful joy of working alongside many scientists in the natural world year round. During the school year she volunteers as a Master Naturalist in the forest preserves and for the science museum at Wheaton College. Summers she spends reveling in the glories God has given us in nature at the Wheaton College Field Station in the Black Hills of South Dakota.