My first Sunday back in the pulpit after my summer break was August 4th. As I was working on the service, I made a note to include the shooting in Gilroy in our sharing ritual of joys and sorrows. While I was writing the sermon, I learned of the mass shooting in El Paso. Sunday morning, I woke up to news of another mass shooting, this one in Dayton, Ohio.
I had always wanted to tell the story of how trees communicate with each other in underground networks of interconnected fungi. It’s a story I had heard once on NPR, a recap of a TedTalk. I was planning on telling it as part of a sermon I had called “Walking Each Other Home” after the Ram Das quote, “we’re just walking each other home.”
Ram Das, the American spiritual teacher known for his connection to Timothy Leary and his devotion to his guru Neem Karoli Baba, says that we are just walking each other home. He also says that “dying is the most important thing you do in your life…. And loving is the art of living as a preparation for dying.” We’re here to walk with each other towards our common destination to no longer be here. How we love each other along the way matters.
I didn’t know the story about how trees communicate would take on greater meeting as we worshipped together, trying to comprehend why young men in our country keep killing so many of us - trying to understand why at least one of them believes that young white men are being replaced by people who don’t look like him.
Up until several years ago, ecologists believed that trees competed against each other. That trees, like humans, engaged in a survival of the fittest battle with clear winners and losers. They believed that trees were competing for resources like light and water and nutrients. That the strongest trees were the ones that grew the tallest and took resources from the smaller, weaker trees. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered otherwise.
She discovered that trees are connected by microscopic fungi in a network called the mycorrhizal network. She describes them like sewing threads that crisscross and go off in multiple directions. They work together to form a very complex web that is in constant communication with the trees. What Simard and her team found out is that trees need a complex, diverse community in which to thrive. They need other plants that can cycle nutrients more quickly. They need neighbors that are resistant to insects and diseases. They share resources with their neighbors because a strong, diverse community gives back to them making them stronger and healthier. Trees need each other and so do we.
Forests are not just collections of trees, just as humans are not simply collections of individuals. They are complex systems with hubs and networks that allow them to communicate in ways that provide for feedback and adaptation. This communication makes the forest more resilient.
At our best, when we humans really listen to each other we become more resilient. In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service Ram Das and Paul Gorman write, “We really do meet behind our separateness. And for however long that lasts, such meeting is what helps … helps at the level of being … is help itself.”
Just like the forest, humans have a great capacity for self-healing. Just like the forest, we need diversity and complex systems to promote this self-healing. We used to believe that human beings were locked in a survival of the fittest battle with winners and losers. It’s beyond time for us to start believing that we’re more than just a collection of individuals competing for limited resources. That, we too, are capable of cooperation. We too, can communicate below the surface sending messages to the deep parts of our souls, building each other’s resistance for the journey home.