An old friend drove me into the Santa Fe National Forest so we could walk the aspen grove. Walking among them, touching them, listening to their creak and sway, I could feel their connectedness. Above ground, aspen grow as individual trees, but belowground they’re enlivened by one interconnected set of roots. They are the most expansive growth of trees to share a common root system. This means they are one living organism and one living community—at the same time! This is a powerful metaphor for how inextricably knit the life of the individual is with the life of community. What happens to one tree happens to all aspens in the grove. How do they live as one and many at the same time? How do they communicate with each other? How do they sustain each other?
This is the aspen wisdom we need. We need aspen sensitivity, aspen memory, and aspen compassion. We need to learn how to enliven that depth of connectedness whereby we can feel all of humanity while living our very small, individual lives. In moments of great suffering and love, I believe we do this. But how to understand this capacity and keep it alive when the days are ordinary and we seem so far away from each other?
About a mile into the Santa Fe grove, my friend and I sat on a ledge and waited. Once we were quiet, we could feel the entire grove sway as one timeless aspen and as a thousand individual trees on a mountainside in New Mexico. We could almost hear them breathe in unison. I felt certain that in the paradox of the aspen trees waits the secret to our interdependence: being who we are and staying connected to everyone.As we walked back to the car, the path was alight with tiny butterflies circling our feet. Each seemed to hold a question about how to live this way. After a while, my old friend said, “There’s a community already existing underground that’s growing us into being.”
We looked once more and it seemed clear that if all the aspens were to burn to the ground, the community would still be there, ready to begin again. Like the scarred human groves that sprout throughout history.
A Question to Walk With: In conversation, describe one way you need to repair yourself in order to change the world. What is the first step in this healing?
This excerpt is from my new book, More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World, which will be published next month by Atria Books.
*photo credit: Diane Bradley