Tree lessons: How to live, grow old, and die with grace

A live oak tree frames the trail at Bird Rookery Swamp near Naples, FL

The only guarantee we each have on the day we are born is that we will die. Humans are a curious lot. It seems we fight aging and death like the Saxons fought the Danes – with every resource at their disposal, to the end. For some reason, our society has decided that youth and vigor are superior to age and experience and must be sought at all costs.

It’s a silly pursuit, though. A futile one, really, because we’re all going to die – you, me, everyone we know. If we’re lucky, we might also get old before we succumb to the great beyond. So, instead of fighting the inevitable, why not strive to live, grow old and die with grace?

Trees are some of the most graceful beings I know. I spend a lot of time with trees. I like looking at them, touching them, listening to them, watching how they live and die. The forest is where I go to recharge and renew, to heal and to learn. Trees are good teachers. They’re quiet, patient, knowledgeable, and they show rather than tell. They know how to live, grow old, and die gracefully. Here are some of the things they’ve taught me…

This old oak was torn apart during a storm in Portland, Oregon.
  • Accept change – Trees may break apart, get burned by fire, lose their neighbors, or find themselves knee-deep in a flood, but they carry on and continue to serve their purpose in the ecosystem. If there is one constant in our universe, it is that everything changes, nothing remains the same. This moment is different from the last and the next. Resisting change just causes us to suffer. As we grow up and older, if we can accept the changes that occur within and around us, we will be happier. We can also learn from change. What opportunities do changes open up for us? What lessons do these opportunities teach us?
This pine tree perches above its exposed roots on the shores of Jordan Lake in NC.
  • Adapt – be resilient. Since change is inevitable, survival sometimes depends on how well we adapt to change. This pine tree at Jordan Lake has had to adapt to the ever-changing and unpredictable water (and soil) levels along the shores. Like this tree, we can weather change and even flourish when we are willing and able to adapt. Whether we’re 15 or 95 years old, adapting means we survive and thrive another day. Adapting forces us to accept change and move on. It helps us to be creative and innovative. It keeps us moving forward.
The “Octopus tree”, a sitka spruce on the Oregon coast, about 300 years old
  • Never stop growing– as humans age, our bodies stop growing, but trees, it turns out, do not. They stop growing taller, but they begin to bulk up and become more active – like a bodybuilder. Maybe you don’t want to bulk up as you age, but perhaps putting on that few extra pounds is okay. Just accept it and keep active, staying as healthy as possible. We can also keep growing mentally and spiritually. Trees may not have the mental capacity we do (though how intelligent they are is up for debate), but we have a unique ability to keep learning as we age. There is no evidence that mental decline is inevitable for us. Even if we no longer work at a job each day, we can sharpen our mental skills by taking classes, reading, starting a new hobby, and getting to know people different from us. So, never stop growing mentally and spiritually.
An old live oak full of tumorous-looking burls
  • Accept yourself as you are. Those wrinkles, that gray hair? You earned every one of them. Creaky knees, limited hearing, fuzzy eyes. It is what it is. Trees don’t complain about how they look or feel. They just are. Like us, each tree is unique and lives with its own shape, height, tangled limbs, tumored bark, and host of inhabitants. I’ve seen trees full of burls, twisted into crazy shapes, and filled with witch’s brooms. Each one unique and vibrant, even though it didn’t look like a “perfect specimen” of its species. Feeling sorry for ourselves or complaining doesn’t change how we are or the fact that we are different than we used to be. Be gracious and accepting of the you you have become at every stage of life.
This old Western red cedar provides woodpecker habitat even after it is dead
  • Keep contributing – Old growth trees contribute even more to the ecosystem than younger trees (pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their wood). Dead snags provide food and shelter (like woodpecker cavities) for many other creatures. We can be like older trees and continue contributing to society, even as we age. With years of wisdom, practical knowledge, understanding, and well-developed patience, aging humans can help solve problems in our communities, and teach others what we’ve learned from years of life experience. Once we’re dead and gone, turned back into dust, our contributions turn into the memories we helped create and the love we instilled in others.
A forest dense with Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees
  • Find your tribe and stay connected– “Isolated trees have far shorter lives than those living connected together in forests…” (Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees). Trees don’t just live haphazardly together in forests. They are intricately connected by fungal webs in the soil and around their roots. They communicate with each other and support each other, sharing resources and strength with individual trees as they need it. When trees are isolated, they become weaker, more vulnerable, less able to recover from disease or attack. Even strong trees depend on their weaker neighbors for support at certain times in their lives, because trees share their resources to keep the whole forest healthy. As humans we need a tribe, people we are intricately connected to, so we can look out for our neighbors, share resources, be there for each other in good times and bad. We would do well to find our tribes, make connections, build relationships, and nurture those relationships during every stage of our lives.
Trees reflected on the marsh waters in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed
  • Make time to reflect. We’re all busy. I get it, but racing through life without taking time to stop and reflect is no way to live. Trees reflect in the waters around them. They don’t do it consciously, of course, but they do it. Reflection helps us look at ourselves and our lives in a deeper context. It allows us to make sense of what is, to ponder what could be, and to connect ideas and events that shape our worldview. Stop each day and make time to reflect on a life well-lived.
Firs and hemlocks silhouetted against Crater Lake.
  • Remember, we are part of something grand and wondrous. Trees live all over the Earth, and they know they do not live alone, in isolation. They know they are part of a larger system that depends on them and on which they are dependent. We are the same. Each of us is only a small part of this great, big, beautiful, messy universe, and we have a responsibility to take care of all its parts. Trees are remarkably beneficial to people. One large tree can give off a day’s supply of oxygen for four people. What do we do for our trees? We are part of a grand, interconnected universe.
A heart-shaped scar marks this tree at Blackwood Farm Park in HIllsborough, NC.
  • Exude love. Trees may not be emotional, but walking through a forest can certainly feel like an embrace. Plus, trees have heartwood at their centers, right? I’ve come across a number of trees with heart-shaped leaves, bark, or scars, like the one pictured above. These tree hearts are a fine reminder that, as humans, we do have the capacity to love and show compassion to other living beings. No matter how old we are, how close to death, love can be our free and unconditional gift to others.
Fall leaves shed from trees in the forest.
  • Let go. Trees do not cling to their leaves forever. Even evergreens release old leaves each year. Some oaks and beeches hold on to theirs through the winter, but eventually they let go. As we age, we tend to cling to what’s familiar, to things from our past, to what we’ve always done, to beliefs formed years ago in other times and circumstances. There is a comfort in holding on to these things, and certainly staying in one’s own home is helpful for many aging people. But letting go of other things makes room for a happier life and death. Letting go of regrets, of expectations, of long-unused or unseen things stuffed in closets. Letting go can be scary, but the space it creates is space to accept what is and to live in each moment. When we are dying and our bodies are leaving this earth, we can let go and allow the universe to carry our spirits to where they are needed most.
This log has almost completely decomposed and transformed into soil and new plants.

Recycle. When a tree dies in the forest, it decomposes and all its nutrients are recycled back into the soil, supporting other life forms for years and years after its death. The log above no longer looks like a tree, but now supports moss and lichen and beetles and the other trees around it. We can do our part to recycle materials we use each day to conserve resources and reduce waste. We can also recycle our own nutrients when we die by choosing a simple “green burial” or being cremated and spreading our ashes back on the earth.

I appreciate trees for many reasons, especially the lessons they teach me. I know that my life is enriched when I make time to sit or stand with a tree each day, and…

Sunrise through winter trees
  • Greet the sunrise with grace…
Sunset over a special southwest Florida landscape
  • and bow to the sunset with gratitude for this one amazing life.

What have you learned from trees? Do you have a special tree that teaches you?

4 comments

  1. You are my soulmate Deb! Everything I believe in you have put into such eloquent words. Your messages brighten up my day. Thank you so much

  2. Well said! It also must be satisfying to grow to a great height and ultimately fall heavily onto something that needs crushing. Aiming for that myself.

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