In our small woodland village, a century ago I surmise,, the people must have been enamored with English ivy. A nonnative, it covers the land, choking out ground species that might otherwise thrive, and climbs up the trunks of great trees, reaching for the light in order to flower and make seed. Marring them by holding fast, they can compete with their hostesses for the water and nutrients contained in the soil. Some suspect that they also hold moisture next to the trunk, contributing to rot and/or attracting insects that damage, and can cause branch dieback as they climb ever skyward. A top heavy tree, with compromised roots will then make her more prone to falling.

Personally, I find them unsightly, wrapping trunks in greenery as they do, it impacts the beauty of a stand of trees for me. I once heard a speaker explain why he believes there are certain consistent landscape images that speak beauty to humans across cultures. It had to do with our common ancestors, evolving from a relationship with the land that taught us to seek out places of nurture and safety that we learned to perceive over time as beautiful. So, perhaps the ‘something doesn’t feel right’ about towering tree trunks covered in ivy vines is inherited wisdom passed to me in my DNA.

Still, there is something about the relationship between the vine and the tree that draws me emotionally, something graceful and merciful. While some of the vines are as thick as my arm, the one in the photo above is merely a fingerling. Winding its young way up a 100 foot white pine, the vine tucks into the furrowed old skin.  I am drawn to the intimate beauty in that, in the tendrils of hair that cling like a child to its mother, the feminine curves, the cracked wrinkles, It feels like a wise old great-grandmother with a very young foolish child.

Yes, somehow this feels like mercy to me, this making space for the mistakes… callous or careless… of another and attempting to live in relationship. The trees in this place seem to be asked to forbear a lot…. steel cables and electrified wires, introduced insects, human-made structures, and pavements encroaching. Yet, somehow, at least here, they have shown mercy and stood by us in all of our unknowing ways. Each decade that passes, as they grow in their gentle and patient wisdom, we hopefully learn to do better. Perhaps they have faith in us, as blundering newcomers, to learn from the lessons they so freely offer.  In the meantime, they continue to offer shelter and food for many, cooling canopies in summer and an architecture that inspires wonder in winter. Not to mention, air to breathe!

I think that if human beings were trees, we would not be so merciful. We do not make space so readily for the mistakes of another, particularly if they so grievous as this, are too often unable to stand in silent support as the errant one finds his or her way. Quick to judge, we label in order to cut ourselves off from compassion. We have not necessarily inherited this kind of tree wisdom in our DNA.

But many are learning to listen, beginning the slow process of reparation to those we have hurt, behaving with reciprocal mercy both to those  who have forborn so much for our sake and as well to those who have ‘known not what they do’. Many are returning to hold a place of reverence for that which we have unmercifully diminished.

I notice more and more in our town, trees whose vines have been carefully cut away. I can only hope that I too might become like these awakening tree tenders, showing mercy to the entangled and burdened, cutting away the ties that bind, and helping to create space for them to Breathe.


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