Subtle Growth of the Holy Oak

In April of 2017, a massive oak tree that stood beside the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church building in Basking Ridge, New Jersey was cut down. Members of the congregation and others who paid close attention to the tree had begun to notice less green on the branches, and when the tree was found to be even less green the following spring, experts came in and tested the tree, and they found it to be “in a spiral of decline.”

Trees die and are cut down all the time, but this was no ordinary tree. It was referred to as the “Holy Oak,” and for good reason. After the tree was cut down, the rings were counted several times. What did they reveal? The tree was 619 years old, dating it back to the year 1398. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly a century before Columbus sailed to North America. When the church building that is now the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church was built in 1717, the oak was already over 300 years old, which is typically the oldest age that white oaks live to. As it turns out, the tree still had another 300 years left to go.

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Henry David Thoreau wrote:

I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age.

Trees, like human beings, do not seem to be growing right before our eyes. They don’t rise quickly like dough in an oven, or like a fire consuming a pile of leaves or grass or wood. They seem to grow overnight, only when no one is watching. Nothing seems to be happening, and then one day, you look up and realize that they have doubled in size. Trees work slowly by our consideration, and not only that—they spend their entire lives in one place. And yet, they still manage to grow. In fact, trees never stop growing, and they actually grow faster as they age.

But we don’t seem to notice any of this growth as it is happening, neither in trees nor in the people around us. The growth we experience as human beings is almost invisible—we only see the results of growth. We can feel growing pains in our body, both physical and non-physical, and sometimes we can even slow down enough to notice that growth is happening. But we still can’t see it. In spite of looking at ourselves in the mirror every morning or looking at the faces of the ones we love from day to day, we can’t see the actual growth. By the time we see that growth has happened, the moment has already passed. If we could see our children growing by inches in a matter of seconds, or if we could see our own faces changing into older versions of ourselves, we would almost certainly stop and pay attention. And yet, in spite of all the time we spend looking at ourselves and at one another, we still miss out on the changes of growth as they are happening. It’s not always for a lack of looking on our part. Our whole lives are constantly passing before our very eyes, and sometimes we may actually be paying attention. But even so, we only catch glimpses and hear whispers, because the movements of our lives are moving at a pace that is too steady for us to notice. We wish for time to slow down or to speed up, but it never changes its pace, and our lives are lived at the same speed day after day. Whether or not we are living for today doesn’t change the fact that we are living today, and as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”