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Bending Towards the Light

Jenna Evans outlines lessons we can learn from the Earth’s oldest living organisms: trees.

Like people, trees have unique characteristics. I would like to think that they, too, have stories of grief and triumph and personalities shaped by their experiences and environment. Imagine the drooping canopies of the Weeping Willows, the sweet solitude of the Lone Cypress, the Giant Sequoias stretching into the sky, and the “upside down” African Baobabs. These trees come in different shapes, sizes, colours and textures – and they bring to mind different adjectives and emotions. Yet they each have a beauty that is all their own.

 

Allah (SWT) commands us, in the Qur’an, to recognise the divine beauty and perfection in nature, from the mountains and rivers, to the gardens and date-palm trees:
And it is He who spread the earth and placed therein firmly set mountains and rivers; and from all of the fruits He made therein two mates; He causes the night to cover the day. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. And within the land are neighbouring plots and gardens of grapevines and crops and palm trees, [growing] several from a root or otherwise, watered with one water; but We make some of them exceed others in [quality of] fruit. Indeed in that are signs for a people who reason.
(Ar-Ra’d: 3-4)

 

The General Sherman, located in the Giant Forest of California, has lived for at least 2,000 years; with age, he has grown stronger and more majestic, commanding the respect of visitors eager to see and touch the world’s largest tree. And even when bare of leaves, the African Baobab is striking; its twisted, spreading branches resemble roots and challenge the observer to consider an alternative world, one in which leaves, not roots, are buried out of view.

Lesson One: Appreciate the unique beauty in you and in those around you.

 

 

Trees adapt to the conditions of their environment. They grow in the depths of the ocean and on mountain peaks. They grow in isolation and in dense forests. They will even bend and twist in order to maximize their exposure to sunlight – whatever it takes to survive and thrive. As the seasons change, warmth giving way to bitter cold, trees endure in silent determination. The Prophet (SAW) once compared the believer to a tree, continually bent over by the wind, tolerating the burden, and compared the hypocrite to a stubborn and inflexible tree which does not yield until uprooted (Sahih Muslim). At times, trees bear fruits and add a painter’s brush of colour to the landscape, but there are also times when they stand naked against the wind, waiting patiently for spring to arrive.

 

Trees do not grow continuously throughout the year, but rather have spurts of development followed by periods of rest. Their strong and broad root systems provide the nutrients and stability necessary for trees to subsist. Shajarat-al-Hayat (the Tree of Life) in Bahrain is the only tree in a vast and barren desert; with no known water source in the area, it is believed the tree has an extensive root system, extending hundreds of feet. In the Qur’an, Allah (SWT) likens good words to good trees, with “roots firmly fixed” and evil words to evil trees “uprooted from the surface of the earth having no stability.” (Ibrahim: 24,26) Our every action, therefore, should be firmly rooted in our beliefs and values. And like trees, we must strive to achieve balance between change and consistency.

Lesson Two: Embrace change, but never lose sight of your Islamic roots.

 

 

Trees play an integral role in sustaining life on Earth, and their contributions to the greater good are boundless. They produce the oxygen we breathe and act as a filter, continually purifying the air. Trees absorb pollutants and harmful chemicals in the soil, control noise levels, help reduce the effects of flash flooding and erosion, and offer shade. Trees provide many of our staple fruits, a variety of spices, and fodder for livestock. They are also home to many animals such as birds, squirrels and raccoons.

 

The crimson sap of the Dragon Blood tree is used as a medicine for gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and as varnish for violins. In northern India, the living roots of rubber trees have been used for centuries to literally grow and anchor bridges over streams and rivers. Even in death, trees offer benefit. Decaying leaves provide minerals to nearby trees and wood from their bark is used for construction, fuel and several products, including paper. Like trees, we each have special gifts: innate talents, acquired skills, constructive knowledge and inspirational stories. We must recognise and leverage these gifts to benefit our communities and the world.

Lesson Three: Find and harness the gifts within you to make a lasting contribution.

 

 

Jenna Evans graduated from the University of Toronto in 2014 with a PhD in Health Services Research. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation where she enjoys conducting research on how to improve the coordination and quality of health care.