Trees are on my heart these days. The scarecrow remains of a once noble walnut, all but the trunk and a few branches torn from it by the tornado. My son’s tire swing was roped around that tree. The mounds of limbs and torsos at curbs unceremoniously hauled away by hulking clawed machines. To say nothing of the many fallen trees that have caved-in the roofs of homes they’ve sheltered for generations.
Trees are essential – they clean our air, purify our water and cool our city. Trees also conserve our energy and allow us the refuge of their shade for a renewing meal or nap. Trees are part of our identity and our stories.
As a child growing up in West Texas, I spent a lot of time visiting a grove of Live Oak trees. They provided habitat for animals and food during lean winters. My sister and I would marvel at how old the trees were and try to fathom the pain and life they had witnessed down through the centuries. My sister gives the trees thanksgiving offerings when we visit – sip of whisky, a splash of cider.
One day I was caught, unexpectedly, in a thunderstorm and immediately headed for protection among the Live Oaks. The showers turned into torrents of rain and powerful winds – not a tornado, but still scary. I thought the trees would be uprooted after centuries of majestically standing strong, but instead I noticed the ground below us wreathing and writhing – literally heaving up and down until the storm passed and we all could rest again in the assurance of the trees.
After that experience, an old-timer told me about the Live Oak’s roots, the parts that I couldn’t see. She said they were intertwined; they were literally holding onto one another. When the winds came, the roots stretched as needed, holding tightly to each other and pulling one another back home. During drought years in Texas, their roots searched for new water sources and told their branches to save their energy by suspending acorn development. Above ground, a grove looks like a collection of individual trees, but deeper still, where we cannot see, they are interconnected, not just to one another but to the water, nutrients and earth we all call home.
I’ve witnessed Nashville’s interconnected root system over the past two weeks, our weaving of roots that make #NashvilleStrong.
I’ve seen it in the courage of Gideon’s Army, the Equity Alliance and Stand Up Nashville as they work to meet immediate needs in the wake of the storms that decimated 37208, where decades of racism-engineered disparities, natural disaster and the current pandemic have conspired to devastating effect. Courageously, signs across North Nashville sound the rallying cry to stop the gentrification and displacement that kill communities. When those signs reverberate, “Don’t Sell! Won’t Sell! I’m an informed homeowner!” they echo the Civil Rights anthem, “Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
I’ve also seen our interconnectedness in the work of volunteers from Hands On Nashville in their neon yellow shirts. “Thanks for letting us help” was their refrain as shifts ended this week. They showed up, without asking, to cut, carry and cook — to do anything that was needed. Like the roots that search out what is needed and hold on when the storm threatens to overcome you, Hands On Nashville connected us.
And I’ve seen the strength of community in the determination of Root Nashville. Last year they began planting 500,000 trees across the city as our community grows and loses countless trees to development. Now that trees, part of our city’s vital infrastructure, have been assaulted, healing is needed as each of us pledges to plant new trees in East, West, South and, especially, woefully neglected North Nashville.
Last year, the Maddox Fund made a commitment to dismantling historic systems that have marginalized our neighbors and to creating new liberating systems to take their place. Undergirding this commitment is the conviction that all human beings are interconnected, not just with one another, but with all of nature – a belief that makes our desire to foster connection and a sense of belonging even more urgent.”
Disgracefully, the roots of inequity go deep, digging into the fabric of our communities and seeking to tear us apart. We’ve seen that again in the wake of the tornado and as health disparities associated with COVID-19 make themselves evident. We must uproot old systems, attitudes and beliefs that threaten our sense of belonging and plant new trees under which new, diverse and liberating ecosystems can form and thrive.
A week after the torrential storm I drove back by the Live Oak grove. After a few days, and thanks to the rain from that storm, green sprouts were emerging and a new season of hope had begun.
May we find hope in the intimacy of interconnected lives and embrace the challenge of building the beloved community where everyone – indeed, all of nature – belongs.