The Tree’s Truth Prelude: What we Can Learn from Being Still

Lesson One: Learn to Breathe

Lesson Two: Defy Fear, Grow Against Gravity

Lesson Three: Network, Share, and Protect Our Common Forest

Lesson Four: Conserve and Optimize Resources

Lesson Five: Be Inclusive

Lesson Six: Think in Circles and Seasons

Lesson Seven: Fearlessly Face Death and Life…

What is death? No one really knows, and that’s why we fear it. But, what if we looked at death differently? What if death was a more dynamic—less final– more familiar and more fluid a life passage? What if we perceived death also in a wider context as changes of state—positive to negative, light to dark, and the constant state of change? What if we conceived of our lives as a constant series of little deaths and births; life changes and chapters, until we arrive to the chapter summary and end notes that end with a question? What if when a living being experiences this third act death; its spirit simply finally flies, shedding its false sense of separate self (ego) as it soars happily across the brilliant skies? What if when we die, we simply transcend this earthly existence as our separate selves; but now integrate into the whole, and our soul purpose in life to love, now lies and is left behind in the living hearts and memory of all the people we know? What if in dying, we have simply evolved to the point of rising; where we have come to realize that all people, places, events which made up our lives; now all make sense and there is no longer need for self-survival or defense… we now know, we can let go?

What if when we die, we tap into the truth of the tree? What if when we respire our last breath, it is the exhalation of the false exultation of the singular (ego) self that is death? What if when we die, we inhale the truth of a tree? What if death was a slow, steady journey back to the essential Self, recycling (upcycling) back to earth’s origin, back to the original all-colored darkness and the female void, back to the infinite beginning of life’s circle-the dimensionless point, the center of the symbiotic mycorrhizae – like collective intelligence, the wise ocean, the alpha-omega, the ubiquitous universe? What if when we die, we learn that this naturally intelligent truth of the tree is no lie?

Nature’s Reflection Photography

I focused my master’s degree in ecology on natural disturbances in mountain forest ecosystems. After teaching ecology for some years, I then spent my PhD research time studying the regeneration of forest mountain ecosystems in the Swiss Alps, given multiple disturbance variables and anticipated climate change scenarios. After more than three decades exploring many of the Western world’s forests; either my sharp analytic eyes have gone fuzzy or my scientific mind is relaxing; but I am starting to see the forest through the trees…and the distinction between life and death is not as clear any more as I had previously perceived.

I begin to wonder, had James Cameron truly tapped into an ancient Brazilian Amazon Indigenous People’s truth; when in Avatar he directed Grace (played by Sigourney Weaver) to be laid to rest by the mother tree in Pandora– to become illuminated with the blue tendrils enmeshed in nature’s soil and consumed in her earthly womb, to return to life’s pinnacle state of Grace-unification with all life in death? Could the distinction between life and death merely be our personal orientation to existence, our point of view? Could life and death simply be different sides of the same mirror; depending on the angle of our perception and reflection?

Nature’s Reflection Photography

The more time I spend my COVID-19 days alone sheltering at home and in nature (my home is in a biological reserve), strangely, the more my mind, heart, and senses attune to (what I believe to be) nature’s essential truth— life is dynamic; nature is sacred (sacra-whole). We are as transient travelers on this temporal earth journey, living and dying every step of the way, every moment of every day. There is nothing still or static or dull or dead about death… and it is the same for death’s reflection on life. This realization gives me great joy and COVID-19 relief—also the knowledge that this time will pass. And yet these COVID-19 days will also always remain with us, as this walk in earth’s woods, while not a journey from point A to B, is an invitation to embrace and accept all experience as the way to BE. There really is no real destination for life, no beginning or end– no point of arrival, but rather a deepening realization that we have already arrived when we notice and celebrate abundance everywhere, alive. Gratitude is the correct attitude. And, the real gift of the journey is to learn to be present to every glorious moment.

“Transience is the message of nature. The more we turn to impermanence- the more we appreciate the present moment is fleeting and therefore precious.” Mark Coleman, Spirit Rock

Yes, we need nature. We need nature to bring us back to the power of now. (Eckhart Tolle) We need to connect with nature—to be in wild places to release us from the unnatural, grinding noise of local disruption and global stress, to recalibrate us to our harmonious peaceful state, to remind us of our naturally intelligent flow, to let go. Maybe in this dark night of the soul, when we are directed to stay still and shelter in place, we can find solace in this forced solitude by again admiring in the life-death face of it all; the tree’s grace and its ability for the entire time on earth to grow roots and to tap into nature’s life giving force in one forest space.

Perhaps now the best viral immunity advice one can give to remain healthy and whole and to continue to live during these most unusual times is to continue to meditate on the tree, to breathe, and to fearlessly, again, let go control… and be free. Remember your favorite tree. Smile willfully and with intention; recall nature’s truth, rhythm, and flow in our bodies and brains and beings from nearly 3.8 billion years ago, we know.

“The secret to a healthy, happy life and true success is being one with life, being one with now.” Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth)  

Accepting today, being OK and one with now, hopefully helps us to root deeper into our ground in whatever apartment or cottage or home or neighborhood to which we are now narrowly bound– to be fully present on earth in front of our home hearth (as much as we can); while at the same time lift our strong spring stems and verdant green branches upward, continually aspiring toward personal peace, love of self, and honest reveal of our unique passion until we release ourselves into the grand Masterpiece.  

Perhaps, this is the sacred secret for Heaven on Earth; and why the tree more than symbolically becomes the conduit, the bridge, the mediator (for most every ancient tradition –(e.g. Celtic, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhism, Indigenous Peoples) between the created and the Creator. The tree is rooted solidly in the living earth and at the same time forever skyward twisting since its birth– branches bending upward toward a brilliant sky, ricocheting solar flares everywhere.

Nature’s Reflection Photography

As I lay under my favorite grove of redwood trees, my mind drifts into the invisible wind wisps and blue sky abyss, as the circle of canopied tree tops blur together into one, and creek and sway and hum. Meanwhile, time passes. And as the sun lingers low, I find myself bathed in the Pacific Coast’s golden alpine glow. Subsumed by the fallen forest fronds, my body buzzes and I am gone. I don’t know where I disappear to; but I assure you, I can’t move. I am neither here nor there– alive nor dead, earth nor air. I am everywhere. But then in a flash, I pop right up from my entranced seat, and I find my feet before another biting spider sources my other my leg and rump to eat. But before I go, I turn to the charred mother tree stump in the middle of the grove and give my respect, for in her selfless senescence to the next generation of surrounding trees did she willfully die and her resources to her children did she re-direct. It is all very clear; life and death live happily every after together here. And every day, I plug into the forest floor; I feel more grounded and protected and happy right now, right here. My senses piqued, I am more keenly steeped in the life around me- the bio-economy of the deer, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons, mice, and baby lambs, hares, salamanders, banana slugs, the California newts, blue jays, wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks, and other plants, fish, trees, bees, and fruiting fungi. I know I am unique, but I am also aware that I share this place with the rest of the ecosystem clique. I am a highly evolved form of life- a smart human being (Homo sapiens) heart and conscious mind beating —fine. But, I am also a grain of sand on the beach, fleeting. That said (and not to confuse the smart hominoid– me), I am also the beach, the forest, and her sands and soil. I am the pulsating tides– powerful enough to shake up millions of my rough-edged fellow friends in one roll; forcing a shift in the entire atoll. I am Mother Nature. I am nature speaking. But you will only hear her call, if you turn off your mind and listen only to your heart through it all.

Nature’s Reflection Photography

Learning from the Tree’s Impermanence

Did you know that trees are technically, biologically, genetically wired to live forever? The telomeres at the end of their plant cells can replicate and revitalize themselves, infinitely. That’s why so many of these fountain of youth R&D health & wellness product teams are researching telomeres and telomerase- the protein at the end of these plant cells, that can theoretically/biologically under the right conditions, live forever. But if this is the case, then why do trees senesce and die? Well, again, the tree is the forest and the forest is the tree, hardwired to support the collective community. It never thinks in ME, only WE. Thus, the mother tree in the center of her offspring grove will one day succumb to other forest forces- a root disease, a fungal infection, a bark beetle infestation, a fire, a windstorm, an avalanche, or a flood. She will happily fall to the ground and lie her long life down to become the earth, which will rebirth new shoots—essentially again her youthful self in a new form.

Again, the more I tune into the tree’s reality of life as death and death as life; death begins to feel more like the Kali catalyst of change in motion that inevitably leads to growth and promotion– lobsters shedding old shells because they’ve outgrown them; trees shedding lower branches because they grow constantly toward the sun; new iris flowers opening in forest meadows and green sprouts emerging from dry, golden grass. That said, I know many people are experiencing real sorrow right now for loved ones passed, and I hope for you that the harsh reality of pain will naturally pass. I believe new life will eventually emerge from this dark place. Isn’t this the Passover-Easter-Spring promise, which we can embrace?

And the abundance of love that bubbles up all around from every heart touched by the person now deceased in town makes me wonder if when we die, do we really ever say, good-bye? Isn’t it that in life or death, if we loved, then we will always live? Well, as we learn from the tree –she is the forest. She is her living legacy. There is no separation from her decaying body and the new shoots who sprout from her decaying stem body; or a fallen tree limb and the new roots who wrap round it, end to end. There is no separation among all life in the forest in neither space nor time. All living creatures are part of the same organic rhyme. We are all necessary. We all belong. We are all part of earth’s biological song. And, we never really die… so it makes most sense to let our fear of death fly.

Could this naturally intelligent truth that will forever be integral to our living legacy finally set us free from attempting to always control our destiny? The more we resist reality, uselessly repulsing death or our mortality, or attempt to force the rest of life around us to our will; the more we antagonize the universe and separate ourselves from nature-our true nature. According to Alan Watts (Way of Zen): If we don’t let go; then we affect even more suffering and pain and resilience and strain–all things antithetical to regeneration and new life, bubbling up this spring like a good bottle of champagne.

“Death does not have the last word. “ Pope Francis; Easter Vigil 2020

Nature’s Reflection Photography

Final Reflection:

Affirmation: I am fearless and free, standing tall and choosing to be at peace in one place, rooted to my home like a tree.

I find it crazy that in the noisy chaos of COVID-19 where every news channel is now 24-7 live in our living rooms reporting on the current pandemic crisis and discussing how to rebuild our communities when we unwind from the pandemic in the most efficient way; while the Tree–the first tool and technology from the Garden of Eden, the master efficiency expert and disaster prevention planner… sits silently in wild nature, waiting to be heard?

And the good news is that we can still recall in our memory our favorite tree and ask her to help us endure this time indoors by imagining, intentioning, and planning the new way we will connect again, when we are able to go outdoors.

Reflection: Earth Teach me, Tree Reach me

Sit by your real or imaginary favorite tree friend; and first thank the tree for all his thought provoking and heart kindling wisdom. I was reminded in the “virtual” nature retreat @ Spirit Rock this Easter weekend that the forest loves to be celebrated. The rivers and trees and bees; they love to be noticed, acknowledged, and appreciated for the abundance, sustenance, and life they bring to our present reality. So, lead with gratitude. Then, take deep breath and ask the tree for advice.

Ask your tree what it would like to teach you today, how it might reach you, today. Then sit, relax your mind, envision your tree and wait to see what special message she reveals to you. Then, in the final third act of this reflection, ask the tree to help you in some way deal best with the rest of your challenges, frustrations, anxieties, and fears.

“You are in relationships with the external world that, on the whole, are incredibly harmonious.” Alan Watts

Make up your own final intention:

For example: Hello, my favorite tree, thank you for being here with me and, could you please, just help me to breathe, to find joy and acceptance, to release sorrow and fear, and to recognize my abundance, right now, right here….

Finally, ask yourself the quintessential post-COVID-19 question: What will I choose to say and do when free from this extraordinary superhuman Flu… now that nature has forced us to reflect on our lives, to re-consider our relationship to earth and to each other in our human hive?

*I am grateful to Mark Coleman, Spirit Rock for sharing his nature-inspired reflections that informed this final reflection.

Advice from a Tree

Stand tall and proud,

Sink your roots into the earth.

Be content with your natural beauty;

Go out on a limb;

Drink plenty of water;

Rediscover the seed from which you came…

Enjoy the view.


Dedication to the 1 Trillion Trees Project

There are a little over 3 trillion trees on the planet. That’s about 400/person; but as I said earlier, its 50% less than we had before cities. How can we biodivert cities and return nature to the heart of our human civilization?  What can we do to bring nature back to you? And, the first super-simple, super-easy, super-techno thing you can do is to shift your search engine from Google to Ecosia. Ecosia converts your clicks into virtual coin that they invest in forest restoration and tree planting. Check it out. They just launched and are on their way to planting now 90 million trees. (seems 1/second) Visit One Trillion Trees project

Dedication to the guardians of the forest, Nia Tero

We are all native to planet earth; and yet Indigenous Peoples are the guardians of our vital ecosystems. They embody nature’s wisdom in their rich cultures, intergenerational communities, and earth connections. They can show us how to recover our Human+Nature health and how to well celebrate our sustainable home. Visit Nia Tero

Dedication to the Mycelia, Fungi Perfecti

Mycelia are the naturally intelligent networks of our planet. As virtual shopping and online purchasing now explodes and spreads virally—almost as fervently as the corona virus itself; the environmental footprint of packaging likely also sky rockets. The good news is that the problem of unsustainable packaging must be addressed in the new circular economy-driven world we want to emerge into at the other end of CV19. I love all the online shopping one can do for mushroom health and soil composting and citizen science engagement to help re-vitalize bee populations on Fungi Perfecti; but where did the Life Box go???? I can only now find a site for Live Box sport’s and entertainment streaming.

Nature’s Reflection Photography

Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD, Natural Intelligence Media is committed to awakening Natural Intelligence in the World. She produces multimedia content — books, films, and podcasts with her creative companions that aim to inspire everyone, everywhere to live a happy, healthy, naturally intelligent life.

Visit our Natural Intelligence Website HERE.

Participate in our “Combatting COVID-19 with Compassion” Heart Campaign HERE

Listen to my Naturally Intelligent by Design Podcast, featuring strategies from animals in our world to adapt to disruptive environmental change. HERE

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  • Catherine Cunningham, PhD

    Mission Possible: Awaken Natural Intelligence in Our World

    Natural Intelligence

    Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD is an ecologist, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, and media host producing films, interactive experiences, and online multimedia for international clients who are focused on positive economic, social, and environmental win-win-win solutions to global conservation and climate change.

    Catherine has travelled, written, photographed, and filmed in 70 countries, producing creative films and music videos in support the UN Global Goals and the human+nature planetary health narrative. Visit Natural to see where her work has premiered internationally. Over 20 years, she has interviewed hundreds of global thought leaders to promote sustainable solutions to climate change and conservation in creative ways. Catherine has written numerous articles on climate change, nature, and regeneration. She’s currently writing two books: “Naturally Intelligent by Design” — a fine art science and culture book for families and “Natural Intelligence”— a guidebook for well-navigating a post COVID-19 world by following nature’s principles. Partnering with Eurovision News and Events, Catherine is also an independent media host— producing content on nature, climate, and regeneration; syndicated globally by EuroVision’s News Direct. She is a regular contributor to Thrive Global and Medium. She currently produces communications for the Prince Albert II Foundation and participates in programming @ the World Economic Forum on Climate Change, Nature, and Biodiversity. As an university educator, Catherine taught undergraduate and masters courses in corporate sustainability communications at Arizona State University; global sustainability at Chapman University; biology, ecology, botany, and environmental science at Denver State College and Front Range College. In 2016, she designed one of the first university courses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also online), contributing to youth action on the UN Global Goals. She also created a post-graduate program with UNESCO on the MAB (Man the Biosphere) reserves. Catherine earned her PhD in Ecosystem Science at ETHZ in Switzerland, studying climate impacts on mountain ecosystems. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Cultural Anthropology and International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Masters degree from Utah State in Ecology. Catherine speaks fluent English and conversational Italian. She loves creative collaboration, media production, mountaineering, outdoor sports, yoga, wellness, and travel.