Photo credit: Pixabay
When we explore nature, we divine hints of life, love, and resilience. No matter how hard we try to keep weeds out of a yard, they keep coming back. Trees sprout from stumps, fields return to forest. It seems like in many ways nature tells us that life is stronger than death, that life is resilient. Poets echo that refrain asserting that love is stronger than death.
Nature and Resilient Life
Nature has developed many mechanisms to ensure that life overcomes adversity. Some trees such as basswood and sourwood possess a large underground structure, or lignotuber, that stores both energy and sprout buds, which it uses to send up sprouts when the main trunk dies due to old age or to a disturbance such as fire. When we think an old basswood has died, replaced by a young upstart, in actually the old tree keeps on living because the new stem is part of the original plant. Unseen by human eyes the lignotuber undergirds the basswood’s or sourwood’s existence. As a result, a small tree that appears young to our eyes actually may be many hundreds of years old as the newest sprout of a very old tree.
Similarly, sassafras, paw paws, aspens and may apples live life as clonal communities. These plants, too, possess underground structures that provide the foundation for long-life. The roots of paw paws and sassafras send send up shoots that look like new individuals, while the underground stems (rhizomes) of may apples and aspens similarly send up shoots, creating patches or groves of plants. These patches actually consist of one plant with many trunks or stems, each genetically identical to each other. When one dies, the others live on. For instance, while the average age of the 40,000 trunks of Utah’s Pando colony of quaking aspens is 130 years, scientists estimate that the roots started life 80,000 years ago. The death of one trunk of such a community represents just one moment in the ongoing life of the organism, which is simultaneously one plant and a community. Once again, what remains hidden to human eyes sustains the organism over time, through cycles of death and life, drought and freeze.
Other species utilize a variety of strategies to persevere in the face of adverse conditions. On the Cumberland Plateau seedlings of some oak species may wait for many years for larger trees to fall and provide the light they need to grow. When this finally happens, they dash for the sunlight created by the gap, growing quickly after waiting patiently year after year. Many grasses die back every fall, sprouting once more from their roots when favorable spring conditions return. Others live only for one year, but lay down large long-lived banks of seed in the soil so that, when conditions are right, they can re-emerge as new individuals. Some plants show remarkable abilities to withstand destruction, adapting to injuries and moving right on.
Resilient Life and the Unseen
Many religious traditions equate life and breath. In the Judeo-Christian tradition God breathes life (nephesh) into beings, creating and sustaining the creatures God has made. Should God cease sustaining life, life ends. In this tradition God is the unseen structure that undergirds life, enabling life to persist despite adversity. Christians further believe that, because God is love itself, God became human in the person of Jesus to share our experience of life, including death. Coming back to life in a renewed body, Jesus brings life after death for everyone. God’s Holy Spirit, the breath of God, similarly enables people to overcome the smaller deaths they encounter throughout life. Just like lignotubers, rhizomes or roots, God’s unseen presence enables life after death and resilience in the face of trial. It binds all those open to that presence in an almost clonal community of people (in both space and time) guided and nourished by the same Spirit. All around us nature hints that life, and love, are stronger than death. This is what the feast of Easter calls us to remember – that in both the biological and spiritual worlds it’s what we don’t see that brings life, now and forever.
*Thanks to Prof. Jon Evans of Sewanee’s Department of Biology for his help with this entry.