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The Sacred Life of Trees: How Each of Us Can Protect and Support Physical and Spiritual Forests


Nearly 40 years ago, I was an English teacher in Japan. The town where I lived was where Honda was first established, and it was full of manufacturing. It had very little green space and lots of traffic but, on the weekends, my students would invite me to visit the famous Tsubaki Grand Shrine that was high in the mountains and covered with lush, cool trees. Legend says the shrine was established around 3 BC, so the trees are ancient. It’s a supreme act of trust that I’m showing you this photo with my very 80s wardrobe. Tsubaki Shrine is known as a “power spot: one of the few places on Earth where the strange, divine powers can be felt by humans.” Maybe you have experienced that feeling in nature yourself. In the middle of the old growth cedar, cypress, and camellia trees I soaked up a deep, calm and peace that was spiritual. I was experiencing the sacred life of trees.

Hidden Life of Trees

A friend from Oxford University in England sent me a book by Peter Wohlleben entitled, The Hidden Life of Trees: Discoveries from a Secret World. Wohlleben worked for the forestry commission in Germany for 20 years and writes about the surprising way trees communicate and feel. He says when we walk around a forest, we might focus on individual trees standing alone without realizing that underneath the ground all the trees of the same species in that forest are interconnected through their root systems. He writes that forests are “superorganisms,” and the trees are interconnected to help the entire forest thrive, much like ant colonies.

Listen to what Wohlleben writes:

"Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities. There are advantages in working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extreme heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in the protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to the point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree therefore is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way around and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance."[1]

Jacob Spori and the Mighty Oaks

I know of the long tradition and revelatory feeling at BYU-Idaho about acorns that grow into mighty oaks. I’m sure you already know the story of Jacob Spori. From 1888–1891, he was the first principal of the Bannock Stake Academy that became Ricks College and then BYU-Idaho. The Academy struggled financially. During one of the years, Jacob applied his salary to the debt of the school and then took a second job with the railroad. He used his railroad salary to pay the teachers. He had an unconquerable vision for the school and the students who attend. He famously said, “The seeds we are planting today will grow and become mighty oaks and their branches will run all over the Earth.”

President Eyring called Jacob Spori’s statement prophetic:

"The tree, traditionally a symbol of longevity and deep-rooted integrity, has been adopted as the symbol for Ricks College. The symbol was chosen because of its link with the history of the school. In 1890 Jacob Spori, the first principal of the Bannock Stake Academy, made a prophecy that the Academy would grow from an acorn into a towering oak whose branches would reach around the world."[2]

Alma 32

Your being on campus today is part of the fulfillment of Jacob Spori’s vision. The four oak trees planted on the south side of the Spori building are young, but they are growing. It takes faith, vision, maybe taking a second job, refusing to give up when things look bleak to nurture those little seeds along. Mighty oaks don’t spring up overnight. Let me read a condensed version of verses in Alma 32 and imagine that you are literally planting a tree inside you with your faith:

"Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. If… a [true] seed be planted in your heart… and if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief… it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—…the word is good, for it begins to enlarge my soul;… enlighten my understanding, [and] be delicious to me.

"And… as the tree begins to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorches it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out... It is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree…

"But if ye will nourish the word,… it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the [precious, sweet, white] fruit… until ye are filled…Then, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith." [3]

This is the Pechanga Great Oak Tree. It is 2000 years old and grows near Temecula, CA, on Pechanga native land. To the local Pechanga, the tree carries a deep spiritual meaning of connectedness and generations. Despite being such an old tree, this oak produces acorns every few years. These acorns are not left to simply fall to the ground. The staff of the Cultural Department and the Pechanga young people collect these acorns and transplant them into pots. Once they grow large enough, they are planted in different locations around the reservation. Those oak generations link together under the ground and create an interdependent network and a microclimate so they all can thrive for thousands of years.

Three Examples

Here are some additional lessons I learned from Wohlleben’s research on the hidden life of trees:

First, trees have friends. Wohlleben writes:

"The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height and then it doesn’t grow any wider because it senses the air and better light in this space are already taken. Some trees growing near each other are careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s directions. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns—in the direction of non-friends. Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together."[4]

The tree friendship extends even if one of the trees is cut down. Under the ground, the still-living trees funnel sugar and nutrients to the stump, keeping it alive and revered for decades.

How could this apply to people? I saw a great example just two weeks ago. Conner Mantz and Clayton Young are friends, training partners, former BYU runners, and Latter-day Saint returned missionaries. On February 3 in Orlando, Florida, they secured the two guaranteed spots on the Olympic team bound for Paris, France. Mantz was favored to place in the top three, but commentators were skeptical Young would do as well. The two friends ran with each other for the whole race. Somewhere around mile 24, Mantz hit a wall. He didn’t feel well; he didn’t think he could finish. His training buddy, Clayton Young, saw what was happening and said to him, “Just fall in behind me and follow me, I’ll get you there.” They ran the last two miles that way and when they got to the ribbon, the commentators were saying, “Oh they’ll jockey now, we’ll see which of the two of them has the greater competitive spirit to win.” What they couldn’t see was Clayton saying to Conner, “Go ahead. This is yours.” And Mantz, after drafting behind Young for the last few miles, crossed the finish line first. Young came in second and together they made the Olympic team.

That generosity of spirit, the recognition of the long win over the short one, the absolute assurance that we are in this together and your success is my success, is the finest spirit of tree friendship and human friendship.

Second, forests constantly regenerate. They are not static; continual change is part of their process. To grow, we must not be afraid of old things falling away and new good things growing in their place. Some years have fat tree rings, others have thin, depending on the circumstances. But the tree keeps growing all the same and keeps gaining in experience and wisdom.

You are all too young to remember Sister Dwan Young. She was the general primary president from 1980 to 1988. Sharing Time was one of the innovations that started during her administration. But what happened to Sister Young after 1988 when her general service ended? You might be tempted to think those general calling years made up lots of the fat tree rings in her life and, now that Sister Young is 92, she would have some thin rings as her life becomes narrower. But last week on KSL News, I saw this photograph. Sister Young just made the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest female water-skier on record. Think what it means to her grandchildren, her great grandchildren, and all the primary children who grew up with Sister Young to be out on the lake and making memories with her now. She is the messenger: don’t be afraid to grow into other good things.

Third, I mentioned earlier about how all the trees together contribute to a microclimate that helps protect the entire forest and allows each tree to thrive. Human beings that live in proximity can also create microclimates that help everyone grow straighter. Let me share the story of David Parker and Shaun Marchant:

David worked in the Hollywood film industry and even won an academy award, but he had a nasty drug habit that caused a lot of chaos in his personal life and health. He ended up deployed to Utah working on a project for BYUtv. Out of curiosity, he wanted to meet a member of the Church but didn’t find any in the bars and clubs where he was spending his evenings. In a moment of crisis, when he was crying for help, a friend gave him a Book of Mormon. He became obsessed with the story. After reading 1 Nephi he asked her to tell him more about the context. He had many questions. She told him, “You need to meet with the missionaries.”

It wasn’t an easy road after David’s baptism, but he had a circle of new friends to help him when he battled his addictions, looked for jobs, and created a new environment for his life. And then, with the Spirit of the Lord moving him, David began reaching out to help other people who were in crisis. In his newfound peace, he cared about everybody, but he especially cared about the people who were living on the very edge—the way he had been. Shaun was his stake president, but even more he was his friend. They worked together to reach out to people with specific help.

Trees of Righteousness

Jesus stood up in his home synagogue of Nazareth and officially began his ministry by quoting a passage from Isaiah 61. As the great Jehovah, He had given them to Isaiah and now he was there in the flesh to fulfill them. He begins with a description of His mission, that is also our mission because we follow Him as His disciples:

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek, he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn."[5]

In the next verses, notice the strong temple symbolism used to describe the trees of righteousness. Jesus Christ constantly regenerates the forest and clears away the bad so that the good may grow.

"To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified."[6]

Then the final verses hold the invitation for our day—for humanitarians and ministers. You can take this as your personal charge:

"And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations. And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers. But ye shall be named the Priests of the Lord: [people] shall call you the Ministers of our God."[7]

In my view, the great crisis of our times is one of connection and respect for people who may be very different from us. What I learned from the forest is not just a hidden life—out of view—but a sacred life of interconnection. There are vivid spiritual parallels in the forest for our own lives. As Jesus declared. You have the power of your covenants. You are ministers of God—trees of righteousness.

Humanitarian service sounds big and time consuming and expensive. Ministering sometimes might sound guilt-inducing or awkward. Building the old waste places sounds like something beyond what one person can do. But what if it’s not? What if you can be a humanitarian, a minister, or part of an interconnected forest by doing the things you are already doing every day?

How could small acts of service build up communities like a forest?

How do we improve the microclimate so that everybody is doing better than they were before?

How do we push resources through our root system to the struggling trees?

How do we learn from the success of the oldest trees about survival?

We dream of doing great acts that prevent suffering, but our lives are busy and we have many responsibilities and constraints. Do we just give up and leave it to the Church or the wealthy philanthropists like Melinda Gates and Mr. Beast? Or are there simple things in the ecosystem that each of us can do that create a healthy “forest?”

Last night, I wrote down 30 things you can do that would make a difference in the ecosystem. They take curiosity and a tiny bit of energy, but nothing more. And they are more powerful than you can ever imagine! Picture the connecting root system that would grow among us if every person here today did something on the list every day for a month.

30 Things You Can Do to Help Your Forest Thrive

Start today wherever you are: at home, on campus, with neighbors, and in the community.

  1. Invite someone from another faith or viewpoint to do something social with you.
  2. Resolve a conflict in your life.
  3. Make everyday life accessible for others. What do they miss? Want? Need?
  4. Be funny and be kind.
  5. Fast and give a generous fast offering; refraining from eating for 24 hours so someone else can eat is an elegant solution anyone can try.
  6. Improve your skills at preserving food so it can be eaten out of season.
  7. Set aside a little non-perishable food, when possible, to build a reserve.
  8. Plan RS/EQ activities for new parents that include practical education and support.
  9. Put your phone away and interact with people by looking in their eyes.
  10. Choose a project on JustServe. Organize and post a project on JustServe.
  11. Prepare healthy snacks to share with friends.
  12. Help kids read aloud. Nothing improves children’s cognitive skills more than reading with adults who care about them.
  13. Give books as gifts and share why you specifically chose it for that person.
  14. Surprise people with your talents.
  15. Start a recipe-sharing group for new ways to prepare and love vegetables.
  16. Find other incentives besides sugary treats for Primary, soccer practice, FHE, and after-school snacks.
  17. Find a chance to focus on cooperation instead of competition.
  18. Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.
  19. Research the specific reasons that hunger might be on the rise in Rexburg.
  20. Volunteer to read to a school class.
  21. Help a child with homework after school.
  22. Share music with someone you love. Listen to music they love.
  23. Cook with kids and let them make decisions about how meals are prepared.
  24. Plant a garden and share the produce.
  25. Choose healthier food options for yourself.
  26. See if a walk in nature will lift your spirit. Take someone with you.  
  27. Ensure a private place and supportive environment at church, work, and campus for mothers who breastfeed or pump.
  28. Support local lending libraries and other resources for good books.
  29. Work with your local government to ensure your community’s access to water, air, and food sources are free from contaminants and impurities.
  30. Grow something from a seed.

I am occasionally asked, “Why doesn't the Church spend more money on humanitarian work? Why doesn't it stop building expensive temples and focus its resources on relieving the poor?” This is a legitimate question for the Church of Jesus Christ. But is it money that solves society's ills? The world has poured two trillion dollars into addressing chronic issues in Africa. Why isn’t the situation better? Because money isn't really the issue. Lasting progress comes through trusted relationships, infrastructure, reducing corruption, and the ability of people to work together. Money doesn’t necessarily create those things. They must be developed alongside the resources and, frankly, it is much harder work.

I will never discount the one thing this Church does that lifts entire communities in rapid development. It invites men and women of all social classes and backgrounds to enter sacred buildings and make the most binding and important promises of their mortal lives. In those buildings, they promise not to steal or lie, they promise to be faithful to their spouse and children. They vow they will seek the interest of their neighbors and be peacemakers and become devoted to the idea that we are all one family—all valued and alike unto God. If those promises made in holy temples are kept, it transforms society faster than any aid or development project ever could. The greatest charitable development on the planet is for people to bind themselves to their God and mean it. So, thank goodness the Church builds 335 temples and counting. It is the greatest poverty alleviation system in the world.

The most important thing you can do as a humanitarian is to keep your covenants with God. The second most important thing you can do is connect in goodness with others around you.

I testify of the power of keeping covenants with Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. He is the vine, and we are the branches. He overcomes every single thing blocking our progress. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


[1] Wohlleben, Peter. Hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate - discoveries from a secret world. HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.

[2] David Lester Crowder, The Spirit of Ricks: A History of Ricks College, 308, 1997.

[3] Alma 32:28–43.

[4] Wohlleben, Peter. Hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate - discoveries from a secret world.

[5] Isaiah 61:1–2.

[6] Isaiah 61:3.

[7] Isaiah 61:4–6.