The Elder Tree
Duncan Frewin, Queensland Regional Meeting
At Silver Wattle beside the lake, there is an old gum tree. I don’t what kind of gumtree it is, but it stands out – bigger, older than the others around it. How old I can’t guess, but it has been through a lot. Tall, but not straight like a young tree might be. Storm damage perhaps. Some of its biggest branches are dead and bare, reminders of how imposing it once was, but still reaching up. Despite the wear and tear, the boles are strong and thick with new growth. A heavy mop of leaves hangs on the live branches. The trunk twists, swollen, leans to one side. The bark is thick, heavy, rough, blackened by leaking sap or passing fires perhaps, splitting and crumbling. Thick newer sap, startling red, pushes chunks of it off. Under the tree a smaller wattle tree – a silver wattle! – and some saplings are growing. There is wombat poo on a stone there too. Magpies sing up on top and probably there is an owl nest in a hollow where a branch has fallen off. A couple of years ago I spent an afternoon removing a decades-old pile of bottles and cans from under it. The Ngambri people, I’m told, call it an elder tree. People have elders, and so do trees. A witness to time passing, resilient, marking the way. A tree to look up to.
Well, here I am at Silver Wattle again after the Covid absences. This time, I’ve been asked to be the elder to accompany a group for a week. I said “Yes”, then … panic! What does an elder do? How do I “be an elder”? I found a few chores that are expected – give thanks before meals, lead evening worship in epilogues, or at least arrange someone to do that. But what is the function of an elder in a group? No one I spoke to could really shed light on that. One thing for sure – I couldn’t sit in a corner, outside the group, terribly serious. That wouldn’t fit for me.
I took a walk by the lake to sort myself out before the group arrived. Not worried, just wondering what people might expect of me, what I would do. I ended up before that elder tree again. I looked up at it, admired its girth, touched its bark and sticky sap, careful not to break off any chunks of the bark, craned my neck for the tallest bare branches. “Tell me how to be an elder,” I said, feeling foolish. I’ve never talked to a tree before, not even in my imagination. The tree’s silence was absolute, but still in that silence I got an answer. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I seemed to hear “Just be there.”
“Just be there” Just BE there. Nothing to do, nothing to strive for, nothing to accomplish. No need to be wiser, more virtuous, more impressive than I am. Just be me the way I am, weaknesses and all. I can wear my shortcomings openly. Perhaps others can use those shortcomings, or learn from them. “Just be there.” Ah yes. Just be THERE, not somewhere else, physically and mentally present. Stay focused on the group I’m with, on what’s happening around me. Listening, watching, feeling the currents, as a tree feels the wind. I can be there, be present for the others, with my heart open to them, ready to listen, as my tree listened to me. No need for more, but already a big thing to offer. Trees do it. Just be there.
Then as I thought about that, my inner ear heard “Keep growing”. Keep growing: put out new branches, new leaves, put down deeper roots. Stay fresh, keep truly living. A tree without new leaves is a dying tree, no matter how majestic. A living tree keeps putting its roots down further, extending its branches. I can keep stretching my branches higher, digging deeper for my own growth, searching, praying, listening. Just being – being curious, adventurous, reaching further. I can let old branches, old thinking, old inhibitions fall off – I don’t need them any more. New branches can replace the fallen ones. There will be scars of course. Let the scars show – growth comes from the hard times. Let people see that – be honest about the hurts, the mistakes. And as the tree puts out new leaves and blossoms for the rosellas and koalas to feed on, I can keep searching, growing, putting out new leaves. For the sake of those around me, I need to make sure that I am fully alive.
Further words came – my words? “Be a shelter for others”. Let the wattle tree grow. Shade the tender grasses. Be a windbreak for the saplings. Listen to others who are seeking light and respond to their seeking. Encourage them in their searching. Let the birds nest in my hair. Enjoy the passing moments with others, even those who are “strange” or “different”. There is room in life for them. Let the wombats dig around in my roots – the soil that nourishes me may nourish others too. Share the truth that I have been given – it may feed others. Be open to their questions and doubts. Be honest about my own questions and doubts. Remember those who sheltered me!
And then, as I reflected further, the thought came to me: “Give my seeds” Did those words come to me, or did I think them up myself? No matter: they resonated. Give my seeds to the wind. No fanfare – eucalypt seeds are tiny, unnoticeable. But no seeds, no new trees! The tree sends them out in tens of thousands, each insignificant by itself, but some germinate, and ensure that the bush continues. So, I can speak simply, humbly, without embarrassment or pretention, of the spirit that breathes in me, that gives me life, that has guided me to this point. Show others a path (never “the” path), the one that has led me to a fuller more joyful life. Of course my precious wisdom may be lost on the world. Not all seeds sprout and bear fruit. No matter. In the Gospel parable, the sower scattered the seed wherever he passed. Some sprouted, some didn’t. He didn’t economise! Some of my precious wisdom will fall on fertile ground and sprout, and I may never know about it. There is no need to know. Just quietly, naturally, give the seeds to the universe.
So I found my way towards being an elder. It feels right and good, a way to give back to the universe what I have been given.
But even the strongest trees come to an end. With age more and more branches fall, the trunk splits or topples in a storm. It makes way for the younger trees that bring new vigour to the bush. It dies and returns to the soil. So I too can face my own end, accept that the younger tree at my side will eventually take my place, become the next elder. Let me encourage it, enjoy it for its energy and show no regrets as it takes my place in the light. And may I return with what grace I can manage to the Light that nourished me, in hope of leaving the soil richer for the next generation.