• Sean O'Leary

The Good Road & the Shielding Tree

I was struggling to write this article on how our experience of the natural world helps us to bridge the gap between scientific and religious ways of thinking.

I’ve always been interested in the striking acacia trees that grow abundantly in Africa. The distinctive shapes of these thorn trees frame my memories of living in Kenya as a young teacher. And so, I was attempting to write an article highlighting the growing scientific understanding of the acacia tree and exploring how this understanding fits with our deepest experiences of nature.

When I was about to give up on the endeavour, I received a spontaneous e-mail from a friend containing a link to an article called ‘Reciprocity’ written by Richard Rohr of the Centre for Action and Contemplation. This felt too much like providence to ignore so after reading Richard’s words, I continued working on this article. God really does work in mysterious ways.

In his article, Richard notes that ‘science is discovering that trees have much to teach us’ and references the insightful work of Robin Wall Kimmerer—a botanist, professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Robin had written about the symbiotic relationship between fungi and trees in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. She wrote of: ‘a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.

And so I now come to write about the splendours of the acacia tree. Several species of Acacia live in East Africa, with wonderfully evocative names - umbrella tree, whistling thorn, wait-a-bit acacia and the yellow fever tree. These trees have evolved essential defence mechanisms that contribute to their survival. The most obvious one is thorns, which limit grazing.

Some acacia trees are known to also release a chemical tannin when fed upon by herbivores, which makes the leaves less edible. Another chemical, known as ethylene, was found by zoologist Wouter Van Hoven to be released by an acacia tree when animals feed on it. The ethylene disperses thus providing an early warning system for neighbouring trees, which can then begin the process of releasing tannin in anticipation of grazing. Of course, herbivores like giraffe approach downwind of the acacia which slows the tree's natural defence mechanisms and allows some grazing.

Acacia trees can even form alliances with other species. The whistling thorn provides hollow bulbs that give shelter for biting ants as well as food in the form of nectar and sap. Resident ants defend the tree by attacking any herbivore that tries to eat the acacia’s leaves.

Such scientific discoveries enlarge our view of nature from the study of separate parts to a more holistic vision of natural communication and community. A single acacia tree growing on the savannah is not just an acacia tree for it too has neighbours with which it communicates and subsists in creative ways. Everything is interdependent.

As the Catechism states, ‘God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other’.

The life of the acacia tree broadens our understanding of community and helps us to contemplate God’s commands to care for our neighbour. May the Spirit of God act to awaken our hearts and minds toward a powerful community ethic in which the voice of all creation is heard.

In the great Earth prayer of Black Elk, a medicine man and Catechist of the Oglala Lakota People:

Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on Earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you – the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air, and all green things that live.

You have set the powers of the four quarters of the Earth to cross each other. You have made me cross the good road and road of difficulties, and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things.

Hey! Lean to hear my feeble voice. At the center of the sacred hoop With tears running, O Great Spirit, my Grandfather, With running eyes I must say The tree has never bloomed.

Here I stand, and the tree is withered. Again, I recall the great vision you gave me. It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then That it may leaf And bloom And fill with singing birds! Hear me, that the people may once again Find the good road And the shielding tree.


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