Alongsider Briefings: Reflections of a Life Lived with God

Tree-Hugging Disciplemaking


Disciplemakers should be tree-huggers, people who admire and learn from our leaf-bearing friends. No one is a bigger tree-hugger than author Suzanne Simard.

Dr. Simard is a professor of forest ecology in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. She has spent her life among trees. For generations, her family made its living cutting down trees. Their survival depended on the logging trade. Trees are in her blood.

Simard’s first job as a college student was to inspect the new plantings that replaced the forests cleared by logging. She soon noticed something — in seemingly ideal conditions these baby trees failed to grow.

This observation raised a question that resulted in a college degree, a doctorate, and a career researching how trees flourish. Her research path led her to discover the “Mother Tree” and write the book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. This tree-hugging professor unknowingly discovered some lessons on disciplemaking.

It shouldn’t surprise us that trees can teach us about life and making disciples. Trees dominate the Bible. They’re in the garden (Genesis 2:9), they populate the Psalms (Psalm 1:3; 91:12)), and close the Bible out in Revelation 22:2.

What did Simard discover about trees that can inform how we practice disciplemaking? Here are some abridged lessons from her book without all of the research data (much of which I don’t understand!).

First, Simard discovered that in lush forests, different types of trees share a common root system. These intertwining roots transport nourishment with one tree to another. Hidden beneath the forest floor are intersecting tributaries of roots carrying water and nutrients from tree to tree.

She made the astounding discovery that tree species cooperate, rather than compete, for water and nourishment. The standard philosophy of logging was to “clear a forest” and then replant only with trees that would eventually be harvested. All other trees, underbrush, etc. were irradicated by a defoliant; assuming that by eliminating the competition for resources faster growth would occur. To her surprise, research showed the opposite — trees needed one another to grow.

Forests are organized into complex communities built on relationships of cooperation and reciprocity. In the center of this complex community stands the mother tree.

The mother tree was the the oldest, largest tree in a forested community; she was every logger’s dream. What this tree absorbed in water and nutrients was passed on through the complex network of roots and connections with other trees. Simard’s research showed that in a time of drought or insect infestation, the mother tree would deplete its own life in order to save the trees around it. This tree cared for other trees.

These findings should not surprise us. The complexity of nature and the care built into its systems are the marks of a Creator. This creation is not only a source of wonder but also our teacher. God’s second book of revelation is the book of creation (Psalm 19:1-6). Scholar and poet Malcolm Guite writes that our Creator “uses the language of the outer world to express the life of the Spirit.” Our Lord teaches us through trees.

Here are three disciplemaking lessons from our leafy friends.

  • We must grow deep roots not rapid growth. Simard found that you could create rapid forest growth but the resulting trees were not the same quality as those nutured over time. The difference was in what was hidden from view — the root system and the soil. We should aim our disciplemaking efforts at helping people develop deep root systems into Jesus and His word; we must aim for quality and not quick growth (Colossians 2:6-7).
  • We need a community to grow disciples. The church is an intersecting network of relationships that grow disciples. Living in community with one another — teaching, serving, loving, exhorting one another — enables people to grow and flourish. In this community, we cooperate together, living in reciprocal ways, sharing our resources with one another (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).
  • We need spiritual “fathers” and “mothers.” Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had many “guides” but they did not have “many fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:14). He had become their “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (4:15). Spiritual fathers and mothers take care of their children — exhorting, encouraging, and charging them to walk with God (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11-12). This is not a haphazard practice but intentional parenting; parents commit themselves to do whatever is necessary, at whatever the cost, to see their children flourish.

Tree-hugging helps us be better disciplemakers . . . but it does something more.

Suzanne Simard’s book is filled with a wonder of trees. Your breath is taken away as she describes the majesty of one of the “mother trees:”

The wind whipped through the needles of the Mother Tree, but she stood steadfast. She has seen nature in countless forms: hot summer days when the mosquitoes swarmed; rain that came in sheets for weeks. . . . She would be here for hundreds of years, guiding the recovery, giving it her all, long after I was gone.

I walked away from Dr. Simard’s book in awe of trees but saddened by the Creator’s absence. Nowhere is our wonderful Creator mentioned or acknowledged. It’s easy to embrace the wonder of the creation and miss the worship of the Creator. 

Trees are gifts of a generous and creative God. In the new creation to come, trees “will clap their hands” at the Lord’s coming (Isaiah 55:12-13). Let’s pause, worship, and learn from our Creator though His gift of trees.

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