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Think Like a Tree

By Adrian Ewald

As the name suggests, giant sequoia trees are, to put it simply, giant. For example, one of the largest trees on Earth by volume is General Sherman, a 2200-year-old giant sequoia that clocks in around 275 feet tall with a diameter of over 36 feet. That’s almost the length of a football field, wider than a 3-lane highway, and around the same age as the Great Wall of China. My mind = blown.

Obviously, my desire to know more about these monsters led me to the all-knowing Google to ask “How do giant sequoia trees get SO big?”. Turns out it’s a pretty simple answer for a plant: water. It helps the trees heal, encourages growth and life during droughts, and fights against the dangers of the environment.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Giant sequoias need fire too.

Now, if you are anything like me, I know what you are thinking. “Really? Fire? Dangerous, destructive, deadly…needed?” Seems a little off, right? Don’t worry! I did some fact-checking for us, and it turns out it’s true. Giant sequoias live where lightning naturally sparks fires so they…adapted. They learned to heal scars left from the flames, store up water by letting go of older needles, thicken their bark, and use dry air from the heat of the fire to release their seeds to the ground.

However, there’s more to the story than what happens with “good” fire. When left unchecked and unmanaged, fire does what we expect; it destroys and creates repeat damage that can overcome the trees’ ability to bounce back. The fact that fire causes growth or death makes me relate the trees’ adaptations to fire to me. Us. Humans. Much like giant sequoias, we live through the fires of life. Some burn hotter or longer than others, but life isn’t life without them. They can leave us scarred, burned, or lacking “water”, but that doesn’t mean we have to let our wounds overcome us. We can adapt, just like giant sequoias.

Taking steps to continue healing, or adapt, is hard and takes time. After all, General Sherman didn’t grow in a day. Growth is a daily choice that isn’t always a straight road upward; it’s filled with curves, dips, detours, and hills. Eventually, with work and support, we can get to a place where we can stand tall and unafraid as life’s fires pop up. That’s why I encourage you to think like a tree in these four ways:

  • Find your source of water: Without water, trees become vulnerable. It’s the same with humans. We become vulnerable when we don’t take in and store up things that bring healing, life, and joy. What are you taking in to help heal? How are you caring for your soul? I find my source of water through a relationship with God and reminding myself of the truths of my identity in Jesus.
  • Get rid of things that aren’t productive: Some experiences (especially trauma) sap us of our water, leaving us feeling worn down, tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. We can do the same thing giant sequoias do during droughts by dropping our own “needles”. What areas of your life are holding you down? Is there a specific habit or activity that continually makes you feel drained? Are there boundaries you need to set or new habits you need to start? Asking and acting on these questions is hard. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I need to think more like a tree. Letting go is hard, but doing so helps give you space, time, and energy to focus on healing.
  • Think about how you’ve adapted: Sometimes, like the giant sequoias, we grow stronger as we adapt. But other times, we adapt in ways that can be isolating – building walls, shutting people out, and accepting some lies as truth. Our default responses to challenges can make a bad situation worse. However, our unhealthy adaptations do not have to be permanent. Ask yourself: have you adapted in ways that will lead to more growth and healing? Or have you been creating a situation that is unchecked and unmanaged?
  • Find your ecosystem: We are created for connection, not isolation. Just like a tree requires many elements to grow and survive, we also need people and systems in our lives that support us through community, safety, love, and stability. Who will you include in your ecosystem? What personal feelings or beliefs keep you from letting people into your ecosystem? What do you need to feel safe, stable, and supported? I encourage you to think about these questions and write them out. Reach out to the people you feel safe with who can provide you with a stable ecosystem. It’s scary, I know, but you might be surprised at the response you get.

Like the giant sequoias, fire gives us an opportunity to grow or die. It’s up to us to choose growth –we just have to think like a tree.

-Adrian Ewald is an occupational therapy doctoral student completing her capstone project with REBOOT Recovery.

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