Trees in temperate climates grow outwards; they cannot grow indefinitely upwards because the roots would not be able to transport the nutrients needed for the top of the tree if the tree is too tall. Even Redwood trees have a limit. Trees grow by concentrating cells in one place, for example at the edge of branches, so that they can grow outwards unlike humans where cell growth takes place everywhere. Roots grow downwards and outwards. The system of roots can be as deep as the tree is tall. Roots provide structural architecture; they can harvest enormous quantities of water and mineral resources. The stems divide into nodes which are points at which the leaves are attached, and internodes, the length of stem between the nodes. Shoots can be separated into long and short shoots on the basis of the distance between buds. Some buds can lie dormant, ready to re-grow when conditions allow.
On 2 December 2018 Sideways Times facilitated a workshop with rashné and Lani (the person writing this post) at the Our Bodies Know event, hosted by Arteries. In designing the workshop, we wanted to find ways in which we could look at movements for change and learn from other ways that change is made. We applied the way that trees grow and sustain themselves that I outlined above to thinking through ways in which change happens and how we see ourselves in that process.
We looked at the tree and found some important similarities, in particular the way they exist as a system. When you are in a particular place it’s difficult to see that there is a bigger system of change that you are part of. In my experience, this is one of the elements that can leave people feeling isolated and burned out. In looking at the tree we can notice that everything is connected – each part communicates with the others, and are in tight mutually reinforcing relationship. Through seeing this, the workshop gave space to talk about our own positions at the moment, and encouraged a non-judgemental approach. The idea of dormant buds seemed to be particularly powerful. As the buds only grow when conditions are right, waiting in a dormant state until they are, we can recognise that our own dormancy allows us to gather resources, and acknowledge that the conditions may not be right for us. The acknowledgement in itself provides us with power.
Dormant buds also connect to the cycles of growth that the trees go through, in response to external conditions, and also internal conditions, for example if there are not enough nutrients, or it is too cold, the tree will die-back and then start growing again when conditions change. Expansion and growth then is not a continual process, but goes in cycles which include dormancy and recuperation. So in terms of social change, dormancy can be a signal that there are not enough internal resources, and/or that we are reacting to external conditions. Leaves also fall off the tree when they have given all they can at that time, and so become nutrients for the soil. Applying this, we talked about how for people this is also often to do with conditions not being right for them and burning out, as well as lack of support. We discussed this ‘falling off’ as a powerful process which could communicate something important to the system, and also could allow for a different role to be taken up of becoming nourishment for the system.
One of the things that I loved about thinking about how trees grow is that realisation that growing outwards is an effective way of growing. For me again, it focuses my attention on making connections and expansion, with an openness to the world. This connection is grounded by communication – the different elements all talk to and support each other, giving the growth strength. So while it can appear as though the new leaf or new shoot is fragile and out on its own, it is actually held up by another part of the system that is far away.
The way that trees grow seemed to really connect with people and the metaphor opened up conversations about our relationships to movements for change. For me I came to appreciate exactly where I was and appreciate more deeply others’ positions and work. I saw in a new way how important it is to support each other and communicate to strengthen our relationships and understand how we connect.