5th Sunday of Lent March 29, 2020 “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” ~ John 12:24; NRSV
Last week’s Lenten passage started me thinking about seed…plants…roots …community. Many of you journey with me in my faith community. Some of you may recognize a version of this I have shared in a small group. As a cell biologist by training, with my thesis on root proteins, I still get excited about roots.
The redwood groves provide a fascinating example of a community of interconnectedness and sustainability. A redwood grove is a family of trees which thrives for up to two millennia. These towering trees germinate from a seed that is a mere 3 mm long, yet will produce a tree that exceeds the height of a 35 story building. Yet these towering trees lack a tap root. Instead, the root system of the redwood tree is surprisingly shallow, no deeper than 6-12 feet.
The two biggest threats to the redwood are wind and fire. Its thick bark allows the mature redwood to survive all but the hottest of fires. But the redwood’s secret to surviving the gale force winds from the Pacific Ocean is an interconnected root system. Each tree’s roots are entangled with the roots of their neighbors. The entire grove stands tall, stands interconnected, and what no one or two or three trees can do individually, they can do collectively…withstand the high winds.
During life’s gales, support is spread throughout the entire community where individual trees stand supported and support others within the community by staying rooted with each other. This interconnected root system gives the trees the strength to stand strong when storms come and winds blow. Not only do the redwoods support and protect each other through their root system but the redwood tree is a dramatic example of generativity in many other ways. For example, after a redwood dies, the wood is so persistent, that the dead tree roots remain a contributing force to that community for years to come. The fallen redwood logs serve as nurseries for the growth of seedlings.
Another example of a rooted community is the Pando Aspen grove in Utah. This grove of trees is 80,000 years old and formed from a single male (dioecious species) tree. This community has 40,000 trunks and covers 106 acres. Climate conditions in the area no longer support seedling establishment and there has been no seed reproduction for several thousand years. Community is maintained by roots. The roots have sustained the community, allowed survival, perhaps sustaining the community until climate changes allow seedlings again.
As you can tell, I find plant roots amazing, though often unappreciated. Sure, the above ground parts get all the attention, such as stunning flowers, intriguing leaves, and parts that grab our attention like thorns. But there is a lot of community and support going on below ground we don’t appreciate.
We all know that roots help support a plant, absorb water, take up nutrients and store food. But roots also serve as the communication center between plants and as anchors that enable whole communities to survive.
Plants communicate via roots. Roots of same species often grow and graft together, different individuals sharing a root system. When attacked by insects, plants respond with production of wound response chemicals. When a plant is attacked, neighboring plants, receive this below ground signal and start producing their own chemical defenses ahead of the attack.
But roots don’t just communicate with their own species. Plant roots are connected below ground by an enormous network of fungal mycelium. Fungi colonize the area around the root (root slime) and derive nutrients. The plant benefits by the breakdown of organic matter by the fungi that makes soil nutrients available. Chemical alarms produced by one plant, can be carried to neighboring plants. Defensive chemicals against insects can be produced before an individual plant is attacked. There is an enormous amount of communication and sharing of resources via plant roots.
Without community…. Without interconnecting roots, without communication, individual plants suffer.
A good analogy is the concept of being root bound. This is a condition where a plant that may have outgrown the pot or placed in a poorly constructed hole, and develops roots that will merely grow in a circle. There is isolation, no opportunity to interact with other plants, and such plants never thrive and frequently die.
A potted root bound plant, when transplanted into great soil, may continue to grow roots in a circle. It is a pattern/habit of isolation that persists. The roots need to be loosened and the pattern broken when transplanted.
A life of being root bound is one of missed opportunities. We miss out on so much when root bound, a loss of community and interaction; the ability to help…and to be helped….it is a life of isolation. Being root bound is a loss of potential. Being root bound is a hard habit to break.
If we allow ourselves to become root bound, we lose the connectivity to each other. The support of others is gone, and we are offering nothing of ourselves to the community. The symbiosis that is symbolic of plant roots in nature, is lost.
I love the symbolism of the root bridges in parts of India and other regions where massive floods are part of the ecosystem. A region in India receives almost 39 feet of rain a year. Man built bridges get washed away. The root bridges are formed by interconnecting the roots of Ficus trees from opposite sides of a river. The roots are guided through hollow wooden tubes and then intertwined. As the roots grow and spread it becomes strong enough to use. Some bridges get covered with flat stones for better footing. While a flood may cover the bridge, it will not wash away.
Each generation is using bridges built from earlier generations. Some bridges may last for several hundred years. Each generation starts a new bridge which may take up to 30 years to become viable. Without these bridges, communities would stay fragmented and isolated.
The Sanctuary at First Baptist Greenville is my final example of the symbolism roots that form an interconnected community. The ceiling of the sanctuary spreads out in the shape of a canopy. The forward-facing wall is a wooden trunk that supports the canopy. The roots are where the congregation is seated, without which, none of the structure has much meaning or significance.
Our roots connect us, to this earth and to each other. Just like one plant can interact with another plant via roots, where we put down roots, has an influence on those we share the soil with. Where is it we place our roots?
“For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and its shoots will not fail. “Though its roots grow old in the ground and its stump dies in the dry soil, at the scent of water it will flourish and put forth sprigs like a plant.