Consider the Redwoods: A Biological Parable

By Dakota Dietz

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Redwood ForesBy Dakota Dietz 

I love the study of biology because the natural world is rich with metaphors. The interactions between creatures, the coordination of limbs, organs, fluids, and tissues, the structure and functioning of the tiniest of cellular lifeforms, and the effect of mankind on the earth all have embedded within them stories of God. The Author of all that is has made creatures to be living parables. He has artfully written himself into the trees, the critters, and the environment that sustains them. From the very beginning of the verbal revelation of himself to the very end, from the tree of life and the tree of knowledge to the tree of life for the healing of the nations, God has been providing biological revelation of himself.

However, this revelation is hidden, perceivable only to those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear. The spiritual world breaks into the physical world in secret glimpses given to the humble and soft in heart. In modern Western scientific endeavor, we have become hardened to this reality. We have removed the wonder of the divine and have reduced all of creation to manageable numbers, graphs, and theories. We have crammed the unimaginably complex concept of life—that things actually grow, move, breath, sing, play, eat, fight, run, and sleep—into a miniature confining box of verifiable evidence. Nothing is to be discovered about life or learned from life except what can be materially quantified. Ecological, evolutionary, conservation, and microbiologists have become analysts of immense lists of data upon data instead of the key holders for a treasure trove of insight into the nature of God that they really are.

Make no mistake, I value the research of our biologists. We need hypotheses, data, lists, graphs, and theories to uncover in nature what cannot be seen at face-value. We would not have the incredible knowledge of life that we now have access to without what has been done in this field in the past few centuries.

But what are we missing when we examine life with a materialistic filter (dare I say…veil) over our eyes? I would argue that we’re missing the entire point, no matter how much we “know” as a result.

Consider the immense forests of the Redwoods of Northern California. These are the tallest living beings on earth, and yet their root system lies spread out just below the surface. If you think about it, doesn’t it seem silly to grow so tall without a deeply rooted anchor to keep the towering structure from toppling? That is why the foundations of skyscrapers are built stories down beneath the ground into the bedrock. What is this peculiar red giant doing?

As a side note, good science is always about questions. The answers will come, but science stops when the questions stop. And when we have an immense, eternal, infinite God displayed in the creation we study, the questions should be without end.

To me, the parable of the redwood forest is incredible. As these trees sprout up around each other, the growing shoots gather into a collective whole by sending out their roots like a net spread out below them, and each tendril interweaves with the branching root system of the trees adjacent to them. The roots of this massive forest become enmeshed together so that what we see as individual trunks rising up from the ground are really one organic whole. They need each other. As they grow taller, the roots must go wider and they require even more assistance from each other to stay stable and continue growing even taller. If one is uprooted, whether by storm or by an intervention of man, the trees surrounding it are severely weakened and are more likely to be the next fallen individual. On the other hand, if one particular tree has run its long course of life and topples over, the weakened gap in the canopy and the underground system is quickly succeeded with new growth. With the space made for more sunlight and more room in the dirt, all kinds of brush and undergrowth are able thrive which could not have grown beneath the massive shadow of the towering giant before it had vacated the area in its passing. And eventually, in another span of life, a newer, younger tree will grow into the space to become as tall as its predecessor had been. Another fascinating adaptation of redwoods is their water gathering mechanism. If trees had brains, I’d say this ability is genius: when the coastal fog rolls over and through the leafy canopy, the moisture in the air congeals on the netlike leaves, gathers in droplets, which then slide off to fall down to the branching root system in the ground below. Not only do they help each other stand, they also quench each other’s thirst.

This story is written up and down the coastline of the USA’s Pacific Northwest. And if you give this parable the interpretive attention it is plainly asking for, you can see how people are like redwoods. We need each other. If we grow tall, important, mature, but do not have people around us to keep us steady, we will easily topple in the event of stormy weather. In fact, we won’t be able to grow tall at all. As we grow up, we have a growing responsibility of holding those around us up, especially the littler ones. If we do get the opportunity to grow tall and have a widespread influence, we need to remember that eventually we will need to vacate the space we have taken up so that new growth can sprout up and a younger individual can fill in the space with their own influence. When we gather in our clutches that which can sustain our life and alone quench our thirst, we need to shed it abroad to those around us that they too may be filled, sustained, and satisfied.

This is the gospel in biology, put on display to glorify the God of the good news. The mist of God’s grace has risen from the depths of the ocean of God’s glorious love in the face of the shining Son of God and is spreading out through the forests of mankind as it is gathered and shared amongst one another. If you can only see the material reality without the spiritual reality, you’ll miss all of this, (as fascinating as the redwood forest is as a physical phenomenon).

This is why our Lord points us to the natural world. “Consider the lilies…” Do that. Take Jesus at his word. Next time you are in a field of wild flowers, look around you, smell them, feel them, take a picture, draw them, whatever you need to do to take them in, and see how God is a perfect provider for them. And then revel in the sure reality that, if you are a son or daughter of God in Christ, this same faithful Father is the perfect provider of all of your needs, for all time.

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