The Leaves of the Tree are for Healing

Advent invites us into a time of waiting. As we wait, what might trees have to teach us?

By Zoe Matties, Manitoba Program Manager

December 6, 2023

The apple tree in front of my house

In October 2019, just before Thanksgiving, the city of Winnipeg had a freak snowstorm. Freezing rain, gusts of wind up to 80km/hr and up to 35 cm of snowfall damaged houses, powerlines, and over 30,000 trees. This storm was uniquely damaging because an unseasonably warm fall meant the trees still had their leaves. The snow was so full of moisture that it clung to branches like concrete, snapping limbs and downing whole trees.

This was the storm that gave the beautiful old elm tree in my front yard it’s death sentence. A significant branch was broken off in the storm, leaving a gaping wound in the side of the trunk. Then we had two summers with infestations of canker worms that ate nearly all the leaves off the tree canopy. Add to that the stressors of human induced climate change, and this tree was stressed! Elm trees are particularly susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease when they are stressed. The disease, which is caused by a fungus that is spread by the elm bark beetle, finally killed my tree last year. I came home from work one day to see the dreaded orange dot on its trunk, meaning it was destined for destruction, and I mourned.

The orange dot on my elm tree

You see, this tree, and all the trees on my street, perform daily acts of wonder and mercy for us and the rest of creation. They are a refuge, a playground, a source of nourishment and shelter, and they provide the very breath in our lungs. One large mature tree can provide the day’s oxygen for up to four people. Trees are our greatest co-conspirators in our efforts to care for the places we live. We breathe for each other: their oxygen, our carbon dioxide. We are not so separate as we may think, and if we lose trees, we lose everything.

This Advent, we are spending intentional time with heritage trees in Winnipeg. Advent is a season in the Christian church calendar “on the hinge between the old and the new, the known and the unknown to which God is drawing us… [Advent invites us] to be awake, alert, watchful, and ready for the ways in which God in Christ Jesus is always and ever breaking into our lives and—ultimately—into the life of the whole of creation” (Jamie Howison, saint benedict’s table).

The Cottonwood at McBeth Park

How might God in Jesus Christ be breaking into our lives and the life of the world through these trees? How might a tree be a site of encounter with the Divine? Each of these heritage trees are historically or culturally significant, and hold a record for being old or large. On our first week we visited the astounding Cottonwoods at McBeth Park. These trees are approximately 170 years old, and so big it would take at least five people to reach all the way around the trunk. As we stood at the base of one of these trees we paused and prayed together, reminding ourselves that this Cottonwood began as a tiny seed, but now stands tall and strong. It bears witness to God’s promise of hope for us and the whole earth.

The next week we visited The Waterloo Elm. It is one of the oldest and largest elm trees in the whole city of Winnipeg. It was planted around 1905, which makes it approximately 118 years old. How much this tree has witnessed! We prayed for peace as we stood around the tree, our breaths and the tree’s breaths co-mingled.

The Waterloo Elm

When I encounter these trees I am reminded of the verses at the end of Revelation which tell a beautiful story about the now and the not yet Kingdom of God. In this Kingdom, God dwells among the people in a beautiful city. The city has a river flowing through it, and on the river’s banks is the tree of life. “The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). I love this vision, and the idea of God’s healing coming through creation. Many times I have found myself in the forest, and no matter my mood, I am always a bit better off coming out. (Fun fact: studies have shown that being among trees increases relaxation, and decreases pulse, depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion.)

I like to think that each of these trees, and indeed all trees, are a tree of life bringing healing now, even as we wait for the full vision of wholeness to come. May we be comforted this season by the enduring presence and witness of trees. May the branches of the trees, the crackling of the snow underfoot, and the songs of the birds bring you hope, peace, joy, and love as we wait in the dark for the Light.

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Walk with us this Advent

If you are in Winnipeg, join us for the next Advent walk on Tuesday evenings leading up to Christmas. If you can’t join us, here is a PDF guide of the walks we are doing, and you are welcome to do this adventure on your own.

If you live elsewhere you may wish to try out this devotional exercise called “Befriending a Tree” with one of the trees in your neighbourhood.

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