Girdling the Tree of Life

Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18)

The Tree of Life has its roots in the earth but reaches up to heaven, drawing nourishment from the light. This conjunction of heaven and earth is also true of human beings, who are created in God’s image but are formed from the dust of the ground. We humans talk of putting down roots, by which we usually mean settling down in some particular place. As farmers since the Neolithic era, we understand how living things are nourished by the soil. We also understand how they grow upward toward the light.

A tree will slowly die if you strip off the bark around the trunk. This is called girdling. The tree continues to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil, which are carried up through the trunk to the leaves and branches. The leaves continue to convert sunlight into sugar; however, girdling cuts off the flow of sugar from the leaves to the roots through the bark. Eventually the roots are starved, and the tree dies.

Civilizations may survive war or cataclysm but not spiritual atrophy. It is not always easy to tell that a culture has lost its spiritual vitality. The vital signs cannot be directly measured, which is why the Soviet Union continued to be regarded as a formidable power almost until the day it collapsed. The Soviets endured civil war, famine, show trials, labor camps, foreign invasions and the deaths of millions. If anything, they drew strength from the enormity of their suffering. It took the liberal reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, abetted by a failed coup d'etat of comic ineptitude, to bring down the Soviet Empire. Their end was like that of an old married couple who discovered only after the kids had left home that they had nothing left to say to one another.

The gnarled outer bark of a tree is dead tissue, so it is not always possible to tell by looking whether the layers beneath continue to carry sustenance to the roots. One can determine only in retrospect whether signs of decay are seasonal or irreversible. A civilization may continue for some time to go through the motions and pay obeisance to the old pieties. Yet its people no longer build monuments that reflect their highest aspirations. There are no new pyramids, no cathedrals, no great libraries. Nothing is built to last, because deep down they don’t believe anything will. Their only monument, as the poet said, is “the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls.” They seek to be entertained rather than enlightened, well fed but starved for truth. They conclude that nothing is worth dying for, and so they perish.

T.S. Eliot, “Choruses” from The Rock

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