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Working through my anger and sadness about the obscene attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I couldn’t help being struck and even comforted by the constant invocation of the temple’s potently life-affirming name. I’ve always loved the vibrant imagery of trees laden with fruits and birds found in textiles, paintings, sculptures and ceramics. It’s a spiritually vital concept rooted in world religions and in countless creation myths across cultures on every continent. The oldest known example, a stone carving more than 9,000 years old, was recently discovered in southern Turkey. The Tree of Life is described in the book of Genesis; in Proverbs it signifies the blessings of wisdom and understanding (3:18), righteous action (11:30), hopefulness (13:12) and speaking with “a gentle tongue” (15:4). In Revelations 22:2, its leaves are prescribed “for the healing of nations.” In Nordic tradition, the World Tree, Yggdrasil, celebrates the rich variety of creation and links heaven, earth and the underworld. In China, the tree hosts dragons and phoenixes, symbols of immortality. In Navaho tradition, it depicts the interconnectedness of all life and humans’ relationship to other living things flowing backward and forward through time.
For centuries, tree diagrams have also been used to organize information into lineages and conceptual hierarchies. In 1859 Charles Darwin hypothesized “the affinities of all beings”: how all forms of life might be descended from a common ancestor and mapped on a kind of family tree. Biologists have been working ever since to flesh out the specifics of this theoretical framework. In 2015, the National Science Foundation initiated the “Open Tree of Life,” which synthesizes more than 500 earlier trees. This work continues to evolve, and researchers have recently proposed that a huge quantity of bacterial life has yet to be identified. Their studies are redrawing the biological tree of life with new branches representing previously unknown phyla living in hot springs, oceanic water and even the human mouth.
On October 30, the World Wildlife Fund, the Global Footprint Network, and the Zoological Society of London published their biennial Living Planet Report, which assesses global biodiversity and ecological health by tracking more than 4,000 mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian species. The report documents a stunning 60% decline overall in wildlife vertebrate populations between 1970 and 2014, largely through loss of habitat, over-consumption by humans, environmental degradation and climate change. South and Central America are the hardest hit. WWF has sounded an alarm: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is. This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’—it is our life-support system.”
In two weeks we will gather to celebrate family ties and the abundance around us. It might be a good time to ponder, as one Navaho elder suggests, “How we can live as rational beings in this world.” The enduring concept of the Tree of Life—simultaneously spiritual and scientific—might help guide this conversation.