Why trees?

I’ve been promising a blog post for a long time to explain why I chose the name The Arbor Fellowship for this project. Here we go.

Naming is an interesting thing to think about for a business that deals in creativity and faith, because naming is the first creative act God handed over human beings:

“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19)

We aren’t told if language already existed between God and Adam (Eve hadn’t been created yet) so it’s hard to imagine what process Adam used to name the animals. Our word “hippopotamus” comes from Greek words meaning “river horse.” Did Adam use a similar process of comparing the animals with what he already knew and had language for to name them? Or did he just put sounds together that he liked together and thought fit the beast?

Similarly, what I’ve experienced in naming many pets, and a few businesses, is that (1) the name relates to something I want to recognize or call out, but also (2) I just like the way it sounds and fits.

There are a lot of layers in the name The Arbor Fellowship, so it will need more than one blog post to fully unpack it. But, in brief, it has to do with:

  • Trees as a metaphor for how the arts work,
  • The presence, role, and meaning of trees in the Bible,
  • The importance of community for human flourishing.

These are all things I want to recognize or call out with the name.* I also like the way it sounds and fits with what I hope The Arbor Fellowship will become.

Trees as a metaphor

For much of my career, I’ve been trying to explain why the arts matter to people who don’t get it. Usually these people haven’t had the kinds of experiences with the arts that will show them why so many people (and God) believe the arts are worth investing in.  

Metaphors are effective ways of communicating ideas. The Grammarly website says, “A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.” A metaphor paints a word picture, so it can be even more effective than the “thousand words” of explanation made redundant by the picture. In trying to explain the value of the arts to people who don’t yet get it, we often lose them with many thousands of words where a good word picture would do the job better.

Here are some observations about trees that metaphorically apply to the arts as well – at least to me. Metaphors are also personal and may not resonate with someone else, especially if they don’t have the same background knowledge and context that I have. If someone doesn’t know anything about how the arts work, or how trees work, they won’t understand my metaphors. I’m not going to unpack them here because, well, explaining each metaphorical picture would take a thousand words and that would be a really long blog. I’d love to read how you interpret these metaphors for the arts, and any other metaphors you can think of, in the Comments.

  • Trees are beautiful to look at. Different varieties, shapes, and sizes create different aesthetic experiences. The variety is part of their beauty.
  • In addition to beauty, trees provide shade and oxygen to benefit people and the rest of the ecosystem.
  • Some grow to maturity quickly, some very slowly. Even when immature, however, they can bear fruit and are beautiful in their own way.
  • The component parts are useful – wood for building, leaves for compost, fruit and nuts to nourish people.
  • Unseen root system, necessary to physically and nutritionally support the tree, may be as vast and large as the tree itself.
  • The root system has different biological needs than the above-ground portion – it feeds on water and soil, whereas leaves feed on sunlight.
  • Root systems break up hard soil and provide organic matter, aiding other trees and plants around the tree.
  • In some ecosystems and varieties of tree, individual trees’ root systems can actually merge and nourish other trees.
  • In a forest, one tree might not have an obvious individual identity, but it functions as part of a community that creates the forest ecosystem.
  • When alone in a landscape, one tree has more individual impact and gets more of the resources; but it suffers from the lack of benefits that being “in community” might give. And when it’s gone, it’s more deeply missed.

And there are many others, including the most important one to me. Here’s a story, which is a type of metaphor:

When Chuck and I first moved to Waco, we lived at the Good Neighbor House. The house had been abandoned years before and had become derelict. A Baylor social work professor bought the house and began renovating it to reopen as a community center in the “settlement house” model, where the workers live on-site to serve their community. My main job was revitalize the yard and create some gardens. A friend gave me two young trees in pots, neither more than a foot tall. I babied them on the sun porch through the first winter. They lost their leaves (as trees do in the winter), and the other folks who lived at Good Neighbor teased me about watering dead sticks. But, five years later, who’s laughing? Those trees are now 8 and 12 feet tall and, God willing, will benefit their surroundings for another hundred years or more.

Who’re you calling a dead stick?

I’ve also planted two trees at the house we’re living in now. Chuck and I will likely leave Waco before too long, and if I was to visit in 10 or 20 years, guess where I’d go first? Yep, I’d check on those four trees. God created the trees, but then He gave them to me to plant and tend. Their survival will depend on a lot of things but, if God so chooses, they will outlive me by decades and continue to bless everyone who experiences them. And I think that’s one of the most important things I could have done with my time here.

Trees in the Bible

Dr. Matthew Sleeth, author of Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love For Us, said in an interview that

[Trees] are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible other than people and God. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The first psalm tells us to be like a tree. Every major character and every major theological event has a tree marking the spot…. The only thing that Jesus ever harms is a tree, and the only thing that can harm him is a tree. From Moses and Gideon in the Old Testament, to Nathaniel and Zacchaeus in the New Testament, God has a consistent pattern of meeting his people by trees.

Trees are clearly important in God’s story, His living metaphor for us.

These lines from Psalm 1 are important to the mission of The Arbor Fellowship:

That’s what I want for the young artists I’ll be working with. I want to see them standing firm. I want to see them flourishing, deeply rooted, and bearing fruit in every season of life.

A community of trees

But the name of the project isn’t “The Tree Fellowship” or even “The Forest Fellowship.” It’s The Arbor Fellowship. What is an arbor? The Latin word arbor does mean “tree.” But the Online Etymology Dictionary (yes, I have it bookmarked…) says that the English word “arbor” came from:

c. 1300, herber, “herb garden, pleasure garden,” from Old French erbier “field, meadow; kitchen garden,” from Latin herba “grass, herb” (see herb). Later “a grassy plot” (mid-14c., a sense also in Old French), “shaded nook, bower formed by intertwining of trees, shrubs, or vines” (mid-14c.). It is probably not from Latin arbor “tree” (see arbor (n.2)), though perhaps that word has influenced its spelling….

So, in the English word “arbor,” there’s both a sense of cultivation and a sense that an arbor’s purpose is pleasure. An arboretum is “a place where trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes”; but, despite the clinical objective, an arboretum is also a beautiful place to wander around.

And, finally, “fellowship.” The purpose of The Arbor Fellowship is to bring young and experienced artists together to support and benefit each other. The book I’m working on now is for young artists, but it’s being written in community with experienced artists, with about 1/3 of the book being their words. Eventually I’d like to bring emerging and experienced artist together more directly to “inspire each other to greater love and to righteous deeds…encouraging each other, especially as the day of His return approaches.”(Hebrews 10:24-25, The Voice).

Remember the little tree.

*And “Leaf by Niggle.”

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