New research from the U.S. Geological Survey has uprooted decades of established dendrological study. Not familiar with dendrology? It is the scientific word for botanical studies related to trees. And it turns out that science has been barking up the wrong tree for some time now.
The conventional understanding has been that young trees are healthier and grow faster than old trees, not unlike human beings. Then, when a tree reaches maturity, it stops. Not so, says the new research. Trees reach a limit as far as height goes, yes, but they never stop growing out. In fact, trees grow faster the older they get.
Again, this sounds human-like. Eventually we stop growing up, but we start growing out — thickening in the middle. But trees aren’t putting on fat, as it were; they are packing on pure botanical muscle. When properly rooted, getting the sustenance needed, trees get stronger the older they get.
Researcher Nate Stephenson said, “We’re not talking about the tree-equivalent of an aging crowd with beer guts. Old trees are more like active, healthy bodybuilders. It’s as if, on your favorite sports team, you find out the star players are a bunch of 90-year-olds … They are the ones scoring the most points.” Growth such as this, according to the new research, could go on indefinitely.
This “discovery” is nothing new. An ancient sage long ago understood this principle as he or she penned what we now call Psalm 1. Speaking of those who are rooted in the words and way of God, the writer said: “They are strong, like a tree planted by a river. The tree produces fruit in season, and its leaves don’t die. Everything they do will succeed.”
It’s not unlikely that Psalm 1 dates back to the time of the Jewish exodus out of Egypt, and that’s important to the image this Psalm portrays. Egypt was, and remains, largely desert. But the country, for its entire history, has had one life-giving source of abundance: The Nile River.
From prehistoric times until today, farmers have relied upon its annual flooding to deposit mineral rich silt on their fields, and they have dug canals leading away from the river so the streams of water will irrigate their crops, water their animals, and sustain their fruit trees. That is the image, a tree thriving in one of the most uninviting places one could conceive: The Sahara Desert.
It’s more than three million square miles of waterless earth holding rocks, mountains, and sand dunes higher than sky scrapers. Temperatures can exceed 130 degrees in the day and drop to freezing at night. Gale force winds are common. The Sahara is the most caustic climate on earth, and still, there are trees growing and blooming in that endless desert.
This stumps observers at first glance, but a closer investigation tells the tale. The most vibrant specimens have deep, extensive root systems that tap into primordial sources of water; root systems that did not develop over a decade. No, these trees are centuries, and sometimes, millennia old.
Is life easy for such trees? No, life appears impossible. Yet, the impossibility of it all is what makes this lesson so astonishingly clear: A tough climate does not rob a well-nourished tree of its strength. The climate reveals its strength, for outer severity cannot exterminate the tree. It can only expose the tree’s inner wellbeing.
So it is with people. When you see a person of character, stability, authenticity, and strength in an otherwise desolate landscape, you know that something life-giving is beneath the surface, for neither trees nor people grow green and strong in the desert without a supply of water.
And interesting enough, some of the strongest, most vibrant people are those with more than few tree-rings under their bark. They are sturdier than the many saplings whipping in the wind because they are older. They have remained rooted in faith for a long time. That’s how faith works. Stick with it; it will grow on you, and in time, you will grow with it.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.