Walking through the high school courtyard on my way to the office one day in spring, I ran into a tree … so to speak. The sight of a monkey-thorn acacia in full bloom stopped me in my tracks. As I stood transfixed, gaping up at the branches, a colleague came up behind me. “What are you looking at?” I could barely speak. “This … tree … is amazing …” Every inch looked covered in tiny, feathery, yellow flowers. The bark was barely visable. I had not seen this kind of flowering before. I stood soaking in the image and fragrance, and my colleague laughed. “So, you have arbor ardor!” My head swiveled sharply and I stared at him, doubly struck. Not only had he recognized it in me, but he had given a name to my condition! That was it! Arbor ardor.
This Christmas, I came across a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. The book makes accessible to the lay reader numerous studies in forest ecology: how trees interact and communicate with each other and with other species in their ecosystem. Though a short and easy read, the research he cites is fascinating. For example, did you know …
- Trees “talk”. When leaves or bark are under attack, many species will release chemical compounds into the air to warn other trees. All the trees within reach of the message will begin filling their leaves with toxins to deter the possible attacker. Acacias do this when giraffe come nibbling ’round. Other trees will release chemical compounds through their roots. Tree roots often grow out twice as wide as the crown and overlap with other root systems, allowing all those within a root network to pass along the chemical message. Besides chemical communication, trees also communicate through electrical impulses. Electrical messages are passed across long distances through the supporting fungal network in the soil.
- Conversely, trees isolated from communication are both more vulnerable and a threat to the whole ecosystem. If the methods of communication are inhibited and/or damaged, individual trees become vulnerable to attack. If a tree attracts pests due to its isolation, it also becomes a liability to the forest community. The pests multiply, and their ability to mount an attack on healthier trees increases.
- Trees of the same species share resources. They invest in the success of other trees. For example, research into old-growth beech and pine forests has shown that these trees share sugar (produced in photosynthesis) through their root systems. Those growing in poorer soil or low light have as much as those growing in more ideal locations. If some are attacked by pests, the healthy trees will share food with their sick neighbors. Some trees will go so far as to keep alive the nearby stumps of those that have died by pumping nutrients into the roots.
So what does all this have to do with gossip?
In this cancer journey, I have been thinking a lot about communities and how they do or don’t communicate. Gossip – that which is said about someone not present in the conversation – often gets a bad rap. It’s true that sometimes the reputation is justified. Humans do have a nasty way of using words to undermine and hurt each other. We slander and mock, back-bite and accuse, sabotage and attack. This kind of communication does not add health to a community; it tends to prevent both the individual and the group from flourishing. However, I have discovered that the complete absence of gossip can also be a symptom of poor health. In an effort to protect the privacy of individuals, it is possible to break the channels of healthy communication. If the individuals within a community have no knowledge of their neighbors, how are they to help? How is the community to hold together? Robust and diverse modes of communication are a sign of a healthy community. There is such a thing as “good gossip”.
Here are a few thoughts on illness and its relationship to good gossip based on my own experience these last 7 months.
- When you’re sick or recovering, sharing your news and/or progress with everyone individually can be exhausting. Good gossip helps lighten that load. When members of the community help share the message that one of their own is not well, the burden of information does not rest solely on the one who is weakest. [CAUTION: this information should stay factual and close to the source. Too many degrees of separation can twist the info, and that isn’t helpful either. The one who is sick may still have to untangle it later.]
- The purpose of good gossip is always help for the one in need. When members of a community talk about each other’s suffering, it gives them an opportunity to reach out. Different people have different gifts – different ways of supporting each other. Sharing news allows each to respond to the need in a unique way. The one who is struggling gets differentiated help from those who have resources to share. [SIDE NOTE: while the words “let me know what I can do to help” may be well-intentioned, they are often the least helpful. The one who is struggling physically, emotionally, or psychologically will also struggle to think ‘big picture’. It is difficult to make a list of your needs and consider how to delegate those needs when you are just trying to stay afloat. It is even more emotionally draining to name a specific need and then have that same well-intentioned person say “ooh well, I’m actually busy then …” If you want to offer help, be specific about how. Say instead, “Can I … make you a meal? Give you a ride? Take you for coffee? Clean your house? Run any errands? Help with the garden? Help with the kids?” If you want to support someone but don’t know how, get ideas from the people closest to them. That’s great gossip in action.]
- Good gossip makes the healthy healthier. When people talk about the suffering of another in caring and thoughtful ways, they help each other understand that suffering. They examine the cause and consider the process. They examine their own reserves and consider their own response. It is an opportunity to prepare for a similar experience.
In short, a lesson from the trees: gossip that is good supports the health of the community. People can look out for each other, respond to each other, and care. Gossip that is bad is, of course, competitive and destructive, but non communication is also bad. Not talking can be as unhealthy as bad talking. Help each other give specific help.
May our roots overlap and our crowns bloom in season.
Coming soon: update on all the recent scan results (good news/bad news) and a summary of my trip to India.