Development, Tree Branches, and Justness

Let me tell you about the trees in my backyard. And then, I’ll tell you something about how to think of life, and why all these horticultural and biological metaphors I use matter.

I’ve written a lot — like a lot a lot — in the past year about a few things. Tarot is one. But another is the "ecosystem model" of magic and spirituality. I’m not sure yet if I’ve really said what I think the point is. I’ve talked about why using a gardening metaphor can helpfully complicate Hermeticism. I’ve written on how a strictly linear model of the universe ignores the world we actually live in. And so on, so forth.

But it’s worth asking, right? If I’m not insisting that this model is somehow more fundamentally correct than others, what’s the point? And I’m not insisting on that.

It comes down to two things. I don’t think the world is a punishment. I don’t think it’s fallen, or inherently evil, or troubling, or even tormenting. I think it just is. When I recite The Druid’s Prayer, I replace "justice" with "justness," because I think justice is a human thing, while "rightness," "wholeness," "justness," can more adequately describe living in harmony with the forces of the universe around and inside of us.

Which leads to the second thing: I think a significant point behind theurgy, magic, meditation, philosophy, and all that good stuff, is to help us to live in harmony with the systems around us. a lot of neopagan and druidic talk of living in harmony with nature is often about living in harmony with the agricultural cycle, which isn’t good or bad — it’s just where the focus has historically landed as those models developed. They often map onto astrological happenings, but as Andrew Watt wrote recently, there are gaps in that mapping, at least in popular histories.

I’m telling you all of that to tell you this: there are trees in my backyard.

There are five walnut trees, in fact. One is much larger and has boughs in a shape you would expect. We presume that is the oldest of the five, and we call her Big Momma. The other walnuts are downwind, very tall, thin, and sometimes look a bit like paintbrushes: foliage on top and bare bough leading up to it.

But if you stand to the south of them and look at them all, when the sun is upwind and casting shadows downwind, you can see that the walnut furthest away has developed one set of lush green boughs halfway up. They stick off, lopsided, reaching for the sunlight not blocked by Big Momma.

And this is what I think of when I stand there, looking out and up at these trees: that furthest tree looks different, and "funny," because it had to reach into some strange spots for the sun. But it has more green than the other children. Just a little, because of those extra leaves. You see, the trees all develop in a system together. They’re spaced out perfectly, because any walnuts dropped or planted any closer couldn’t survive. And the strange development of this one tree is within the system, but outside what a landscape artist would encourage. Indeed, a landscape artist would probably have removed all but one of the children long ago, so the remaining child would grow into that slightly rounded, bushy shape people want trees to look like.

Trees don’t look like that unless people make them look that way, usually. Apple trees want to go up, and farmers crop the tops so the apples are easy to reach. Tea plants are trees, not bushes, but they’re carefully sculpted so workers can reach all the delicate leaves without ladders. I knew a holly bush once the height of a three story building.

The point, as best I can word it, is that trees show us that the natural systems within which we live offer multiple means, many paths, to flourishing. And the oddities and past risks we ran that leave us shuddering now, or perhaps anxious or suffering with trauma, are the things we grew around. We push out our boughs in another direction to catch the sunlight there instead.

I’m by no means saying something trite and awful like "our trama makes us who we are." We could have done without the trauma, thanks. But despite it all, we can keep growing up and out anyway.

And that’s one of the values I find in my kind of druidry, in an ecosystem model of the universe itself, on both mundane and magical scales: we’re all different because we all had different stimuli, different access to resources. And when I think of justice, I insist that we all have access to the same resources. Equality without equity is not enough. But when I think of justness, a principle that I believe is more cosmic than human, I think of the tree growing out of the shadow of other trees, because there’s no other way it would do it. And while the trees are competing for light, they aren’t really — they grow as they were going to grow, and react to the situation around them.

"Living in harmony with/in" is a loaded phrase that’s more polysemous than I’m equipped to handle. And the idea that "our history is what makes us who we are" is trite at this point, I know. But it feels as though there’s a confluence there, that learning to perceive what surrounds us as a system and then working to support that system, because the system makes us and we make it — that seems useful somehow.

And in terms of human justice, if "shaping the system" means completely rewriting it to remove all the things that oppress people? That’s still meaningfully shaping it, getting it to hew closer to justness, which supports everything within the system, and not just parasites that have reprogrammed it or cut off a section from the whole.

Think of it this way: a beaver dam stops up a river to support beavers, but once the water fills it up, the rest goes on its way again. Compare that to a human capitalist who finds a way to get more out of the system than they put in and they keep siphoning it off — it never goes anywhere, never supports the system again. One is an example of living in harmony with, and the other is not. The fact that the latter is legal within the justice system while so clearly violating the harmonious justness of the world is, perhaps, already evident.

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