Can We See the Forest for the Trees?

By Sister Anne Lythgoe, OP
First Councilor, Dominican Sisters of Peace and President of the Dominican Sisters Conference

An Address to the DSC Annual Leaders Meeting, October 2022

For quite a while we have described the DSC as a container in which many different Dominican projects and organizations find common ground. But more and more I’m finding that image to be too static and lacking energy.

Recently, Corinne Sanders, a member of the Executive Committee, introduced me to the book The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben and translated from German by Jane Billingshurst. It is both a scientific and imaginative description of how plant and tree life is interactive, is protective of each other, provides sustainability, sees decay as nutrient, and the forest as community.

I find it to be an intriguingly beautiful metaphor for Dominican Life as it is today and how I hope it will be in the future. This is what I want to share with you tonight.

Now I’m sure there are many more of you who know more about ecosystems than I do. I’m not a scientist! But like you, I have been awakened to the complexity of earth, with all its walking, crawling, and flying creatures, water systems, weather patterns, mountains, and valleys. I invite you to open yourself to the metaphor of seeing the DSC as part of the ecosystem of Dominican women in the US today. A complex, organic, ever-changing, rising, and falling, expanding, and contracting collection of organizations in diverse relationships –with shared roots, exchanges of energies, interests, shared passions, and frailties. A dense and beautiful forest. This is a truth I invite you to pursue.

I am asking: can we see the forest for our own trees?

Can the hidden life of trees illuminate our own Conference, not just all of us as leaders, but illuminate the complexity of Dominican women in the DSC?

Forest as community

Wohlleben describes the forest as a community. Trees share food within their own species and sometimes even with competitors. A single tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather— but together many trees create a community that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water and generates humidity. A recipe for growth.

Within the forest, Wohlleben describes fungi as a kind of fiber optic cable that penetrates the ground and can send signals from one tree to another, helping them share news about insects, drought, or other dangers. The interconnectivity of fungi and tree roots extends the longevity of the trees. It’s easy for us to recognize the interconnectedness and complexity of the root system of forest trees.

The DSC community is about sharing our resources, so we become stronger together. A concrete example of this is the fact that our member congregations have committed and pledged over $6.7 million to create the Pooled Investment Fund – which will ultimately assure the financial stability of our organization. We thank you again for your generosity and we celebrate this moment in our Conference history as one of the necessary action points of sustainability.

The primary purpose of our meeting this week is to renew our relationships with one another and share our common goals, insights, and experiences that inform how we will move and act together going forward. This is a forest of friendship, of caring for one another and partnering for mission. Our deepest common desire is to foster Dominican Life and Mission.

We are fond of describing the ancestral Radisbon Dominican Tree, the historic connection of some of our congregations. The trouble is– not all of us are part of that particular tree. A fuller and truer image of the DSC is seeing our connections as interrelated roots that touch one another, nurture one another. A tree is connected under the soil to other members of its family: oak tree to oak tree, pine tree to pine tree and neighbor to neighbor. The trees know how to relate to one another and nourish one another in a subterranean network of feelers that sense the presence and exchange of other energies.

The forest is home to so much life! Every bug you can imagine, worms, birds, beetles, ticks, vines, flowering shrubs, and fern. Not to mention wildlife — lions and tigers and bears! OH MY!

Our Dominican forest is not nearly as diverse as God’s forest, but I think we could be surprised by how diverse our efforts to preach the Gospel really are.

Let me demonstrate that for you.

This is our forest. We are interconnected, complex, compassionate. The singular truth we all share is our dedication to a common Dominican Life and Mission – an integral ecosystem and it is our gifted place to continually nurture it to build the capacity for our life and our mission together. Because no one of us is an isolated tree in the forest— no one of us can stand alone. This free gift that God has offered us, and we have embraced with all of our hearts —this Dominican life and mission is truly an ecosystem.

As you know, some trees live to be thousands of years old. In California, a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree, known as Methuselah, is over 4,853 years old. The Dominican Order is 806 years old; the Dominican Sisters in the US are 200 years old, and we, the great, great, great granddaughters – the descendants of the Conference of the Dominican Mothers General of America are 87 years old. (I bet some of you didn’t know that!) So, in tree time –we might be considered young. We have sisters who are over 90– Some of them are continuing in ministry actively and fully. We have a sister who is 93 and plays the trombone at Mass. I’m sure you can name similar members with amazing vitality.

But none of us have the luxury of acting like we will live forever. Indeed, I dare say much of our time in leadership is taken up with sustainability.

Whollenben describes decay as nutrient.

We’re not fond of the word decay, but that is what is happening. Our losses have been significant and give us a stark window into our reality of aging. In the forest, decay and death become nutrients for the rest of the forest. Think about the forest floor. Full of a mixture of new young growth and fallen trees that slowly serve as the humus, the dark rich soil that contains the forest of the future.

The sisters and associates, friends, colleagues, who have gone before us. They become part of our roots and we are nourished by their memory. We are nurtured by the broad and joyous spirit of sisters and associates, our friends and partners in mission. Their memory and legacy feed our souls and warm our hearts against the chilling storms we face.

Decay and death remind us that this is no magical forest where nothing is ever amiss. We can understand the natural elements of decay and disintegration that nurture our roots. But there are other formidable dangers.

You know quite well your own need to build capacity for your mission. So too, the DSC has its own dangers. We must address the capacity of the DSC to provide the services we count on. We have begun to address the financial situation, which is an essential nutrient. There are other pressing needs.

Quite some time ago the OP Sisterhood Task Force recommended that we have a full-time person in the role of fostering the relationships and integral ecology of the under-70 cohort. Now, the Futuring Leadership Team (FLT) Is looking for some part-time assistance and we will talk about that later this week.

The Executive Committee has also held the hope of a full-time marketing and communications director. Most importantly, we need to complete a successful search for a new executive director. And we’re so indebted to Mary Ellen O’Grady, OP for her fine work. So, during our time together I’m asking you to really think about all of the talented people and capable people who populate your part of the forest. Can you think of the needs of the DSC– in the role of the executive director –and imagine someone you know who could tend to our ecosystem- and cultivate our relationships?

Later in our time together the Executive Committee will present to you a Roadmap –a kind of Laudato Si Action Plan for the DSC. You will see there, four characteristics to our terrain: the hard work being done by the FLT to develop the vitality of the under 70 cohort. We also note the work of the Associates and Sisters Committee and their efforts to extend the roots and the vitality of the forest. I’ve already talked with you about the financial sustainability of the organization and we feel we’re getting strong there.

And we formed a DSC Justice Conversation Committee which calls us to more collaboration among our Justice Promoters, so we truly speak with one voice.

Our work this week will take up these matters.

Our DSC forest itself experiences similar existential threats as our world faces the realities of climate change and the threat of extinction. Species are disappearing, old growth forests are being destroyed.

Sharon Zayac, OP, tells us, “We are all working to face the reality that climate disruption is very real, with ever-increasing devastation; to recognize that we all live in an inter-connected world.”

Peter Whollenben calls it integral ecology. We each can name the threats and dangers around us that are real and immediate, and in the news every day.

So, I ask now: what is this complex Dominican forest asking of us, we who find a common home here? This symbolic forest needs to have the same kind of stewardship and care as we do for earth itself.

We are here not to simply maintain the networks of this forest, but to pour ourselves out, to praise, to bless and to preach the liberating message of the Gospel. Dominican Life and Mission is a call to be a source of nourishment, physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually to God’s people. To all people, and to be an agent of renewal for the community of earth itself.

Blooming flowers, hibiscus, roses, jonquils, and tulips stand erect with faces to the sun. They welcome the bee who churns up sweet golden honey. This Dominican forest invites us to be a refreshing, inspiring and beautiful image of our Creator God.

Let us begin our time together in hope.

Posted in News

2 responses to “Can We See the Forest for the Trees?

  1. Dear Anne,
    What a rich image…
    A Dominican forest rich with fecundity, diversity, decay, nourishment and new life. As a biologist, my interest is piqued to learn more about The Hidden Life of Trees and how it relates to our Dominican lives and as humans on this fragile planet. As a vocation director, I am encouraged to explore this forest as I guide others into its mystery, “and the dark rich soil that contains the forest of the future.”

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