If a Tree Talks in the Forest, Does it Make a Sound? (On Tu Bishvat)

Today is Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees.

Originally an ancient holiday used to determine the age of trees and the fitness of fruit for Temple offerings, the day in contemporary times has become an opportunity to reflect on Jewish views of nature. Adopting a mystical tradition, we hold a Seder (as on Passover) and eat fruits and nuts and share stories and songs about trees and other aspects of nature.

In preparing for Tu Bishvat this year, I came across this midrash (Torah commentary):

In Genesis 2:5 we read, “No shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no herb of the filed had yet sprung up because God had not caused it to rain and there was no person to till the earth.” The word for shrub is siach, which means that the trees conversed (m’sichin) with one another. (Genesis Rabbah 13:1)

The rabbis of the midrash are engaging in a bit of word play. In the verse from Genesis (from the story of Creation), the word used for “shrub” in Hebrew is siach. The word siach can also have the meaning of “conversation.” Because of the two meanings embedded in the one word, the rabbis imagine that the trees therefore are conversing with each other.

This idea of a conversation among trees is fascinating, and I thought it was a beautiful metaphor. And then I came across this video:

The idea of trees talking to one another is not just metaphor, but science. Trees communicate; the trees of a forest are not solitary, but rather deeply intertwined and connected.

This is a good reminder this Tu Bishvat. Oftentimes on Tu Bishvat we focus on our relationship with trees and nature: How trees meet our needs for resources, oxygen, food, etc. and how therefore we must meet their needs as well. But we would do well to focus on how the trees have a relationship with each other, how life on this planet is deeply interconnected and complex. And the most humbling aspect of that notion is that the extent of that complexity is probably unknowable.

Happy Tu Bishvat!

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