Be strong to be useful
January 17, 2021
I awake this morning to a temperature of 32 degrees and a modest snow shower. The flakes fall with the same pace and urgency that I rise from bed; that is to say, very slowly. Following the required dog-attention, coffee, reading, and a shower, I put on a heavy fleece and cap and walk to the triple tree.
My house is surrounded by five acres of woods. Most of it is covered with bush honeysuckle, that invasive shrub that has cloaked so much of southern Ohio that it is hard to imagine the landscape without it. I am in the midst of a life long campaign to rid my hillside of the plant. There are also some beautiful mature trees, and the triple tree is one such specimen. It is an oak with a broad trunk, about four or five feet wide, that rises a few feet before splitting into three, nearly identical trunks. Each trunk is large enough to be a substantial oak on its own. It is a towering tree and the triumvirate of branches lords over the hillside that slopes down towards the creek at the bottom of the hill.
Our family discovered the triple tree on a hike through the woods, and it inspired us to create a trail loop that circumnavigates the property. That is another long-term work in progress, but it is clear enough for us to loop the nearly half-mile trail, which gives me untold satisfaction and a perfect fifteen-to-twenty minute hike whenever I want. The triple tree is a highlight of the trail and is a regular resting spot.
Today’s short trip to the tree, in the cold and wet, was a chance to be strenuous. Over the past year, my regular work as a church musician has been for obvious reasons disrupted. Sunday mornings currently mean an extra cup of coffee, and more time in my leather chair, when for the previous decade it meant leaving my family still in their beds and trying to warm up a voice and a mind before the first service of the day. Just as the feeling of late December waistbands inspire early January resolutions, some mornings push me to get out into the cold and be uncomfortable.
You could explain this desire to pursue discomfort in several ways. It could be that I am an idiot and a glutton for punishment. That is a fair accusation and likely true much of the time. Sometimes this kind of behavior is competitive; my son Jack and I have had competitions in the past to see who could last the longest in a cold shower. The challenge is to leave the shower handle further towards the cold than the previous occupant. There’s a classic psychological father-son battle in there, for sure.
A third possibility is that it is a desire to test myself, to push myself against the weight of life, to be strenuous in my action. It is certainly easier, and much more common, to avoid the strains of the world. We seek comfort and security for natural, evolutionary reasons, of course, but the modern world presents us with so much of that safety that we fall out of shape emotionally and intellectually, not to mention physically. In the same way that the overabundance of sugar, which in our natural state would be a rare resource of energy that our bodies are trained to devour, has become one of the most significant causes of serious health issues, the overabundance of safety has led us to a point where our population suffers from physiological and emotional issues like no point in our historical record. Look at our suicide rates and our rates of depression and anxiety. We are the safest we have ever been, and it’s killing us.
So, in the best of my mornings, I seek out a way to push myself. I force myself up and out to the triple tree. The air has a wet coldness that penetrates, and the trail is muddy and slick. I reach up to grab a few fallen trunks that hang suspended over the trail for support. I walk far enough to where the house disappears from view. In fact, at this spot, I can see nothing but woods. Occasionally car passes along Locust Corner Road at the hill bottom, but it does so sightlessly, with only the whush of sound disturbing the quiet among the grey trunks.
At the triple tree, I peer into the middle where the three trunks join. There is a small, relatively flat platform there, made up of dirt which has over the years created a packed floor. Scattered around this are cracked acorn shells; likely the dining room for squirrels, who might marvel at this perfect little oaken chapel made just for them.
It reminds me of one of my favorite adages: be strong to be useful. The motivation to be fit, to be healthy, to test yourself against the leverage of the world is only of value if you use it to be useful to others. The strength and beauty of the triple tree are awe-inspiring, but the true beauty is its place in the larger ecosystem. It provides shade and cover to wildlife. It’s roots secure the soil in the hillside, and the unique interior provides safety for hungry squirrels. The tree matters not because it is strong, but because it is a strong tree, and is good at doing “tree-stuff.”
We test ourselves to be good for others. We live strenuously to become strong to be of use.