"A City Is No Place for a Tree": Why Your City-Soul Ultimately Longs for God
The white dust was crawling up the leaves, smothering the green, and shading them from the sun. I stopped on the well-beaten path to the supermarket to get a closer look. Puzzled, I wondered, ¨What is going on with this tree?¨ The surrounding leaves showed similar signs of struggle and decay. In fact, when I looked up to observe the remaining sycamores, I couldn’t make out a single healthy leaf among the foliage. Yet, I couldn’t feel a hint of chill on the sea breeze. The steamy blanket of summer still hung over the streets. It was simply too early for these trees to be shedding so many leaves. Perhaps I was looking at the damage wrought by every gardener’s nightmare—the ever-present and irradicable powdery mildew. I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected that some fetid disease had long since overtaken these stunted giants. Frankly, they looked miserable, clinging to life in the dry riverbed of Vilassar de Mar, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona.
What is going on with this tree?
When I arrived in Europe, I struggled to connect the European Sycamores I saw with their mighty American cousins, the kings of the riverbanks. Back in college, I remember swinging from rope swings fastened to their proud, lofty branches. Sometimes the branches would comfortably reach the middle of the wide Maury River, surging down from the Appalachians. You might go so far as to say that the original American summer, an American Boy’s Handy Book type of summer, would never have reached its full glory without the river giants. Where would the fun be in swinging from a flimsy twenty-foot high branch of the sickly European Sycamore? You certainly couldn’t pull off anything to impress your friends, such as a triple backflip. You wouldn’t feel the same fear scrambling up the long steep trunks with wet muddy feet. Worst of all, the air would never flap and whistle through your ears as you plunged towards the cool water below.
As my second summer in Vilassar de Mar drew its last breaths, the mysterious white dust returned. It clung to the leaves like cream-colored flour. To this day I’m not sure what exactly ails the European Sycamores, leaving them aching to draw closer to the sky.
Though the mystery lives on, I did find one clue when I moved to Barcelona. All of the Sycamore trees here suffer from the same blight as the ones in Vilassar—if it is indeed a blight. What was first a nagging suspicion, subtle and slight as a minnow nibbling at my toes, has crystalized into a sad certainty: A city is no place for a tree.
Whether the creeping white should be attributed to the lack of rainfall, the inhospitable soil, the endless concrete, or the city workers hacking at wayward branches, it doesn’t really matter. The truth is writ large. No tree thrives in this type of environment. No tree is at home in the middle of an utterly human landscape. At best a tree can hope to survive. A select few defy the odds and reveal to us bittersweet glimpses of their true nobility. They are the exception, not the norm.
A city is no place for a tree.
But what about the parks, you say, what about those vaunted green spaces filtering pure air to our lungs? Isn’t the solution just to have more parks in our cities? Although I’m among the first to welcome more parks into our urban grey, a park is to nature as a caged canary is to its free brother. The feathers are bright, but a stubborn dullness refuses to be washed away. The song is different—still alluring—but somehow tinged with sadness. The cage is even more formidable, stopping the spread of nature in its tracks. They call it concrete. It surrounds the green on all sides like an overgrown frame.
In many ways, technology has given wings to our world. Civilization is progressing faster than ever, and short of a global warming catastrophe, our species will reach its true potential—or so the techno-optimists tell us. Yet for all of our scientific progress, nature—wild, stunning, glorious nature—struggles to coexist with us in our cities. A harmonious unity has failed to materialize between the most characteristically human geography and the forces that sustain it. Nature and cities cannot hold hands.
Does the human soul face the same plight as the sycamores in our cities?
I can’t help but wonder whether the human soul faces the same plight as the sycamores in our cities. The majority of the world’s population has already migrated to urban areas, and the trend shows no signs of letting up. Don’t get me wrong: I love living in the middle of the ant nest with all of its buzzing complexity and pulsating energy. Yet the doubt persists. Perhaps the white dust has filtered down into our city-souls, smothering some vital energy deep in the human heart. Perhaps the sharp geometry of the skyscrapers stunts the growth of our humanity. We long for the effortless beauty of nature. We secretly ache for some reason, some grand power that exists independently of our plans and intellects.
I still vividly recall what it was like to gaze upon Yosemite Valley for the first time. My friends and I drove up from San Diego nonstop through the night, and by the time we made it to the Sierra’s shoulders, I felt as groggy as a hungover sailor. At last, a long tunnel swallowed us like a portal into some lost world. The light before us grew brighter. And then we emerged. I wasn’t prepared for the towering glory that enveloped us. Wide smiles overpowered our features. Wonder and awe radiated from our eyes. What glory. Somehow, the weight of that glory healed me. The surety of my insignificance, lost in the face of that timeless panorama, gave way to a bounding joy. For a few brief moments, that wordless grandeur left no room for my pride, no room for my self-absorption. There I was, a mere mortal, a tiny speck of life, lost beneath a virgin sky.
Our souls have a desperate need for God.
The inexplicable glory of nature will continue to beckon us out of our cities for generations to come. Its mystery will grow as our apparent self-sufficiency increases. The clarity of its light will not tarnish with age. For nature’s glory speaks of an unspeakable glory—its ever-budding growth of life itself, its harmony of our need for relational perfection. Our liberating insignificance in the presence of nature is just a nagging symptom of our desperate need to be humbled before God Almighty. The ancient words continue to summon us: ¨Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psa. 46:10).
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name. (Amos 5:8)
God stitched into our city-souls a longing to live harmoniously with nature. He stitched it into the same fabric of beings who were meant to walk beneath the indescribable glory of God himself.
Recommended: The Majesty on High: Introduction to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament by S. M. Baugh