Abundant networks: a participant's reflection

A participant reflection from the ending point of the course Tree of Life, exploring the abundant relationships between human and trees. Hannah Hooper writes: "If we create space to listen to the expressions of plants and land, we might gain a deeper understanding of engaging in the gift economy, embracing shared abundance, and fostering communities of care."

I started writing this article on Black Friday, a day characterised by unintentional consumption and rampant consumerism. Every time I log onto social media, I am bombarded with advertisements for unnecessary things. Feeling overwhelmed, I decided to take a walk. The air is crisp and cool, signalling the changing seasons. As I walk, I observe the trees shedding their leaves, gracefully descending from the sky to the forest floor. Amidst the relentless advertisements, it is easy to succumb to the desire for more, as we are constantly told that we don’t have enough.

During this walk, I reflect on the concept of abundance and what it truly means when we detach it from the dominant narrative of acquiring "more things". Once again, the trees serve as a reminder of the original essence of abundance, before it was intertwined with materialism and consumerism. In my eyes, abundance is a state of overflow, where our cup is so full that we can generously give to others. This state of abundance is evident in the interconnectedness of tree networks and nature as a whole.

Trees have been connected to divinity for thousands of years. In Hindu mythology, The Tree of Life is a symbol of fertility and abundance; associated with the goddess Lakshmi, the deity of wealth and prosperity. The peepal tree—Ficus religiosa, sacred fig—is the tree of creation. It is known as the dwelling place of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. The tree of life, or the cosmic tree, is also referred to by the name ‘Asvattha, in the UpanishadsIt is often depicted upside-down, its roots stretching towards to heavens and its branches reaching for the earth — a conduit between the spirit world, and the Earth.

Abundance can also look like activism rooted in heart-centred action. We can see this take place in the ecofeminist Chipko (meaning “embrace” in Urdu) Movement of 1973. It was one of the first recorded ecofeminist political demonstrations and originated from the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, India. Inspired by the Bishnoi — a sect of Vishnu worshippers— more than 2,000 women set out to the forest in protest, after a sports company was given clearance to cut down trees for their equipment. Stood hand-in-hand, surrounding the trees, they protected their other-than-human kin, and after days of protests the company's permit was revoked. In countries like India, women are in the best position to understand and address the needs of their communities. Their roles within households and society provide them with insights into how deforestation affects their ways of living and contributes to gender-based violence resulting from the exploitation of their lands.

Additionally, many religious and cultural beliefs recognise the divinity of trees and their relationship to women. Leading cultural scholar of India, Kapila Vatsyayan writes, “The most functionally meaningful and inspirer of countless myths and the richest treasure of Indian sculptural motif is the Vrishkika, also called by other names—YakshiSursundari and many others. They stand against trees, embrace them and thus become an aspect of the tree articulating the interpretation of the plant and the human. The tree is dependent upon the woman for its fertility as is the woman on the tree.”[1] Sumerian, as well as Babylonian and Assyrian mythologies, shared in the belief of a matriarchal deity depicted through the image of a great cosmic tree. This maternal goddess is intertwined with the image of Mother Earth.

The abundant relationships between humans and trees can also be explored in the world beneath our feet. These arboreal relationships practise mutualism. Mutualism is a relationship which takes place between organisms that is both interdependent and mutually beneficial. We can see mutualism taking place between mycorrhiza. The term ‘mycorrhiza’ is made from the Greek word for ‘fungus’ and ‘root’. The symbiotic relationship between fungi and trees is crucial for the exchange of nutrients. The fungi play a vital role in the carbon cycle as they extract carbon, in the form of glucose, that has been produced by the trees through photosynthesis — the fungi do not possess chlorophyll, the pigment responsible for the process of photosynthesis.

On the other hand, the trees benefit from the fungi by obtaining essential nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. These nutrients are acquired by the fungi from the soil in which they grow. The fungi possess enzymes that enable them to extract these nutrients, which the trees lack. This exchange of nutrients ensures the healthy growth and development of both the fungi and the trees. This is a relationship which has been nurtured for around 450 million years. As Susan Simard notes, “The source of clean air and pure water and good food. There is a necessary wisdom in the give-and-take of nature — and it’s quiet agreements and search for balance. There is an extraordinary generosity.” It’s this generosity that one can view as abundance.

I’ll end with this thought from Diane Wilson's essay, Making Relatives:

As a Dakota grandmother, I have a responsibility to reach for a deeper understanding. I refuse to accept a relationship with nature that is grim and apocalyptic. The challenges on my land and these expert answers come from a Western mindset that sees the land as a commodity, as natural capital. For the sake of my grandchildren, I need to relearn how to listen for the silenced voices of my ancestors, for the plants and land to speak.

If we create space to listen to the expressions of plants and land, we might gain a deeper understanding of engaging in the gift economy, embracing shared abundance, and fostering communities of care.

Footnotes:

1: Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, One Hundred and Eleven Trees, Emergence Magazine 2: Ecofeminism and Environmental Liberation, Intersection Environmentalist 3: Kapila Vatsyayan, Ecology and Indian Myth, India International Centre Quarterly 19, nos. 1–2 (1992), 173.

Contributors

Hannah Hooper

Hannah Hooper (she/her) is a writer, creative mentor and climate justice activist. She is also the founder of The Well-Being Body, a platform exploring creativity, and personal and planetary well-being.

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