About six weeks ago, I had the privilege of chairing one of the series of ‘Feeding the Earth’ webinars hosted by Thinking Faith Network, exploring contemporary research into food security from a ‘values’ perspective. The opening talk, given by Dr Yoseph Araya of the Open University, was an introduction to the work of the Neno Macadamia Trust, a charity which supports smallholder farmers in Malawi in growing macadamia trees as a sustainable, resilient and climate-friendly crop. I’m no biologist (aside from my lockdown-inspired forays into amateur horticulture, which continue, two years on), and thus I was in the enviable position of hearing all of these ideas for the first time: I was hugely inspired to discover the ways in which macadamia agroforestry can serve not only to boost local economies and improve food security but also fix carbon in the ground, help the land to recover from deforestation and climate shocks, and naturally reduce pests. If this all sounds exciting to you too, then do watch the presentation – and consider supporting the work of the Trust!
As I reflected on this, I was struck too by the way in which this very practical research intersected with verses in the Bible which have been precious to me for some years. Throughout my adult life I have held on to the encouragement of Psalm 1, which promises that those who delight in God’s law will be ‘like a tree planted by streams of water’, and Isaiah 61, which describes God’s people as ‘oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour’; just the other day I was reading Psalm 52, which closes with the beautiful image of the psalmist as ‘an olive tree flourishing in the house of God’. That word ‘flourishing’ really stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it’s because the last couple of years, for many of us, have been restricted to a kind of lowest-common-denominator survival; even as the threat of the pandemic begins to recede (at least to some extent), the multiplication of other threats (the conflict in Ukraine, the rising cost of living, concerns over food security and escalating climate crises) can seem unending.
And yet these passages speak of ‘flourishing’, of ‘fruit’, of ‘splendour’. They speak of an abundance of life which seems specifically botanical: the way in which a thriving shrub or tree can appear unstoppable in its growth, every attempt to prune it only triggering a new outburst of vegetative energy. (I’m no expert, but I’ve certainly had this experience: sometimes it was welcome, sometime it definitely wasn’t!) It reminds me of Jesus’ description of himself in John 15 as ‘the true vine’, the plant of which his disciples were the branches; like a tree that draws its water from an underground stream, our flourishing is not merely a product of our visible environment, but also of the unseen nourishment that comes from our position ’in’ Christ, rooted in him and sustained by the power of his Spirit. Dr Araya’s talk reminded me that a flourishing tree can have benefits far beyond its own immediate health; its life overflows into the surrounding environment. In fact, I think there are some amazing parallels here, and I’ll close by enumerating a few of them – I’m sure those with greater expertise in this field can list many more (and perhaps correct any of my mistakes!):
- Trees produce fruit. This is the most obvious connection with our lives as Christians, because Jesus spoke about it so clearly: just as trees turn their own nourishment into a source of energy for those around them, we too can ‘bring good things out of the good stored up in [us]’ (Matthew 12:35).
- Trees provide shelter. Especially in hot climates, their shade is crucial for protecting the soil from evaporation and enabling other crops to thrive; they also provide homes for many other animals. Particularly in times as punishing as those we are going through now, we can be a source of protection, hospitality and provision for those who have no-one to help them.
- Trees hold the land together. As their roots bind the soil, they prevent erosion from extremes of weather, maintaining fertility and reducing the risk of flooding. I believe that we as Christians can also serve to counteract the polarisation and fragmentation of public discourse which threatens to erode the social fabric of our land; we can stand against hatred and division, and model a love and unity which is deeply attractive. (We haven’t always been very good at this, but it’s still something we are called to!)
- Trees change the atmosphere. As they absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, they are crucial for mitigating the destructive impact of climate change. (Neno Macadamia Trust even allows you to record this mitigation in a certificate!) We as Christians are likewise called to change the atmosphere around us. As we are led by the Holy Spirit to represent Jesus through our words and actions, we can have an impact in our workplaces or homes or communities: demonstrating God’s love, transforming attitudes, bringing shifts in culture or behaviour which point towards the Kingdom of God.