Once while standing in the middle of an aspen grove on the top of a mountain in Santa Fe, New Mexico, someone casually pointed out that every aspen tree in sight was connected to one another by the same root system. That each and every tree grew from the same mother line and that all the trees in the colony received nourishment from the same root system. They went on to say that if one tree is not well, the others will divert their own nourishment to that tree so it too can survive. That aspens have the ability to sprout anew in the same area after a fire because the root system is deep in the ground. While the fire rages on top of the ground, the root system is protected and simply waits for the fire to burn out.
With those words the ground beneath my feet came alive. It was as it I could actually feel the vibration of the mother root line I was standing on as it kept the entire colony of aspen trees alive. I remember looking up at the aspens surrounding me and I swear, it seemed as if they were looking down at me and smiling. It was as if I had been let in on the grand secret and for the first time was seeing their power and beauty. I felt surrounded by a sense of life and vibrancy that I had not felt before. And now, whenever I see aspens either up close or from far away I am reminded of what it means to have roots.
There is nothing simple about roots. Roots are complex systems, seemingly chaotically intertwined. But somehow, in this chaos there is order in the system that allows aspen colonies to thrive for long periods of time. The same is true of our own intricate root systems. Our roots are the tangled messes of our families, our cultures, our heritages and our traditions. And just like the aspen trees, our roots derive from a single line that connects us to one another. What happens to those in our colony impacts us and what happens to us impacts the colony. It is just how our root systems are wired; whether we like it or not. Sometimes we try breaking free from our root system. We do all we can to cut ourselves off from those things we are made of and from where we come from but in the end, some threads always remain. Like it or not, our roots are with us wherever we go.
In my own life, a part of my root systems resides in Lone Pine, California. A small town with lots of charm situated at the base of Mount Whitney on Highway 395 somewhere between Death Valley and Mammoth Lakes. What is odd about this is the fact that I have never lived in Lone Pine. Yet when I look up at Mount Whitney and see the majestic peak of the mountain shyly hiding behind the surrounding peaks, I feel in the soles of my feet, the tingling of my roots happy to be home and to receive nourishment.
The sum total of my days in this place would not fill a calendar year and yet, this is one of the places in the world where I feel at home; where I feel my roots. And my roots are here because this is where my “mother line” is. This is the town in which my mother was born and raised. As was four generations of our family before her. It is the town where many in our family have happily lived out their years and it is also the town where many in our family have left but always come back if only to tap back into a root system they fit into. And should we leave, we take with us this particular root system that has been carefully tended to for generations.
Sometimes I look at the feet of those around me and wonder what makes their feet, their roots come alive. What root systems do they proudly take with them wherever they go? What root systems have they unsuccessfully tried to sever in their lives and why? And those times in life when I gaze at Whitney peak I realize that as complex as our root systems may be, it is the one thing that supports us as we move through this life. I find comfort in this knowledge and can only hope that others do as well.