Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Risking Rootedness

June 17, 2024

Tresta Payne

“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge. Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells, the hypocotyl, advance from the seed coat.”

~ From Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

A large oak tree grows in back of our church, near the playground our kids grew up on. Since we moved our fellowship into this building almost 25 years ago, we’ve walked past the tree into the backdoor of the church nearly every Sunday, crunching her leaves and rolling her acorns under our feet. Our kids have filled their pockets with her seeds, thrown them at playmates, offered them as currency, and been paid $5 a bucket to rake them up. 

There have been threats to cut down the old oak, but she has been preserved. She is work, but she is shade and beauty, and there have always been children for hire and babies born each year to carry on the work of cleaning up after her. 

We are a timber family, coming from generations of conscientious loggers, foresters, timberland managers and owners, and those who work with wood. I know books and my husband knows the trees they’re made from. He tells me an oak tree’s roots are anchored and tangled so deeply in the ground that to completely remove the stump, which is necessary to prevent its regrowth, requires heavy equipment and a full commitment to pulling it up from the earth. It leaves a hole in the landscape.

A fir tree, on the other hand, sends its roots out wide as the canopy of the tree, shallow in the earth, and a new fir tree will not sprout from any stump or roots left behind. 

We once lived in a home whose yard was covered in oaks, and our first fall season there was a continual revolt of the raking minions we made our children into. The evergreens of Oregon are our favorite and we have planted many, but we would never plant an oak tree on our own property. Yet we protect this oak in our churchyard as an ebenezer for all these years of change. 

Some things have to stay the same.

All our married life we’ve talked about moving—over the mountain, across the state, or even to another continent. We could have made any of those moves and the possibility still exists that we will—maybe even more so since we are at the cusp of an empty nest—but we haven’t moved far away. We have shifted homes four times in all our years of marriage, all within a five-mile radius, all in this same small valley.

We dream adventurously and we’ve done some pretty risky things, but we have a taproot anchored deep in this soil and every year we seem to be adding lateral roots—new friends, a new business, new sons and daughters as our children marry, and new grandchildren. 

I didn’t know how having five children would multiply, didn’t think about the web of relationships and how our lives, layered together, would affect me. I only knew my own kids were amazing little creatures at birth who grew more and more complex with time—or maybe it only took time for me to grow and realize their complexity, everything being present within them. 

They were teenagers before I really began to see the way they were pulling away and untangling themselves into their own lives. I distinctly remember lying in bed one night after everyone was home under the same roof for the day, thinking: All my most important people are here, in this home; but one day, each of them will have their own most important people under all their separate roofs, and I won’t be there.

For years the three fir trees by our shop have been dying, probably because our cows loved to hang out in the shady base of their canopy, scratching their sides on the rough trunks and over-fertilizing the roots with manure too rich for an evergreen. 

Until the time came for our oldest son to fell the trees, I had seen them as three, with separate tops making three distinct arrows in the sky. But they were only two trees—one single, and one double tree sharing a single trunk and root system. 

Sometimes the opposite happens. You think a plant is one large organism, cohesive and solitary, but when you belly-down to the earth you see it all braided and intertwined—many plants, interconnected, interdependent, but still separate. 

I want to think of my family as a tree, with many varying branches sprouting from center or grafted in and held with strong sap, a complex system of roots holding us in place. We are us

But we are many, and separate.  

A root will thicken when it takes hold, becoming the taproot. It can reach down through rivers underground, through dry holes left by dead roots, through bedrock even. It will cleave solid granite if it must, and eventually it can move gallons of water every day, for years and years, bringing nourishment from the depths of the earth to the uppermost leaves. 

Cleave is a verb with two meanings: to split or sever, and to stick fast to, and I cannot reconcile this. How does one word cover two very different ideas? 

To be dramatic: When a child marries they cleave the nuclear family and cleave to their spouse. Something is torn and something new is formed. 

But in our tree metaphor, a plant can be cleft by pruning so new growth can occur. Maybe that is the better way to work through this dual meaning. Each cleaving is adding to the health of the tree. What is pruned are natural dependencies that must change with time, but the plant is still the plant.

We keep questioning if our own roots are mobile. Can we pull up from this place we’ve lived and loved in for so long, cleave ourselves from the people and places that have shaped us for better or worse? Unlike the seed who must risk it all and burrow down into one location for life, it is possible for us to go. We are rooted, but transplantable.

In a garden, transplanting risks not only the plant moved or removed, but the plants around it, and the other species who may have depended on it being there. It’s complex. We are interconnected. We only think we are separate.

Months ago, I noticed an acorn randomly sitting at the base of one of my larger houseplants, nestled on top of the potting soil. I could see it had sent out its first courageous root and taken anchor in hopes of perfect conditions. 

“I put that there,” my husband said when I questioned how in the world this acorn had arrived. “Someday I’ll tell you why, but don’t take it out.”

Over the years, our home has been filled with all kinds of treasures from the outdoors, many of them random and unintentional, but I knew this one was different. For weeks I nurtured the acorn without knowing its story, investing myself in its mystery.

Like all the best storytellers, Tim knows a good tale takes time to develop. When he felt sufficient suspense had been built, he told me the full story.

The acorn was a seed of the oak our kids had grown up with, rooted deep in the backyard of our church. He had picked it up one day and quietly stuck it in the pot, knowing that whatever form our own leaving could take, this small nut held a seed with the DNA of our family’s story, with everything necessary for a strong and towering oak to form, somewhere else. 

Our tiny oak boasts six leaves now. She is a bittersweet reminder of almost 30 years in one place. At this moment, our own roots are cleaving bedrock and we are well watered, sheltered, and held so firmly in place that all other places are only fantasy. We may never leave. Or we may leave tomorrow. In the meantime, we have to pour ourselves into some kind of rootedness where we are. We have to keep risking the inevitable pain of whatever might be missing from this environment we are embedded in and believe in the mystery of our rootedness in Christ—a story unfolding.

Whether leaving or staying, our work is to risk the investment right here, right now, and to nurture what is before us as if it is all we will ever know. We can be shade and shelter, and we can leave beauty around to fill the pockets of future generations, as long as we are courageous enough to risk rootedness right in the middle of our unknown stories.

The featured image, “Camp Allen Oak Leaves and Acorns,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Lori Harris says:

    I didn’t want this post to end, Tresta. You peeled back the curtain of your life and let me truly see it. Thank you. I’m going to pot an acorn from our big oak in the front yard.

  2. Tresta says:

    Lori, I’m so happy we’ll have twin oaks! Thank you for peeking behind the curtain with such grace. XO

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