After living in an oasis for three years, where even the greenery is often covered in sand and a dull yellowish color suffuses everything, the green of Penang was overwhelming when we first moved here. This jungle paradise is rich with plant-life, birds, insects, larger animals, streams, mountains and ocean. The greens and blues stood in sharp contrast to the white-gray winters of western NY and the sandy hue of Al Ain.
But it’s the trees of Penang that have drawn my attention the most. The sheer variety in shape, type, size, and location is evidence of the lushness of the island and the tropical weather that allows plants to thrive. Many of the streets are lined with massive, ancient trees that canopy the roadway and make driving quite distracting.
These massive trees are not only home to all manner of wildlife, but also other plants. Vines, leafy shrubs, airplants, grasses and others all grow on these trees. And not in a parasitic way, but in some form of symbiosis. These plants work together in an ecosystem of verdant life.
I’m fascinated by the interplay between these plants, by how looking up at one tree can reveal four or five different shapes and sizes of leaves, all seemingly sprouting from the same branches. The beauty and majesty of those combinations is so varied, rich, and awe-inducing that I can’t help but think about why I’m so drawn to these huge displays of floral diversity.
I have a two-fold theory to explain my attraction.
I’ve loved trees from a young age. Climbing up the ladder to help my grandpa harvest the purple plums is one of my earliest memories. I loved swinging in the hammock strung between these trees in the summers in southern Germany. Over the years, my brother, friends, and I would build forts in trees, see who could climb the highest, and hide from each other in them. I’d often retreat into a tree to read in peace, finding a comfortable forking of branches and hiding in the greenery for hours, lost in the world of my book.
The other angle is my fascination with inter-dependency. We so often like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as independent, and entirely able to see to ourselves. And yet we’re not, as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise. The most capable of us need connection. The ties that bind us to each other are complex, painful, often a lot of work. Yet they result in beautiful community, in families, in friendships that weather storms and span oceans. When we rely on each other to become the best that we can be, we become more of ourselves. And that takes time.
Like the messiness of our lives, these huge trees took ages to grow. Many small plants have died on them, have seeded new generations, and together they produce a leafy mosaic of beauty and interdependence. They remind me that I not only need others, but that I should appreciate that need. And most of all, it reminds me that patience, quiet, peace, and slow growth are important components of living in community with others.
“My name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” ~Treebeard~