Just north of Tucson, Arizona an experimental glass building envelops 3.14 acres of land.
It is the Biosphere, an “Earth systems science research facility” with the mission of learning about Earth and its living systems.
The facility was originally constructed as a closed system to study the complex interrelationships of life forms.
The theory was that if they could create the “perfect,” self-perpetuating environment, it could sustain life in remote places like outer space.
But a problem quickly emerged in the original experiment.
Trees grown in the closed structure began tipping over once they reached a certain height.
The cause? A “lack of stress wood, normally created in response to winds in natural conditions.”
Stress wood, also referred to as reaction wood, tension wood, or compression wood, “forms when part of a woody plant is subjected to mechanical stress, and helps to bring parts of the plant into an optimal position. This stress may be the result of gravity, wind exposure, snow buildup, soil movement, etc.,” as we learn from Wikipedia.
Dennis Deaton, in his excellent book, Ownership Spirit, observes that this experiment teaches “one of the most prominent, pervasive, and universal Laws of Nature, one that applies to every living species, from plants to animals, including human beings: Living things are strengthened by struggle.”
Trees grow deep roots in response to battering winds. Likewise, we develop strength, character, and courage as we respond to challenges.
The “perfect” environment for all living things is not devoid of challenges, but is rather built on the foundation of opposition.
Now get this, also taken from Wikipedia: “The reaction wood is not externally visible, although asymmetric growth is a reliable indicator.”
“Asymmetric growth” is all those weird little twists and turns, bumps and ripples in the wood – what we would call flaws.
Likewise, all our weird little quirks and idiosyncrasies we’ve developed from being wounded through the years – what most people would call flaws – are not flaws at all. They’re evidence of our strength.
As we react to stress and tension, our willpower becomes compressed, hardened, strengthened.
As Douglas Malloch wrote in his classic poem, “Good Timber”:
The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.
The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.
Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.
Imagine life in a “perfect” environment, completely free of:
- Mystery and uncertainty
Would you really want that life?
Imagine if every decision you made was certain to result in exactly what you wanted. Would that be a life worth living?
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take my winds and earthquakes over that bland and pointless biosphere.
Without those things, not only do we become weak, but we also have no context for experiencing true joy. As Robert McKee writes in Story,
“The depth of joy you experience is in direct proportion to the pain you’re willing to bear.”
I wonder, then, why we resist risk, stress, and struggle so much.
If we really embraced our purpose, wouldn’t we be much more willing to take calculated, mission-driven risks? Wouldn’t we stop second-guessing past decisions so much, and stop re-hashing regret? Wouldn’t we be able to deal with trials with a much healthier and happier frame of mind?
One final lesson we can learn from trees:
Sequoia trees are the largest organisms on earth. Living for up to 2,000 years, they can reach up to 379 feet tall and extend to 26 feet in diameter—taller than the Statue of Liberty, thicker than a Greyhound bus.
You’d think their roots would be incredibly deep, right?
Turns out that Sequoias have remarkably shallow roots, and they have no taproot.
Their roots only go down ten to thirteen feet deep before spreading outward sixty to eighty feet. One estimate is that 95 percent of these trees have roots no deeper than three feet.
Sequoias stand firm by growing wide roots and interlocking roots with other trees. Their strength comes from standing together and supporting each other.
Yes, the winds of struggle make us stronger.
But it’s no weakness to reach out for help when the winds are blowing hard. And we are strengthened as we reach out to help others battered by wind.