Taylor: Growing at the ends and edges

Like a tree, our growth comes from reaching beyond

Having become a gardener late in life, I have to admit that I get a certain sadistic satisfaction from the sucking sound that roots make as weeds reluctantly give up clutching the earth.

Of course, I’m kidding myself that the entire root mass has come up.

Years ago, an exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre demonstrated that a large part of any plant’s roots are invisible. They’re little tendrils of slime that prepare a path for the rest of the root to follow.

That’s how a boreal spruce can wedge itself into an infinitesimal crack. Slime will infiltrate even the finest of fissures. And where the slime has gone, woody root cells will follow. Until eventually the root splits a four-billion-year-old rock.

Sometimes I visualize trees as surgical stitches that bind earth and air together.

The two ends of trees—roots and branches—share many similarities. Both reach out from a central core. Both divide into smaller and smaller filaments. Both grow only at their farthest ends.

The pattern replicates in many other forms of life. It’s no coincidence that when we draw our ancestral lineages, we call them a family tree. The tributaries of a river make a root pattern as they flow together; when they reach a delta, they branch profusely. Our human circulatory system pumps blood out into smaller and smaller capillaries, then reverses the process to gather it back for cleansing and renewal.

Even our brains may work the same way. An impulse fires millions of axons and dendrites; the brain filters that input to the neurons most capable of handling it, and feeds back a conscious thought.

We ourselves, when born, have only one connection—an umbilical cord to the person whose bodily organs sustained us for nine months. Then that connection is severed, and we start building invisible networks of relationships. Consciousness networks, perhaps. Filaments of shared experience which extend farther and grow more complex as we mature.

The pattern seems so universal, I’m tempted to extrapolate from it. For example, to hypothesize that growth only happens at the ends and edges.

In our personal lives, that means we need to keep pushing into uncharted territory to keep growing. We need to send out feelers into untested theories, unfamiliar relationships, unexplored situations, to see if something might take root there.

Also in our corporate lives. Growth does not come from our boardrooms and our head offices. The main trunk of any tree is mostly deadwood. Its sole purpose is to support the growing edges.

The early Christian church, a theology professor once pointed out, grew at the edges. The new ideas—whether gentiles must observe Jewish law, whether women could be leaders, whether slaves could be free—got fed back from the new Christian communities to the central core.

Not all new ideas succeeded, of course. Some roots ran into dead ends. But others split the ancient rocks of tradition and created new ways of living.

The message seems clear—personally and collectively, we need to keep branching out beyond our comfort zones.

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