“There is much more going on underground than is happening in the canopy.” I was talking to an arborist about trees. He spends all day climbing in, working with, and thinking about trees. The visible expression of a tree exhibits tremendous outward complexity. There are leaves, bark, multiple layers of wood, limbs and branches. There is wildlife – bugs, birds, animals. There are seeds and other plants that work together with the tree to create a diverse, thriving ecosystem. But for all that is going on above the ground, there is far more happening underground. Soil is teeming with life. Millions and millions of microbes are constantly at work in soil, living in a delicate balance that keeps the rich biodiversity of a single tree in balance. Worms and insects are constantly enriching the soil, whether by castings or by digging channels where air and water can nourish the roots. Those roots extend as far out as the canopy extends, and they dive deep to provide strength. Roots are thick and tough, and they are tender and small, covered with microscopic hairs in order to soak up the nutrients and water of the nearby soil. A tree is valued for being stationary, for growing in its place and providing shade or sustenance for whomever happens by. But deep underneath the stillness, there is much going on. You cannot see it, but that the tree continues to exist reminds that there is unceasing activity just below the surface. A forest builds itself on the decay of last year’s growth, and the growth of hundreds of years before that. A massive oak and a fledgling sweet gum both owe their existence to the thousands of years of trees that have gone on before them. Without those to slowly build the soil, there would be no forest.
“There is much more going on underground than is happening in the canopy.” We have lived in Enderly Park for nearly a decade. Much of that time we have just been trying to pay attention. How is God at work here? Where is the risen Christ, and how do we find him? How do we cultivate in ourselves the wisdom to listen well, to act justly, and to honor the other who bears the likeness of God? Our neighborhood is widely known as the “inner-city,” a coded term that points to a well-known statistical profile. Residents of Enderly Park can be assumed to be: black, poor, violent, from broken homes, unemployed, high school dropouts, drug users, ex-offenders, and generally unconcerned with improving their lives. In polite American society, having any one of these characteristics presents barriers to full inclusion in the culture. Having some or all of them almost guarantees that the person from Enderly Park will always stand on the outside of American culture. Places like Enderly Park become labelled as “at-risk,” or “depressed.” We are the ghetto, the bad side of town or the wrong side of the tracks. But there is more going on underground than is happening in the canopy. Sociological profiles and popular understandings miss the goodness that is always happening just below the surface. To see it, you have to dive below the surface. You have to become rooted. You have to shed your leaves and let sun and rain and wind and steps and cold and snow and dark work on you. For every time you stretch up into the visible, you must stretch down into the mystery that will sustain and strengthen you. You will not see it happen. You will not feel it happen. But if you hang on long enough, you might take root. You might be caught up in the secret work of goodness and nourishment that is going on just out of sight.
The seed is in the ground.
Now let us rest in hope
While darkness does its work.
~ Poem by Wendell Berry