Change & What Happens When a Tree Falls

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore.”

—Andre Gide, French author

Photo depicts a fallen tree in the middle of a forest.
Image of forest with fallen tree courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I heard a very fine and wise speaker at a grief retreat weekend a few weeks back. His subject was “What happens when a tree dies?” The speaker manages land preserves and so he has expertise where trees and grasses are concerned. He chose the subject of the death of trees and the impact on the forest as a whole. His keen mind realized the poignant connection between the loss of a tree in a cluster of trees and the loss we humans experience when a loved one dies. As a participant in the retreat, my mind was provoked to consider how the metaphor of the fallen tree also instructs us about losses we experience at work—loss being the inevitable part of any change, even change chosen for the better.

Change and loss? Do they go hand in hand? Change management experts like William Bridges (“Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change”) tell us that the losses experienced by change—whether at home or work or anywhere else—do indeed cause the same chain of mental and emotional events as those experienced during grief. Apparently, loss is loss and humans go through some rather predictable responses where loss is concerned, although intensity and duration may vary.

Immediately or shortly after experiencing loss—whether through the death of a loved one or in losing the familiarity of a piece of equipment or a procedure at work—typical human emotions to expect are denial, shock, anxiety and anger, among others. Following the earlier stages of loss, there’s a period of “undirected energy” as we attempt to adapt to a new way of living, working and doing. Called “transition” by many experts, this is the period when the old way of doing things never looked better and the desire to turn back to the old way is overwhelming. Finally, there is a sense of enthusiasm as we realize the opportunities of a new way of life blossoming in front of our eyes.

Now, back to trees and what I learned from the speaker a few weeks back. Trees have exquisite mechanisms for knowing when growing conditions are right to flourish. When those growing conditions exist, trees grow. They don’t argue, hesitate, resist or fight. They just grow. When a tree dies (and ultimately falls), the remaining trees in the cluster will grow to fill in the space. No, the new growth will not look quite the same or function in quite the same way as the original tree did, but the new growth will serve the forest well, as is the way nature provides. In short, the role of the fallen tree will be fulfilled by many, but in a different way than before.

One more thing about the fallen tree’s neighbors. When trees grow closely together, some aspects of that growth are affected by the neighboring trees. One side of the trunk and some branches may grow more slowly—even coming to a halt at times—owing to the need to share space with a neighbor. When a tree falls, growth on a neighboring tree—stunted in order to make room for the now departed tree—begins again. The trees just seem to know that newly created space provides an opportunity to stretch, develop and burst forth. Growth in a new direction is required, not only to round out the tree that had adapted itself to prior growing conditions—resulting in a bit of a lopsided trunk and some misshapen branches—but to fulfill the requirements of the entire forest as well.

We humans have our way of going through change and the loss that accompanies it. The wisest among us not only know the process, we accept its inevitability so that we can manage the emotional roller coaster when the time comes (and these days, with the constancy of change, that’s pretty much all of the time). If we are smart, we embrace the emotions aroused by change in order to lead people from the first dark days of loss through uncertainty and, ultimately, to the excitement of a new beginning. Our process is perhaps a bit messy, but it works.

Trees, on the other hand, appear to keep it simple. Spared the messier aspects of human emotions, trees seem to just get on with the business of growth after change and loss. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from this process. Maybe we can learn from how trees so seemingly simply and without hesitation grow in directions once prohibited due to the occupation by a tree now lost. Perhaps we can learn from the way they naturally fill gaps—not fussing over whether the gap is filled in exactly as it was before or arguing about who will fill in what spot, but simply taking on where others left off. Maybe we can learn from how trees plainly and directly seem to balance things, not only related to their own growth as individual trees but on behalf of the whole forest as well.

These are lessons from trees to leaders. Learn well.

How do you respond to change? Mentally? Emotionally? Behaviorally?

How do others respond to change?

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