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What the tree said

Picking up on an invitation to pray

by the Rev. Ken Rummer for Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Norfolk Island Pine (Photo by Ken Rummer)

Spanish moss hanging from branches like gnome beards. Palm fronds dancing with the passing breeze. Lizards darting from flower bed to sunny stucco. I’m looking out at my sister-in-law’s Florida backyard.

One of her trees has grown a lot since our last visit. She says she received it as a gift from one of her children. She transplanted it from an indoor pot to an outside spot, and the tree is now nearing 30 feet tall. It’s not a kind I see in Iowa.

To find out more about it, I turned my inner researcher loose on the internet. Tree ID? Norfolk Island Pine.

When I hear “Norfolk,” I think of Virginia, but this “Norfolk” refers to an island in the South Pacific, east of Australia and north of New Zealand, where Captain Cook and his crew found these trees growing in 1774.

The Norfolk Island Pine can trace its ancestry in the fossil record back to the time of the dinosaurs. Evergreen and cone-bearing, though not a true pine, NIP doesn’t like hurricanes and temps below 35℉. I guess we have that in common.

The structure of the tree is striking. The branches issue from the trunk in layers, like spokes on a wheel hub, with open space between the hubs. Five branches to a layer is usual, but in places I count as many as seven. Each branch looks like a green feather with the quill stuck into the trunk.

Detail of a Nortfolk Island Pine (Photo by Ken Rummer)

Viewed in silhouette, the branches look like rungs on a ladder. Are there angels going up and coming down like the ones Jacob saw when he slept on a stone pillow? Is this the gate of heaven, the very house of God (Genesis 28)? If the tree knows, it’s keeping its own counsel.

The lower branches reach straight out with a bit of lift at the ends, but the higher branches angle up, like arms with hands raised.

Is this Jurassic survivor calling the backyard to prayer? Standing as priest to the gray squirrels and color-shifting lizards? Acting as intercessor for the hibiscus and the camellia and the frost-shocked orange trees? Lifting up even the winter escapee at the keyboard?

Perhaps that narrow, tapered form is standing as a witness to everyone with eyes to see. Perhaps it is offering a gentle reminder to us all, to look up and raise our hands to the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28 NRSV).

In the midst of war and uproar, in a time of reckoning and division and still-deadly plague, it’s a reminder I’m taking to heart.

The Rev. Ken Rummer blogs periodically for Presbyterians Today.

Pray. Pray now. Pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17 NRSV).

Even with things to do, with fears to face, with callings to pursue, pray.

At the top of the Norfolk Island Pine, the five newest branches reach out like points of a star, and a single central branch points upward. Can you hear it whisper?


The Rev. Ken Rummer, who’s Honorably Retired, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. His previous posts are available here.

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