Lessons from Walking Palm Trees

Up until now the most puzzling question about trees I’ve encountered is the classic “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” However, I was recently introduced to the Walking Palm Tree of Ecuador and now I’m left to ask whether palm trees walk in the forest.

The function of a root system is to anchor the base of a plant into the soil so it can absorb nutrients, water, and minerals. Walking Palm Trees, or Socratea exorrhiz, have stilt roots that arise from basal nodes of the stem near the soil. Stilt roots appear as ropes of a tent.

walking palm tree
Photo from https://www.ecuadorforestofclouds.org/walking-palms.html

Scientists have offered many different hypotheses over the decades about these unique root structures. One idea is that the roots allow these palm trees to rise above the shade in a crowded rainforest. Another thought is that stilted roots are an adaptation from years when the rainforest was flooded.

While some scientists disagree, the most common story shared by rainforest guides about The Walking Palm tree slowly ‘walks’ from shade to sunlight by growing new roots toward the sun. As the tree angles toward the light, it sheds old roots. Because stilted roots are elevated above the ground it gives the tree illusion of legs.

This theory has been supported by Peter Vrsansky who claims to have visually observed the walking trees.

“As the soil erodes, the tree grows new, long roots that find new and more solid ground, sometimes up to 20m,” said Vrsansky. “Then, slowly, as the roots settle in the new soil and the tree bends patiently toward the new roots, the old roots slowly lift into the air. The whole process for the tree to relocate to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a couple of years.”


Lesson #1 About Walking Palm Trees: It’s OK to Disagree

I’m not a scientist. I do know how to thoroughly research a subject and it’s clear that those who have studied the walking palm tree at length are unable to come to a clear conclusion. This is unsurprising. It’s incredibly rare that the entire science community will come together and agree on someone.

I don’t need to have an opinion on whether the walking palm tree actually moves or remains in one location. Taking one side in this debate isn’t something that determines my salvation. It’s fun to dream about trees that walk however if they don’t move for survival it won’t devastate me. I’m choosing to hold this story loosely and place it in the both/and category even if others have strong opinions one way or the other.

The lesson here is that there are a lot more things in life that we need to learn to be comfortable saying “I don’t know” about even if we have outside pressure to take a stance on something. These days people reduce others down to bite-size pieces. For many it’s impossible to accept that life has nuance. Attempts to love your neighbor or see the “other side’s point of view” are met with disdain. This causes unnecessary feelings of rejection and conflict. Disagreement doesn’t require rejection. It’s OK to disagree.

Lesson #2 About Walking Palms: Imagery Matters

Whether or not the walking palm tree moves the imagery in the story carries weight. When Jesus describes a Christ-centered relationship with God he uses the imagery of a vine and branches. The story of the walking palm tree echos the imagery in John 15:1-10 which says:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (NIV)

In the story of the walking palm tree, its roots allow the tree to move so that it stays in view of the sun. The tree is so dedicated to this goal that it plants new roots in the soil that will give it the best chance of seeing the sun and allows the roots that pull the tree into the shade to die disconnect.

Peter Vrsansky explained the “process for the tree to relocate to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a couple of years.” and frankly, I can’t think of a better metaphor for a Christ-centered relationship. What would happen if you were so dedicated to staying aligned with the son that you shed the dead roots and allowed new growth to move you forward?

Lesson #3 About Walking Palm Trees: Even Shallow Roots Nourish

Usually, when we teach lessons about roots we focus on the value of deep roots. There are so many important things about a root system that extends well beneath the surface of the earth we may get the impression that other root systems harm plants.

While scientists don’t fully understand stilted root systems, it’s clear that the shallow roots still nourish the palm trees. This is something we need to remember as Christians. All root systems have value. It’s important that we remember to feed shallow roots consistently and since they don’t have as much ground to draw water from, however even the surface roots understand are contributing to the growth of the tree.

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As Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), we’re all called to “make disciples of all nations” wherever we live. God invites us to partner with him and live on mission every day, even in the mundane moments of life. We do this when we love people as Jesus taught the disciples to do, without stipulations.

Embracing Holy Interruptions: How Jesus Used Mundane Moments to Love People Deeply is a six-week Bible study that teaches people how to develop a disciple-making movement.

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