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Why Do Trees Grow So Tall In The Rainforest?

On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I was taking part in a guided hike in the rainforests of the Arenal Volcano region. The guide was educating us on the flora, fauna, poisonous snakes, and other elements of the rainforests. He was a charming man in his early 30's with an easy laugh and an intriguing mind that liked to quiz the hikers, a lot! He quizzed us on snake bites, butterflies, ferns, insects, frogs and a number of other interesting tid-bits.

Then he posed a most interesting question. "Why do trees in the rainforest grow so tall to get above the forest's canopy?", he asked. Someone did get the answer right. The trees grow tall so they can get above the darkness of the rainforest canopy and reach the sunlight. So they can survive. It's survival of the fittest, he answered. There was a light applause at this answer. I couldn't share in the applause. Survival of the fittest meant someone had to be sacrificed. Someone must die so others may live. I have never felt comfortable with that notion. Why can't we all survive and thrive together?

I stood their motionless observing hundreds of other plants, ferns, and orchids growing on the branches, stems, and the trunk of these trees. So, I asked the guide how these plants received their dose of sunlight. His answer was scientific and well-informed - "They are in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with the tree", he quipped. That made sense. These species got their nourishment by clinging on to and digging into the body of the tree with their root systems. In return, they also provided some benefits to the tree. Scientists call this mutualism or mutualistic symbiosis.

As we continued the walk, my mind became more restless with some fundamental question. As a human being I know that I would never want to be dependent for life as a parasite or as a symbiotic partner. All of us cherish our independence and self-reliance. So, why are these plants dependent on the tree? What would happen to them if the tree could not muster enough strength to reach above the canopy? Does the tree realize the desperate situation that these plants are in and the raw deal that life has handed to them? If they had their way, they would certainly rise to the top also. They simply don't have the resources, the internal composition, or nature's support to gain their independence and self-worth. That's when the answer hit me and I had goosebumps all over my body.

The tree's consciousness realizes the plight of all those plants, ferns, and orchids that depend on it for survival. It recognizes the responsibility that nature has placed on it to ensure the well-being of those who cannot reach for their own sunshine. It's soul knows that it must fight for survival by growing through the rainforest's dark canopy and reach the light. It's the deep compassion or karunā, as Buddha called it, that the tree has for all the lives that depend on it that gives it the strength to stay strong and to keep rising. The tree knows that in its own survival rests the survival of countless others. It's not survival of the fittest. I believe it’s pure love and karunā in plain sight! In fact, I believe that the tree does not see the parasites on its trunks and branches as different from its own soul—it sees its own spirit in them. It sees everything as one.

I wonder what the world could be like if those among us who have become tall and mighty could offer this karunā to those who don’t have a way of getting any light because they don't have the resources or the inner fortitude. They need the help of others to survive and, hopefully, thrive. To be sure, there are many who are devoting their lives to doing just that, but we need a groundswell if we are to have any hope of moving the needle on suffering among the poor, abused, abandoned, and orphaned. So that humanity can also achieve the biodiversity and the richness - just like the rainforests.

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