Reflections on Day of the Dead: Nurse Logs

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 10/28/2012

One of the neat things about where Sugarloaf is located is that we are pretty much right in between the city and the country.  So I bet that there are some of us that consider ourselves more city people, or suburb people, and there are some of us that consider ourselves more country people.  Who here thinks of themselves as a city person?  Who here thinks of themselves as more of a country person?

I’ve always lived in places that were in or pretty close to cities, and although I’ve been camping and I like to garden, I don’t know a whole lot about country stuff.  So when I moved to my current house, which had a lot of trees in the backyard, I thought about those trees in sort of a city way. 

For example, I liked the big strong healthy looking trees more than I liked the skinny, half-broken, scraggly trees underneath them that never seemed to get enough light. 

I liked having the ground under the trees look sort of clean, so if a big branch fell down, I pretty soon was out there picking it up. 

And I really, really didn’t want any of my big strong trees to fall down. 

Of course, I didn’t want them to fall on my house or my neighbors’ house, that was part of it.  But the other part was, I didn’t want any of those trees to die.  I didn’t want them to die, or fall onto the ground, or make a mess and have to be cleared away, or make a big space in the backyard where the tree used to be, or make me miss the tree that I loved.

But, as is always true with living things, just because I wanted them to stay alive didn’t mean they were going to stay alive.  It turns out that the sorts of big trees that are in my yard are supposed to live about 60 years, and my house was built about 60 years ago.  So my trees are pretty old.  Over the past ten years that I’ve lived in my house, some of the trees have died.  Some of them we knew were dying, so to protect our houses and our family and neighbors we had them taken down before they could fall. 

But once, during a storm, a giant, 50 foot tall, elderly tree fell down on its own.  

Luckily it didn’t fall on a house or a person, just across our backyard and our neighbor’s backyard and the backyard after that. Its roots left a big hole in our ground, and where its branches used to be left a big hole in the sky where sun now shone down, and on the ground, going through yard after yard, was a tree trunk that came up to about my chest if I stood next to it.

Being city sorts of people, my family and our neighbors decided that this tree was IN THE WAY, so we had the tree guys – the guys whose kids we’re sending to college, I think, by this point – we had the tree guys come out and chop up the tree and take it away.  That was probably the right decision, if you’re in the city.

But if that tree were in the country, it would have been a different story.

Because it turns out that dead trees lying on the ground are a really important part of the forest.  They’re so important, they aren’t called “dead trees,” not by foresters, anyway.  They’re called “nurse logs”, because when a dead tree falls down in the forest, its body becomes so helpful to the forest that it’s like a nurse is there.

First of all, when a tree falls down, there is a lot of space in the sky afterwards for sunlight to come all the way down the forest floor, and that means lots of other plants and trees have a chance to grow.  I noticed this in my backyard, too.  Those scraggly trees I didn’t like as much as my big trees?  Now that there are fewer big trees, those scragglers have grown, and branched out.  One of them is a beech tree, and it used to be just a little twig behind the shed.  Now it is taller than the shed, and in a few years, that tree will be big enough to cover my house and my neighbor’s house in shade just like they used to be.  If our big tree hadn’t died, that little tree wouldn’t be able to grow that way.  That little beech twig had just been waiting for a chance, waiting for sun, so it could grow big and strong too.

Another amazing thing about nurse logs is that they grow things with their own bodies.  After they die and hit the ground, they become a home for plants and flowers and mosses and different kinds of mushrooms that especially love to grow in old logs.  Animals move in.  Water collects in the nurse logs.  The breaking down of the tree makes the forest floor really nutritious for all sorts of different things to grow.  And even more amazingly, sometimes the thing that grows is a new tree.  The nurse log becomes the perfect cradle for a new tree to grow.

This especially happens out in the northwest, with giant trees that fall down out there.  I brought some pictures of a Western Hemlock tree. The fallen down log grows a little sprout, right inside its broken up parts.  Eventually, a whole tree grows there, straddling the nurse log that’s lying on the ground.  As the nurse log completely disintegrates, making the ground rich with nutrients, the living tree is left standing up on its own, on the roots that used to go around the nurse log.

[pass out pictures]

All this makes me wonder about death. 

I think a lot of people think about death the way I think about trees in my backyard, the city way of thinking.  Those people really, really, don’t want anything to die.  When death happens, they are very sad.  They are so sad about what they’ve lost that they can’t see what the death is creating, they can’t see what the death means to the world outside of them.  They just try to clean it all away, because it feels messy and terrible.  And that’s an okay way to feel, because when people or animals or things we love die, we do miss them a lot and we do often feel really, really sad.

But one of the things we can learn from the trees is that a tree’s death isn’t the end of the tree’s usefulness or the tree’s presence.  The tree’s death is as important to the forest as the tree’s life was.  I still get sad when I see a big space in the sky where a tree used to be.  But that growing beech tree in my backyard isn’t sad at all about all that sun that appeared when the big tree went down.  And that makes me wonder about death, and about what it all means.

Death can make us feel terrible.  When our family members or friends or pets or trees die, that can make us sadder than we’ve ever been before.  And that’s okay.  Feeling sad and missing our loved ones is what human beings are supposed to do after someone dies.  We’re supposed to remember them, and keep loving them, even if they die.

But sometimes, people go farther than that when faced with death.  They get mad at death and think that it’s some sort of foreign invader.  They forget that death is the way the world works, the way things are supposed to be, just as much as life is.  Even when we don’t like it, death is natural.  Our world uses death in many different ways. 

And while it’s very true and very okay for us to be very sad around death, we should at the same time not forget to be a little bit amazed about a world that has this sort of system embedded in it.  We should not forget that there is stuff going on out there that is much, much bigger than we are.  Maybe all the sadness and all the love and all the living and all the dying has a reason and a benefit that we are just too small to know about, so far, anyway. 

In a few minutes, while we take the collection, we’ll be watching a short animated video about what happens to a whale after it dies.  It turns out that a dead whale, a “whale fall” as they call it, becomes a whole world to a bunch of different creatures that only live in dead whales[1].  And that whole world that is created by the whale fall lasts just as long as a whale lives.  So a whale has a life, and then after that whale dies, it becomes a world for a whole bunch of other life, for just as long as it was alive.  Imagine if you lived for a hundred years, and then after you died, for one hundred more years, you got to be a planet.

What kind of world is like that? 

Our world is like that.




[1] "Everything and Nothing," Loops, Season 10, Episode 3.