Predicaments of trees and turtles


A week of profound passages: Heather Ion convened sparkling minds exploring “the epidemic of health,” KD’s 90th, my 60th and Jesus rose again, too. Too much to think about, so I am mulling on the predicament of trees (in real forests) and turtles (crossing actual roads). The tree first.

Walking down the gravel road alongside Fighting Town Creek, we passed under a young oak bent a perfect arch. One of the pines killed by the bark beetles a couple years ago fell in the heavy spring storm, tangled with the oak, weighing it low, caught.


I thought all day about the improbable things that happen to real trees, so unlike the pictures we paint. In real forests (and neighborhoods) anything physically possible just might happen no matter what the predictions based on averages might expect. I was intrigued by the tangle off the ground that held the bent tree captive to the fallen on and even walked back later near dusk to find the predicament more improbable than I thought. The pine didn’t just topple over, it snapped in the wind, caught its upper branches in the young strong oak, which bent but held the severed trunk a foot off the ground like a grey ghost might hold a troubled mind. The things that happen to trees … and people.

Nathan Wolfe, a virologist Jonas Salk would have liked a lot, joined Heather’s exploration of viral metaphor by phone. Nathan is named by Time Magazine this week as one of the 100 most influential people in the world (and on a much shorter list of influences on my daughter). Sparked by Heather Ion, he noted that virus are instructive for humans in how they “generate novelty” by combining and recombining genetic information constantly and promiscuously. Novelties (innovations) are tested against reality–also constantly–and those that work better stick long enough to generate more novelty. That’s how viral life works, with some clues for us mammals.

I’ll wait for a fuller posting on this until Heather has a chance to edit the transcripts. But you can see why it matters in the real neighborhood where you live.


Humans mash ideas together constantly, too, because we face not just threats but opportunities. As technology and knowlege move, it turns out that reality holds more possibilities for life than we had known. We are not contained by what has been possible yesterday, or even this morning. We can generate novelty, too. Indeed, the lives of all we love depend on the adaptive innovations that come from how our lives combine with others’.

Less than a month ago I was measuring my steps against geological phenomenon, noticing that I lived barely longer than one of Nathan’s virus. Better generate novelty fast, for life is quickly passed on to others. The thoughtful community philanthropist behind our “epidemic” meeting passed on just last night. But Richard Cornuelle knew his ideas had combined with those of Jonas Salk (who passed on a handful of years ago himself). Lives are good when they leave a vital process more alive.

In the meantime, notice that turtles (and people) have predicaments that can be helped now and in very straightforward ways.


This is the patch of clutter where I moved a box turtle from his precarious rest two thirds of the way across a gravel road. Safe in his armored skin, he probably thought this an unnecessary novelty. But he didn’t know about cars and I did, so I moved him unasked. He did not tarry to thank me and was long gone when I walked past again 45 minutes later. I thought of Loren Eisley’s “star-thrower”, walking the beach at dawn chucking stranded starfish back in the surf. Turtles are less poetic, but probably a lot more alive.

In Rock Hill to celebrate KD’s 90th, I noticed an off-brand Baptist church announcing “Jesus stripped, shamed, tortured, killed…for you!!!” (Happy Easter). The ultimate Vital Novelty lost amid the violence. What wondrous life is this, asked the song, more helpfully astonished at the combination of divine and human. I wonder what it would look like if we believed it?

I thought of Bobby Baker, his Navigators and Liaisons intervening in the lives of hundreds of people (mostly moving slowly as turtles) every month getting them to where they need to be to have a better shot at health. Many of those lives are as unlikely as the tangled tree and many just as obviously exposed as the turtle in the road. Their hope is the novelty of competent compassion–hundreds of mundane but creative acts of vitality done quietly and a system that puts people in positions for life giving novelty.

– Posted on the journey

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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