written by Emily Willen

My sister always loved trees.

While studying abroad in New Zealand this past semester, Ally went to visit a national forest filled with redwood trees. These trees were massive in stature, as thick and solid as concrete buildings. Next to little Ally, who liked to heatedly insist that she was indeed over five feet tall (she wasn’t), they seemed simply mountainous. Despite the stark difference in size, however, her obvious love for the trees was evident. Ally’s relationship with trees and with all of nature could be summed up in one picture that was taken of her in which her arms are wrapped around the trunk of a massive tree, her head gazing up longingly towards its leaves and branches, her body leaning fully into the embrace of its trunk.

Ally’s deep love and understanding of nature originated from the time she was a little girl. From the time she was born, my sister communicated with all creatures of this Earth in a way that eluded words. It was not only a part of who she was but it was one of the gifts she brought forth into this world. All of her life, up until her last hike in New Zealand, my sister forged a relationship with all things wild. She understood the essential the connection between man and nature.

Several months before her final hike, Ally described in detail a tattoo she wanted to get that embodied this connection. She described how she wanted a tattoo of tree rings with a finger print in the middle. The fingerprint, she explained, represented how we leave a mark on every person we meet and that we have a responsibility to “only leave good marks, leave good impressions, and consciously put positive energy into the world.” Ally stated that she wanted her tattoo to serve as a daily reminder to approach every situation in her life with intention; to walk through her life awake rather than asleep; and to hold her to a higher standard in regards to her actions and behaviors.

Although my sister never had the chance to get her tattoo, today I am going to get it for her. The tattoo will be a tribute to Ally and to the way she lived her life. It will be my own personal reminder to consciously live in a way that is aligned with my values. For the rest of my life, my tattoo will serve as a tangible acknowledgement of my love for my sister and all that she stood for.

Recently, however, I have realized that perhaps this tattoo has wider implications than just for me. Perhaps this tattoo and the message it contains is for all of us. After all, as my sister so deeply understood, what affects one person affects all people. What happens to one of us happens to the whole. And in our world today, we are facing more challenges than ever before.

What many of us are yearning for is a sense of connection and authenticity. We yearn to feel a deeper connection to the Earth, to the people around us, and to ourselves. We are hungry for the experience of genuine connection and meaning.

My sister found this sense of connection in trees. Think about trees for a moment: how rooted they are, how tall they stand, how deeply their roots penetrate into the bowels of the Earth. The roots of trees extend many feet into the ground, creating a vast web of interconnection. The trees are the guardians of what we have forgotten. The trees have not lost their way; they have not forgotten their connection to themselves and to each other. Unlike us, the trees have not forgotten the truth of who they are. Their wisdom is etched into their bark, interwoven into their green leaves and strong trunks. They do not go seeking outside of themselves for their wisdom; rather, they draw upon Mother Earth to provide them with all the answers they need. They are majestic in their understanding of a greater connection to all things.

We have much to learn from the trees. As a society and as a people we have lost our way. We have come so far astray from who we are and what we are meant to be. Somehow in the past century we have become increasingly disconnected from our bodies, from our planet, and from each other. We have managed to lose our compass so completely that we now view one another as “the other.” We view our planet Earth as a “thing” rather than as something of which we are an intimate part of. We view each other from the lens of separation rather than from our interconnectivity. This false perception has cost us dearly. It has severed us from the very thing that we yearn for the most: wholeness.

Luckily, that wholeness and interconnection is always present. As Ally demonstrated, we need only to look as far as the trees to perceive it. Our world is in desperate need of help. We must each take responsibility for the restoration of our world; there is no one else to do it for us. And we need not feel pressure to make unreasonable or enormous changes. All we have to do is re-claim the truth of who we are. We need to remember what is truest and purest inside of us; and in remembering this, we can recognize it in other people as well. Then we can begin to perceive this truth in all beings and all things.

Just as Ally talked about her sense of personal responsibility, so too can we examine our role and how we want to live our own lives. With an attitude of acceptance and compassion, we can ask ourselves the questions that my sister asked of herself: What are my daily reminders to stay awake? What are my daily reminders to be kind, to open my heart, to treat the other person as I would like to be treated? How can I consciously put positive energy into the world today? What is my personal responsibility in healing the world?

There is no time left to waste. We can no longer afford to pretend like we don’t see the pain of others in the world or that their suffering does not affect us. We are not being called upon to “fix” the suffering in the world; we simply need to acknowledge it, to open our hearts with compassion, and to do everything we can to remember our connection to each other. In doing this, we can change the world. In showing kindness to another person, we change the world. In practicing forgiveness, we change the world. In taking personal responsibility for our actions and our lives, we change the world.

In the end, it will not be the politicians or the corporations or the businessmen who create these changes. It will be us—the people. And the change will happen when we are finally able to look within ourselves and see that we, like the trees, have had the power inside of us all along.

All it takes is one person to change the world. Sometimes the person who inspires such fundamental changes in the lives of others is the most unassuming of them all. Sometimes that person is a petite, five foot tall, tree-loving little girl who so bravely reminded us of what we most needed to remember.

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