Seeing opportunity in adversity

Perhaps we need adversity in this way. We need it to remind us that we must give as well as take.

Quite a few mornings ago I picked up a light Swede saw and went to call upon a hemlock tree. Had I taken a chain saw, I would have had no story to tell; but I like the quiet swish of a Swede saw and disdain the raucous bellow of the power saw.

The hemlock I went to call upon was one that had been nudged some years ago by a bulldozer. Although the bulldozer had perhaps given it only a friendly tap, the hemlock had reacted by tipping to an angle only about twenty degrees above the horizontal. Its branches made it an effective barrier to my nearby trail, and I decided that it should be converted into firewood.

Some who have sawed away at tipped over trees know what I could expect. The grain was pinched and twisted and tough, and after only a few strokes the saw was grabbed and pinched. I had to use a wedge, and found that some chunks were better chopped with an axe. By the time the hemlock was converted into firewood, I had done a good half days work. I’ll say little about the splitting except that the twisted grain made that task about as problematical as it is supposed to be for a rich man to get into heaven.

When I had finally finished, I sat down with my back against a stump and filled a cup from a thermos of coffee. I mused upon the truth that lurks behind the statement that there is strength in adversity. It was adversity in the form of a bulldozer that had tipped the hemlock sideways and to compensate for its position, it had developed a tough and twisted grain that made it a Hercules among hemlocks.

Once in the east, I saw a yellow birch tree that had rooted atop a big rock in a pocket of dirt and moss. Over the years it had sent down roots over the bare rock until it was rooted in the soil beneath. Its roots now completely encircled the boulder upon which it reposed, and it sat upon its throne like a king whose armies had conquered the world….except that the labours of the yellow birch were perhaps of a more noble nature.

Perhaps its efforts were not more unusual however than those I noticed in an abandoned navel training station in the U.S. In its deserted company streets, mountain ash trees were poking their way up through what had once been pavement. Nature waits patiently and when man’s temporary reign is abdicated, the inimitable seed works its way through paved ground and reclaims her own.

As I sat musing, many examples of adversity sifted through my mind. For example, I thought of the sand grain which irritates the oyster and eventually is coated with mother of pearl until it produces the gem of commerce admired by so many. Here, adversity is transformed to beauty.

I thought of the adverse conditions on steep mountain slopes which developed the agility and grace of the mountain goat, and thought too of the whistling mountain winds which had helped develop the long soft coat of these mountain acrobats. Indians catching candlefish along the Nass River in B.C. would carry the rendered oil of the fish far inland to trade it for goat skins which they used for blankets.

Isn’t it adversity that causes an apple tree to put forth larger and better apples as a result of pruning? Is it not perhaps adversity that has developed the rapid growth of many grasses as a response to grazing? Is it not even adversity that causes us to react against a disease such as chicken pox and thereby develop a life long immunity to it?

Today of course, adversity is taking new forms. Ecological insight is informing humanity that it can no longer consume the Earth’s riches with impunity. Likewise knowledge of pollution problems informs us that we can hardly continue to be haphazard in introducing all sorts of exotic chemicals into our environment. We daily learn anew that every action has its equal and opposite reaction.

Perhaps we need adversity in this way. We need it to remind us that we must give as well as take. When Winston Churchill wrote the book he called Their Finest Hour, he may have been premature. Mankind as a whole may yet see its finest hour, and it may be that adversity will be the stimulus that will bring it about.

Strange, isn’t it, even a tipped over hemlock tree suggests things that we should think about? All nature has a tale to tell us if we will only listen.