The tree stood in the middle of the village. Its trunk was so large that it took six people holding hands to reach around it. The roots were strong and wide, and its branches spread out over the village square, offering shelter from the rain, or shade from the summer sun. Its fruit was juicy, sweet, and plentiful.
The people of the village loved the tree. Children played beneath it, and climbed it its lowest branches. Young people knew that if you whispered your dreams to the tree, they were more likely to come true. People who proclaimed their love or friendship for one another beneath its branches found their relationships to be nourishing, and elders discovered that their sweetest memories could be counted on when they were near the great tree. The tree had been witness to so much, and when the breezes blew through the leaves, one could hear echoes of generations: laughter, conversations, dreams, prayers, and songs.
Animals loved the tree, too. Rabbits lived in burrows under the roots, squirrels and monkeys lived in the branches, and bats and birds flew in to eat the abundant fruit. The tree seemed to buzz with life!
One day, a traveling merchant arrived in the village. He rested in the shade and ate two pieces of delicious fruit. “This fruit is incredible,” he said. “I would like to have some to sell in the next villages that I visit. Who owns this tree?”
“No one owns this tree,” replied a villager. “If anything, we belong to it.”
“Well, then, if no one owns the tree, then no one will mind if I pick the fruit!,”said the merchant, and began to fill a basket.
“I mind,” said the villager, “and today I am the keeper of the tree.”
“What do you mean, keeper of the tree?”
“We each take our turn being here with the tree. We could never own it. We are here as protectors, as sustainers.”
“That’s ridiculous. This tree doesn’t need you! You could just take what you need; take what you want. The tree will continue.”
But the villager couldn’t be persuaded. “Sir, this tree isn’t like that. We don’t come here to take from it…even though we receive much. We are keepers of the tree because this is where we are nourished. This is where some of our most precious memories are, and where our people have dreamed. This is where we remember who we want to become.”
“Well,” said the merchant, “you may think this tree is very special, but it still doesn’t need you to sit with it. That is preposterous!”
“Ah,” replied the villager. “The tree itself may not need me—but what of others who come by? Just this morning I sat with a woman whose heart was heavy with worry. Had I not been here, she would have had to carry that weight alone. And this afternoon, a tired couple came by, and they rested with me. They said they had been looking for a place like this. And then an elder came by, and we watched the birds in the branches together.
“And now you are here. You were confused about what this tree is, and how to be with it. Imagine if you had arrived and not found anyone here to talk with? You might have continued thinking that everything you do is all about you. Luckily for you, my friend, I’m here to let you know that when you care for the tree of life, it becomes about so much more than just you.”
And the merchant sat for a while in the shade, thinking about these ideas that felt new and a little challenging. As the sun went down, he picked up his bag and headed out of town, whistling a song that he hadn’t thought of in years. On his way, he shared a smile with each person he met, his heart feeling strangely light and joyful.
And the people of the village? They continued to sustain the tree of life: to care for one another and to share their gifts, with grace and gratitude. May it be so for each of us.