Lessons from the Palo Verde

As I walked through my neighborhood one evening, I couldn’t help but notice the palo verde trees. These familiar trees of the Sonoran desert are named for their green bark. Having no leaves, it’s the green bark of the branches and trunk that do the work of photosynthesis: transforming the energy from sunlight and air, enabling the tree to breathe and be nourished.

Many of the palo verde trees in my neighborhood are pruning themselves. The palo verde does this work from an amazing instinct. When there is not enough water for the tree, the tree begins to prune itself, cutting off nutrients to specific branches. Most trees and other plants, when lacking sufficient water, begin to wither and die. But not the palo verde. The palo verde cuts back its own growth, losing a branch or two, so that the rest of the tree can remain healthy. By this self-pruning, allowing a branch or two to die when there’s not enough water to nourish the entire tree, the palo verde assures its own survival and healthy growth for many years, even in the dry desert climate.

As a professional psychologist and spiritual director, I work with many people who struggle to hold onto things in their lives that just don’t work for them any longer. Many people carry old baggage like hurts, scars, or habits that may have at one time had a positive role in their lives but are now no longer useful. Sometimes the old baggage was the best way that someone had to cope with a difficult situation. Now they use that coping mechanism to solve all kinds of unrelated problems. Other times, old baggage is like a trunk filled with hurt, anger, and resentment for things other people did years ago. All the old baggage does is weigh them down and make life’s journey more difficult to travel.

Many of us use a great deal of energy to carry the old baggage around with us. Some of us know that we are very tired from lugging around the excess, yet are unwilling to give it up. We’ve grown used to it. It’s familiar. It’s become part of who we are. Yet, the only way to grow more fully is to get rid of the baggage. Perhaps it needs to be put into storage; perhaps it needs to be taken to the garbage dump; perhaps it needs to be placed somewhere that it can be memorialized for what it was: something that may have helped in the past but whose usefulness is gone. However we understand the baggage, the important thing to realize is that carrying it with us only weighs us down and uses up essential resources that could be utilized for our growth.

The palo verde tree understands by instinct when there are too many branches to maintain for its own health. It remedies the situation by pruning itself. By self-pruning, the tree is able to assure its own long and vital life. I suspect that many of us could learn some important lessons from the palo verde tree and recognize when it’s time to let go of the things we can’t maintain so that we can assure vitality and health for our future.


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