There’s an oak tree growing in a narrow strip of gravel between the parking lot and the sidewalk at my son’s school. It’s a fairly decent specimen, considering it’s surrounded by concrete and blacktop. The trunk in maybe eighteen or twenty inches in diameter, nice and straight for the first twenty feet or so. The crown isn’t very extensive, but as I sat in the car waiting for school to let out, I could see it was heavy with acorns.
In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan discusses the distinction between apples and oaks: “Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.”* Acorns can be eaten, but their tannin content makes them unpalatable until they are boiled or soaked. Certainly different from a nice, juicy apple.
Oaks and apples are representative of a great many of our interactions with the rest of creation. In Genesis 2, in the quest to find a suitable partner for man, God brings the animals to Adam and they all receive names. The story says nothing of the plants. But it’s unlikely that we call things by the same name Adam gave them. The names we give things is a reflection of their meaning to us. Apple trees are named for what we find to be the most useful part of the tree—it’s fruit. An oak tree is referenced by its most useful element, it’s wood. We do not call oaks “acorn trees.” Pollan’s book discusses the relationship we have with various plants, and how that relationship serves not only the human side of the equation, but meets the plant’s needs as well. If naming was a more collaborative effort, and we considered the reproductive needs of the plant as well as our own desires, we might refer to all trees by their fruit, whether we find its fruit to be edible or not.
Apples, originally as unpalatable as acorns when they grew wild in the hills of Kazakhstan, erupted into an incredible diversity in America. Apples are interesting, because they do not reproduce true to type when grown from seeds—a trait known as heterozygosity. The apple you collect seeds from may be as sweet as honey, but if you grow a tree from it, the apples it produces may just as likely be bitter as acorns. To get apples that are true to type, you have to graft branches with the favorable traits onto a hardy rootstock. All the Red Delicious apples that line the shelves in the grocery stores trace back to one single tree that grew up as a seedling between orchard rows on Jesse Hiatt’s Iowa farm, and began to produce fruit in 1893. There’s a lot of work that goes into producing a popular apple, and Pollan’s question is this: who is benefiting the most from the relationship, the apple or the farmer? Jesse Hiatt’s single seedling seems to have done pretty well for itself.
Apples have benefited by offering humans something they want—a sweet, juicy piece of fruit. Oaks are really no different, it’s just that the fruit they offer is directed at a different partner, a squirrel. Oaks miss out on the benefits and challenges of domestication because their success is not dependent on humans. Sure, we’ll harvest them for their wood, but that’s a one-time deal, and represents a genetic dead-end for the oak. As Pollan observes, they’re much more apt to spread their seeds if they keep up the relationship they have with the rodents. The question that stuck with me as I looked at the tree growing next to the sidewalk at Cyrus’s school was this: why do we think of so many things in terms of how they benefits us? Why don’t we call it an acorn tree?
In the closing chapters of the book of Job, God comes to Job and speaks to him out of the whirlwind. If you’ve studied the book of Job, you know that the greater portion of it seeks to address the question of why innocent people suffer. Job is righteous, and yet endures incredible pain. His friends try to comfort him with the traditional wisdom—“There must be some unconfessed sin in your life, Job. Just get it out there, ask God’s forgiveness, and things will be fine—because God rewards the righteous.” Job’s insistent response is that he cannot confess of something he has not done—he consistently maintains his innocence, which we know from the story is true. When we reach the end of the book, where God finally speaks, we hope that there will be some resolution, that God will answer all the questions that Job and his friends have been struggling with. But that’s not what we get. Instead, we get a commanding account of creation; God describes to Job all the various creatures from common to mythical. Why would God talk about beasts when Job needs an answer to his question of suffering?
Job is a complex book and this is perhaps an overly simplistic thought. But one thing that God’s speeches do in the story of Job is remind both Job and the reader of their place in the created order. For nearly 40 chapters, all we read about is how suffering, sin, innocence and repentance play out in the human experience. God is portrayed as something of a divine vending machine, off at a distance dispensing just reward and punishment, and as someone who can be manipulated into granting blessings if a person simply says the right repentant words. Job’s concern is that the machine might be broken—that he is suffering when he should not be. But God’s speeches reorient both Job and the reader. God is not a divine dispenser of reward and punishment, as if human activity was the only thing that God was concerned about. There’s a whole world of creatures that God is sovereign over, that have nothing to do with people, and that resist domestication and reject our misguided attempts at dominion.
God has created as many oaks as apples, and God has given each of them the blessing to be fruitful, even if that fruit is bitter to us. That acorn tree on the edge of the parking lot is a reminder that the world is richer and more diverse than I could imagine, and that God is sovereign over all of it. God has the best interest of oaks and sharks and butterflies in mind, just as He has plans to prosper us. A little humility in the face of God’s providence for all creation might be beneficial for us, and we need to remember Job’s ultimate lesson—God is in charge, whether we benefit or not. Not every fruit is for us.
*Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World, Random House: 2002, page 5.