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What Trees can Teach us About Development

written by Cordele Glass 12 September 2018

Cordele Glass, M.A. 2018 holds a graduate degree in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University. He works as an outdoor adventure guide, teambuilding facilitator, and positive psychology coach in Southern California. You can read more on his website, Upward Acts. Full bio. Cordele's articles are here..

People rarely acknowledge the fact that trees are living beings that eat, reproduce, and react to their environment. Trees have been around for over 390,000,000 years and all of that time has imbued them with an irrefutable wisdom regarding how to live life. The differences between humans and trees are vast, but that does not imply that every bit of a tree’s wisdom can be disregarded as irrelevant. Below are some lessons I’ve gleaned about life and development from some of the wisest teachers I know.

Sometimes Change is a Good Thing

Turning leaves

Deciduous trees lose their leaves when they decide the environment calls for a different approach to life and their way of being. This is the change many people associate with red and yellow autumn leaves. It happens gradually yet fully; without hesitation, uncertainty, or regret. They rely on a combination of genetic and environmental factors to help them know when the time for change is right.

Living with the knowledge that change is an inevitable and vital aspect of our development is what helps us to continue advancing in ways that guide our bodies and our surroundings toward harmony. Many developmental psychologists take a lifespan view of development. This lifespan perspective is supported by work in neuroscience with concepts like plasticity suggesting that neural and psychological change continues to take place long after adulthood has begun. Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has a Ted Talk explaining some of the basic tenets of neural plasticity. Impermanence or perpetual change is also a foundational idea in Buddhist psychology and various other Vedantic teachings tied to acceptance, peace, and spiritual development.

As We Grow, We Transcend and Include

Dendrochronology is the scientific study of trees and how they develop over time. As they grow, each layer continues to contribute to the whole life and being of the tree. The older, smaller parts add to the fullness of the individual tree, and yet there is more that makes up the tree as it continues to interact with the environment, changing over time. The new rings do not reject, diminish, judge, or demean the older parts of the tree. Instead, they include them, they surround them, and they work in harmony to contribute to the whole tree’s life.

Transcend and include

As our consciousness develops we begin to take wider and wider perspectives. We begin in infancy by only considering our immediate needs of food and warmth, emotional and physical safety. As we learn and our perspectives grow we begin to consider the needs of others including our parents and our closest friends. Through adolescence, wider social circles become more important to our values, actions, and interests. As social and emotional development continues we begin to include communities, cultures, and nations into our considerations and priorities. Generally speaking, humans tend to move from egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric as we transcend, yet include, each stage of growing up. Each subsequent stage fully includes the prior stage.

This theory of transcending and including stages of consciousness is known as Spiral Dynamics. It was first put forth by Dr. Clare Graves (a contemporary of Abraham Maslow) and later popularized by the work of Don Beck, Christopher Cowan, and Ken Wilbur. Spiral Dynamics synthesizes the gamut of psychology’s best developmental theories into a model of holarchical stages that stretch across the human lifespan and the human species itself. In philosophy, a holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part.

Some Parts of Life Need Energy and Some Parts Don’t

Living tree, some dead branches

As trees grow older, taller, and wiser they often reallocate their resources to leaves and branches that contribute the most to their life, and away from the branches and leaves that are no longer catching light. The unused branches and leaves eventually wither and fall off the tree as the higher branches and leaves flourish and continue to contribute to the tree’s development.

We live in the same world as trees, and in this world, there is a limited amount of energy we can use at one time. Putting this energy into the parts of our lives that help us to thrive and develop is vital to an engaging and meaningful life. Since energy is limited, reallocating energy toward these things may mean that other parts of life, whether they be friends, family, jobs, hobbies, or environments, may have to wither and occasionally be removed all together. Dr. Bonnie Benard calls this process Adaptive Distancing and lauds it as a significant contributor to the development of resilience in children and adolescents. This shedding, reorienting, or diminishing is in service of putting the most energy possible into the friends, family, jobs, hobbies, or environments that contribute the most to our lives.

Being Open to as Much Light as Possible Leads to the Most Growth

Trees try to maximize the surface area of their leaves because they need light to grow. Sometimes they use massive individual leaves like the Bigleaf Maple Tree, sometimes they go for quantity like the needles of a Conifer Tree, and sometimes they reach high above the competition like the Coastal Redwoods.

Growing toward the light

Many trees grow their branches toward more concentrated areas of light and some plants even move with the sun as it travels across the sky, a process called heliotropic sun-tracking. They know how important light is, and they try their best to openly receive as much as possible.

Finding light in our own human lives is just as vital to our growth. For us, it may come from the kind words of a new friend, the passion felt from an inspiring action in others, or the comfort felt from connecting with our bodies. It may be the awe of a mountain view, the thrill of a favorite sport, or the touch of a loved one. The field of Positive Psychology has dedicated itself to researching these aspects of human psychological light with the above examples supported by hundreds of rigorous studies from around the world. Barbara Fredrickson has demonstrated that our psychological resources can broaden and build with the light of positive emotions. Deci and Ryan have posited that the light of relatedness is a psychological necessity, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has investigated thoroughly how the light of flow states helps to grow our psychological complexity. We too can approach life by being as open and receptive as possible to the things that give us light that helps us grow.

Trees let go of flowers…


Trees can teach us to embrace change. They can also teach us that with change we needn’t discard aspects of our past, but rather we can keep them and use them to stay strong as we transcend our current states. Attending to the things we need for growth and being as open to our needs as possible can set us up for continued success. We can act in ways that allow people, feelings, and experiences to fill us up and contribute to life and development of well-being. We can do this without trying to hold onto them forever and without expecting them to be a certain way. Just like trees.




Beck, D. E., & Cowan, C. C. (2014). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. John Wiley & Sons.

Benard, B. (1991). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school, and community. Western Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rathunde, K. (2014). The development of the person: An experiential perspective on the ontogenesis of psychological complexity. In M. Csikszentmihalyi, Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (pp. 7-79). Springer, Dordrecht.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. Abstract.

Merzenich, M. (2004). Growing evidence of brain plasticity. TED-2004.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Shambhala Publications.

Wright, R. (2017). Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon and Schuster.

Turning Leaves Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash
Tree rings Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash
Live tree with dead branches Photo by Brandon Green on Unsplash
Trees reaching for the light Photo by Aldino Hartan Putra on Unsplash
Flowering Tree Photo by Irina Kostenich on Unsplash

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Judith B Krings 13 September 2018 - 9:24 am

Lovely article, Cordel. Any blog about trees adds rings of happiness to my tree of life. I knew when I met my husband, it would work. We both had a tree as our company logo! Synchronous values with a growth and appreciation of beauty orientation. Ironic, too, as last week we trimmed, lopped, removed and pruned about 25 trees in our yard. Nurturing takes work, but the “tree-sults” are grand. many thanks and well done.

Rebecca 7 December 2018 - 3:26 pm

This article really resonates with my personal journey of understanding my own cycles. Thank you for further inspiring me to let go and to find the light in my life.

Sriram 10 December 2019 - 11:01 pm

Thus article is brilliant! Just summarises all my readings about trees and the way I feel about them and how their growth and behaviour resonates with humans – only that many if us humans don’t/can’t understand and recognize. I wish to repost your article on my personal blog, with your permission! Please.


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