Underneath our feet, the trees are talking

“May you be forever a beautiful tree of life bringing forth fruits of love.”[1]

This is going to be a post about trees, with just a bit of science and fungi. But trust me, it’s not simply because it’s autumn now and the leaves are changing. It’s all about our Vincentian mission in the end.

Trees have long been a powerful symbol and have captured our imaginations in art, religion, popular culture, and myth. I’m sure most of us have a treasured, meaningful memory that features a tree. Personally, I spent half my childhood in the summer and fall scrambling up, down, and around treetops. After I didn’t have to rake them, I came to enjoy the slow process of the leaves as they seemed to warm up with vibrant colors until finally falling. Every year now I wish for a long fall.

There’s the old phrase: never meet your heroes. What’s wonderful is that trees never disappoint. Turns out, the more we learn about our ancient arboreal friends, the more they have to teach us. There’s a reason that wisdom is associated with trees. We all know that trees literally help all of life breathe. They help moderate the climate and detoxify our global ecosystem, turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. It’s estimated that one large tree provides enough oxygen for up to four people! Without them, we would not be here. But did you know that trees talk with one another? Not just metaphorically, or poetically, like in the way their leaves rustle through the wind, but in a very organic, physical way? Did you also know that, far from the myth of trees competing for either sun (up in the canopies) or for water (deep in their root structure), that forests of trees live in a kind of collective harmony, looking out for one another?

The work of Suzanne Simard, a Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, has been revolutionizing the way that we look at trees and forests. Professor Simard has been studying plant intelligence and networked communications since 1997. Her ground-breaking scientific work, previously scorned, is now leading the field’s understanding of forest ecology, and has coined the term “the wood-wide web.” It turns out, trees don’t—and never were meant to—stand alone. Beneath our feet is a sprawling, busy, dynamic network of roots and fungi that form what are called mycorrhizal networks. Mycelium are tiny threads of a fungal network that wrap into and around tree roots, linking them into a vast community. Through this network of fungus and roots, trees are able to send not only water and nutrients to each other, but also signals warning about disease, drought, or insects.

You can listen to a TED Talk from Professor Simard herself here, and learn directly from her much better than I could hope to explain.[2] The big takeaway for me though, as Professor Simard summarizes so eloquently in her book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, is this: “Plants are attuned to one another’s strengths and weaknesses, elegantly giving and taking to attain exquisite balance. There is grace in complexity, in actions cohering, in sum totals.”[3]

How beautifully rich and awe inspiring is that? Beneath our feet, tree roots are connected via a fungal network and constantly communicating, a buzzing exchange of signals. Trees are looking out for one another, and for the health of the whole forest. They do not hoard water, nutrients, and minerals, but freely share them with whatever sapling or mighty oak needs them the most. Scientifically, trees live in community with one another.

Now, what does this have to do with our Vincentian community and mission? Everything. The image and metaphor of the tree has long been associated with our Vincentian family. Just look at DePaul’s own symbol: the Tree of Wisdom. We often talk about our Vincentian roots and origins, and the many branches that have grown from that same trunk. In his letter for this year’s Feast Day, Father Tomaž Mavrič, C.M., President of the Executive Committee of the Vincentian Family, noted the tree’s long symbolic history with the Vincentians.[4]

Our new scientific understanding of mycorrhizal networks only further enriches the metaphor. We do not stand alone, either as individuals, or as departments, colleges, universities, or any other group. We thrive when we do not hoard this or that or get stuck in our own silos, but freely collaborate in community, whether it is in the exchange of ideas, or in compassionate care. Let’s learn from the trees and, as Vincent said, bring “forth fruits of love.”

Note: A big thank you to Kiley Chernicky, a Graduate Student from our own Biology MS Program here at DePaul, for alerting me to the work of Professor Suzanne Simard!

Reflection Questions:

  • What’s your favorite memory of a tree?
  • How might you deepen your collaboration with another department or area of the university to the benefit of all?
  • What’s one “outside-the-box” department you aren’t already connected with, that you think might bear fruitful collaboration? Unlikely, creative pairings can often produce unexpected, wonderful benefits.

Reflection by: Alex Perry, Program Manager, Division of Mission and Ministry

[1] Letter 27, “To Saint Louise,” [July 30, 1628], CCD, 1:46. Available at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/25/.

[2] TED Talk, Suzanne Simard found at https://www.npr.org/2017/01/13/509350471/how-do-trees-collaborate

[3] Simard, Suzanne; Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2022).

[4] Tomaž Mavrič, C.M., “Letter from Fr. Tomaž Mavrič, C.M., on the Occasion of the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul 2022,” Famvin blog, September 19, 2022, Letter from Fr. Tomaž Mavrič, C.M., on the Occasion of the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul.


Vincentian Heritage Tour

We are now accepting applications for the August 2023 Vincentian Heritage Tour. Join your fellow colleagues and walk in Vincent’s footsteps around Paris and France. Learn more about our Vincentian roots and become inspired to bring those experiences and lessons back with you to DePaul.

Learn more here: August 2023 Vincentian Heritage Tour

Out of Many, One

The motto on which the U.S. is built, its very foundation, is the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, one.” This motto has never been more relevant and urgent than today.

I have been insisting in different forums over the past couple of years that equity at DePaul is not simply a social, cultural, or political option. It is a concrete way for us to understand who we are. Our identity and our mission need to refer to equity intentionally and systemically. Our work to end all inequities within our institutional and social fabric is a basic consequence of this same principle.

“Out of many, one” only happens when the singularity of each member of the many is recognized, respected, and protected. Then all the singularities weave together naturally to become a beautiful pluralistic One. There is no space today for any ideology that denigrates the right to be any of the infinite forms of the Many that enable the One to be authentic, embracing all.

I am convinced that this is precisely the beauty of DePaul and our Vincentian DNA, which is connected to the national motto. I am also convinced that legislation or policy alone cannot solve the many problems we have with intolerance, hatred, exclusion, or violence. I have worked on political advocacy with other members of the Vincentian Family to promote systemic change and the eradication of all forms of social and environmental injustices. We believe this is also something that each one of us needs to incorporate into a personal way of being and relating.

In the 70s and 80s, the focus on social work and Catholic Social Teaching was almost exclusively on poverty. However, poverty is a consequence of a bigger systemic problem. Our focus is changing. Today the focus is on inequity. Attention to equity is attention to sustainable models. Equity is essential for DePaul, for society, and for humanity to be sustainable.

At the beginning of this new academic year, from my position in the Division of Mission and Ministry and from my identity as a Vincentian, I invite us to always preserve the dignity of each one and of all in everything we say and do. We must preserve the dignity of the Many so that we can honestly be One.

Each one of us should be aware of the healing, restorative power of our words; the transformative supportive power of our listening; and the compassionate, fulfilling experience of our presence in our relationships.

In Vincent de Paul’s teaching, there is a movement from religious devotion to transformative ethical actions that defend the most vulnerable and threatened. This ethical relationship with the Other, especially the vulnerable, can give us a full understanding of the mystery of life. So let us all, individually and collectively, use this new academic year as an opportunity to heal, to rebuild relationships, and to create new networks of support and care, always in the spirit of equity and the motto it embraces—out of many, one. We are all equal in our dignity. We are all worthy in our many, many differences. What a beautiful expression of our collective humanity in this microcosm that is DePaul University.

As we welcome the new members of our community, let’s all act in the spirit of hospitality, which calls us to embrace new members as our own. We are one family, a family that is always growing and being transformed, not just by new faces but also by new decisions, new opportunities, and by our decision to be new people in the way we see and treat each other.

Happy New Academic Year, DePaul University.

Let’s continue to work together. We are DePaul. Go, DePaul!


Reflection by: Fr. Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., Vice President for Mission and Ministry

Purposeful Self-Care

We must be full reservoirs in order to let our water spill out without becoming empty, and we must possess the spirit with which we want them to be animated, for [we cannot] give what [we do] not have.[i]

There are times at DePaul when we think working in a “Vincentian” way means remaining tirelessly active, without regard to our own needs or what is actually effective. However, this is decidedly not what Vincent de Paul taught. In addition to the quote above, Vincent wrote to Louise de Marillac circa 1632, “It seems to me that you are killing yourself from the little care you take of yourself.”[ii] Their correspondence often included encouragement in both directions for tending to their mutual health and well-being.

We have learned much over the past couple of years about the importance of self-care and of remaining healthy. The pandemic has forced us to reconsider and reflect on work-life balance norms and habits as well as what it means to work effectively.

There are many ways in which hyper-activity can be harmful to us individually and as a university community. Sound decision-making and the fostering of innovation are far more difficult when we are tired or feeling burned out. We are also much less likely to cultivate the quality relationships that make for a supportive environment and that reflect hospitality and care for others, both of which are so essential to the “Vincentian personalism” we value. We may lose touch with the deeper sense of meaning and purpose that motivates our work. Furthermore, workaholism and the absence of self-care can accentuate an ego-driven pride within us about working longer and harder than everyone around us—and this serves no one in the end. When we are always busy, what we are modeling to others, particularly the students we seek to educate and serve?

In contrast to such a worker-bee mentality, Vincent’s image of the reservoir may serve us well. Sustained and quality work during busy times often requires us to “dig deep,” and therefore it is essential that we maintain healthy reserves to draw from. Our relationships are vital sources of energy and support when we face vexing problems, and therefore cultivating friendships and collegial networks is a life habit that makes our work more effective and sustainable. We might also imagine the life-giving reservoir replenished by remaining connected to a shared sense of mission or purpose through regular moments of reflection.

As we come to the end of the summer months, the intensity of our work and task lists are no doubt beginning to build up again as we approach the new academic year. Might we transition into the fall with a plan to integrate self-care, relationships, and ongoing reflection? Perhaps we might even work together with others to shape our collective organizational culture in a way that models these things, thus benefitting all in our community, including the students we serve.

One thing will remain certain: any mission worth working toward is not a solo act. We will achieve it only by regularly renewing ourselves through rest, reflection, and friendship—and with some intentionality these things can certainly extend well beyond the summer weeks!

  • What is a regular habit of rest or reflection that can enrich your ability to be creative and to remain energized in the workplace?
  • How might you integrate the cultivation of relationships more intentionally in and through your work?
  • What might you do—even for a few minutes a day—to remain rooted in and nourished by a deeper sense of the mission and purpose that sustains your work?

Reflection by:                    Mark Laboe, Assoc. VP, Mission and Ministry

[i] Letter 1623, “To a Seminary Director,” n.d., CCD, 4:570. Available online at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vincentian_ebooks/29/.

[ii] Letter 95, “To Saint Louise,” n.d. [c.1632], CCD, 1:145. Available online at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vincentian_ebooks/25/.

Summer is here!

“May you be forever a beautiful tree of life bringing forth fruits of love.”[1]

Summer is here! Officially. Finally. Though technically summer begins and ends at the same time every year as our planet circles the sun, the spirit of summer can sometime come earlier or later. What marks the beginning of summer for you personally? Is it when the chilly, fresh mornings of spring turn to hot, humid afternoons as you look for cool shelter under leafy trees (or in air conditioning)? Or is it when the days stretch longer and longer, and the sun lingers well past the time it would normally set, creating glowing evenings of fireflies and laughter with friends?

What does summer mean to you? Is it a time of rest and recovery, of slowed-down days in the shade, where your mind can wander, imagine, and create? Or is it a time of hustle and bustle? Do you try to fit in everything you wanted to do throughout the year but didn’t have the time for? Do you try to squeeze every last drop of fun and work from the long sunny days? Maybe a little of both?

Here at DePaul, what marks the beginning of summer for you professionally? For faculty, is it when the last final is submitted and graded? For students, is it when you leave campus, either going home, or to summer jobs, or graduating, going off into the world to chart your future? For staff, is it when all the dreaded financial bureaucracy is wrapped up in BlueSky, when annual reports are polished and published, when the programming for the year is concluded? Whatever the case, summer feels both like an ending and a beginning—a chapter (or book!) is concluded, and the next starts fresh with a new page.

As campus becomes quiet again without the constant buzz of students, the vast, open horizon of sun-soaked days stretches ahead. We’ve just finished a marathon of a year, filled with stress, grief, and exhaustion. Many of us have been looking forward to the relief that summer provides. Others seek time to assess and clean up unfinished business while looking ahead. That is the beauty of summer. It provides the space for closure and recovery, and that clearing brings an opportunity to sow seeds for the future. As we draft our ambitious lists of summer projects and begin to envision and implement plans for next fall, let’s lean into that spirit of summer. We can approach our work with hope, knowing that the seeds we plant during this time can grow, in Vincent’s words, into “beautiful tree[s] of life bringing forth fruits of love” to benefit the whole community.

Reflection by: Alex Perry, Program Manager, Division of Mission and Ministry

[1] Letter 27, “To Saint Louise,” [believed to be July 30, 1628], CCD, 1:46. Available at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/25/.