The Healer’s Tree – Review
The Healer’s Tree: A Bible-based resource on ecology, peace & justice, by Annie Heppenstall, 2011. Wild Goose Publications, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1-849-52077-5. RRP £11.50 (paperback)
I’ve been a fan of Annie Heppenstall’s writing and liturgy since she first published “Reclaiming the Sealskin” ten years ago. Her writing continues to challenge and inspire in “The Healer’s Tree”.
Heppenstall offers a series of short, accessible reflections on images from nature in the bible and Christian tradition in order to – as she puts it – trace “a path back” to the “archetypal garden” of Eden that is etched onto our hearts and calls us home to the created world that gave us birth. She does so with fascinating prose, prayer, and poetry and with stunning artwork.
From the vast wilderness to the olive stump, Annie Heppenstall draws us into her detailed meditation on even the microscopic process of life and as such reminds us of the holiness, aliveness, and union of all matter from otter to stone obelisk.
Throughout the book, Heppenstall cleverly and seamlessly draws together an ecological spirituality with the scriptures and traditions of the ancient and present church to present a social and political ethic that has huge implications for the way we relate to one another and to nature: “Each grain is also a challenge, asking us whether we have fed the hungry, whether we have seen justice done, whether we have respected the earth’s abundance or stashed it out of the reach of those who cannot pay” (page 55). Later in the book, her description of our inner animalistic nature, domesticated yet with potential to roam free in our imaginations, is exciting and intriguing – a good summary of much of the book, in fact.
Heppenstall gently makes a case for a vegan spirituality, arguing that to cause harm to animals is to fall out of relationship with other animals. For example, a mystic is surrounded by goats as she sits but when a goat-eater approaches they flee because they recognise the intruder as having eaten their kin. What Heppenstall doesn’t do is explore whether animals fall out of relationship with each other by eating each other and whether we fall out of relationship with wheat whenever we eat bread. I should add that I write this as a meat eater reading a vegan author and so we have our differing interpretive approaches on this issue!
Each chapter has a beautifully crafted prayer, exercises for reflection, and a closing thought. It’s popular nowadays for authors to add some response or group material at the end of each chapter. But what Annie Heppenstall manages to do is to make these feel truly integral to the reading, rather than the add-on or after-thought they are in some books. In one of her “Further Reflection” bits, Heppenstall draws our attention to a much neglected but brilliant parable (Judges 9: 7-15) and asks simply “What does the parable say to you about power and politics?”
I enthusiastically recommend this book for Advent or Lent, for private retreat or group study. Without moralising or tubthumping, Heppenstall’s book raises our expections of ourselves and of what it is possible to know – experientially – of creation animated by the spirit of the divine.
By Keith Hebden