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Lessons from Joshua Tree National Park

Recently I visited Joshua Tree National Park on vacation with my girlfriend. Some friends had described Joshua Tree as otherworldly, but none of their descriptions prepared me for how fascinated I would become with Joshua trees themselves.

Truthfully, I didn't know that Joshua Tree Park was named after an actual type of tree until we were driving into the park. I started to notice hundreds of funny-looking trees that looked like a combination of a cactus and a palm tree. Sheepishly, the thought crossed my mind that these must be Joshua trees. As the day progressed further, my interest in the trees continued to grow, but at the time I didn't realize the lasting impression they would leave with me.

As we entered the park it became clear how it got its name. The desert landscape was barren besides a few bushes and sparse shrubs, but every 20 yards were stout and noble-looking Joshua trees stretching on for miles. I quickly became enthralled with the unique features and started touching the thick trunks, poking the pointy leaves, and observing the seemingly aimless fashion the branches grew.

In such a harsh environment, I was astonished by all the shapes and sizes of the Joshua trees. The trees were far enough apart that they didn't have to compete with one another for sunlight, so they could grow however they pleased.

Some were tall and their branches pointed straight up into the air. Others had branches meandering along in all different directions seemingly trying new directions out to see what worked. Further still were completely horizontal trees growing only a few feet from the ground, but they looked just as healthy as the trees that were growing normally.

Thumbs up!

Despite all of the configurations and the harsh desert climate, every tree was thriving. They were immovable and fascinating. Every tree I stopped to investigate impressed me more than the last and it started to dawn on me that Joshua trees are a powerful metaphor for life.

Unique branches

My focus kept coming back to all of the oddly shaped branches on the trees. I couldn't stop thinking about why the branches would grow away from the sun.

The wayward branches seemed out of place, but after several hours in the park, I realized the unconventional branches were just as common as the typical branches that grew straight up towards the sky.

Regardless of the way the branches grew, one thing remained consistent: every tree stood immovable and thriving in the desert.

My initial reaction when seeing wayward branches was to write them off as failed attempts, but these branches were just as valuable to the tree as the "normal" ones.

Even if a branch doesn't meander on the most efficient or successful path it doesn't fall off. Instead, it remains an integral part of the tree and continues supporting it with sunlight and water so it can keep growing.  

I liken the branches on Joshua trees to new endeavors or projects in our lives. They won't all be perfect, but whether a new endeavor is a success or a failure, it becomes a part of who we are. Each experience will remain with us forever and teach us new lessons so we can continue growing.

When life is seemingly traveling off course, remember the meandering branches of the Joshua tree that allow it to survive in the desert for hundreds of years at a time.

Greater than the sum of its parts

The more I learned about the Joshua trees, the more parallels to everyday life I found. After looking closely at the trunks of the trees I noticed they were made up of thousands of small fibers woven together.

On their own, the fibers were flimsy and no stronger than the leaves of any other tree but as each new fiber grew on top of the last, the trees became strong enough to withstand some of the harshest conditions in nature.

Similarly, our lives are built on thousands, if not millions, of small daily actions. In isolation, they seem inconsequential, but when they compound over time they build the foundation of who we are.

I've carried this reminder with me and think back to it whenever I face resistance in my daily life. Whether it's waking up early or cleaning a dish I feel like leaving in the sink, thinking back to the Joshua trees reminds me that each choice is part of a much larger picture and each time I do the right thing I'm building something bigger.

Deeply rooted

After leaving the park I did more research on Joshua trees and learned about their extensive root systems. The tallest trees climb 40-50ft in the air, but their root systems routinely reach 30ft underground and occasionally penetrate hard layers of bedrock. The deep, but unseen roots provide access to water, support the growth of new trees, and ensure the tree remains steady in severe dust storms.

The invisible roots of the trees remind me that it's often what's hidden from others that supports the outward markers of success.

While the trees may look peaceful above the surface, below ground the roots are constantly growing deeper, so the tree can grow taller. The same is true for the work that we do behind closed doors. It's easy to focus on what others can see, but the unglamorous work done in private drives personal growth.

Although it often goes unnoticed, this quiet dedication inspires others. Similarly, when a Joshua tree's root system becomes large enough, new trees can sprout directly from the ground and create a network of trees sharing the same underground root system.

When we are working on ourselves and quietly plodding away in private, efforts can seem futile and selfish, but keeping the Joshua tree in mind can remind us that the hidden work provides a system to support future growth and inspires others to grow alongside us.

Since I left Joshua Tree National Park I haven't been able to get these funny little trees out of my head. At first, they seem quaint, but the more I've learned about these trees the more obvious it's become that they will serve as a constant reminder to live a unique life, focus on the little things, and nurture the unseen work that makes it all possible.

If you have the chance to visit Joshua Tree Park, I highly recommend you do so. If not, I hope you'll revisit the lessons from these impressive trees as much as I do.

Thanks for reading!

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