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This contribution is from my good friend, Bob Magness. Bob is a devoted Catholic, husband and proud father of two daughters. He is a chemist. And, he is a “deep-thinker-about-stuff”. This is the fourth posting from Bob [Random Musings on a Spring Morning (4/22); Proverbs 27:17 – Iron Sharpens Iron (10/22); Reconciliation and a Rock (10/22)]

Air, Trees, and the Breath of Life – By Bob Magness

Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” – Gn 2:7

I’ve been thinking a lot about air lately.  I realize that sounds less than exciting and isn’t exactly the attention grabber most authors strive for.  I get things – words, concepts, phrases – stuck in my mind.  And without any conscience effort, this ‘thing’ gets spun around like a puzzle piece.  It’s as if something is telling me that this ‘thing’ is important and that I need to make some sense of it.  I’m almost embarrassed to say how long this particular ‘thing’, air, has been turning, but it’s been months.  That’s right, months of idle thoughts about air…  oxygen, carbon dioxide, breathing, and life.

The Krebs Cycle is the process by which animals produce energy – at least aerobically.  It’s the understood process of cellular respiration where oxygen is combined with carbohydrates to produce energy.  The by-products of this cycle are carbon dioxide and water.  (Interestingly these are the same by-products we see when burning carbon-based fuels for energy:  wood, gas, oil, etc.)  In a separate but equally important process carbon dioxide and water are combined and, through the miracle of the chemical processes of photosynthesis, the plant produces carbohydrates – sugars – as its own source of energy.  There you have it:  animals use oxygen and create carbon dioxide, and plants use carbon dioxide and return oxygen.  The biological yin and yang of cellular energy.  I had recalled most of that from high school biology.  And with some level of spirituality, we see the beauty in God’s system.  However, something was missing, there was more to this puzzle piece and my thoughts returned to air.

I have written a couple things about gardening; I have a similar passion for trees.  I love trees, what they stand for, what they stand against, and their simple potential for being.  That’s probably a bit dramatic.  I’ll say this, though, I have favorite trees.  Not in the sense of a particular variety, but more in their presence or domination of the surrounding landscape.  I like to point these trees out to anyone that might be the least bit interested.  I like finding beauty in the otherwise unnoticed and mundane aspects of life.  There’s a gigantic bald cypress tree in a nearby neighborhood.  To be clear, it has no earthly right to be in that neighborhood.  It is magnificent.  It towers above the other trees.  There’s another tree that is only visible in fall and winter.  I drive by it daily.  It stands proud above the undergrowth honeysuckle.  Its branches come off the main trunk at right angles, massive branches.  My daughter said once that it reminded her of the whomping willow from the Harry Potter books.  I told her that it was not a willow tree and tried to dismiss her.  I wasn’t going to be outdone and trivialized by a twelve-year-old, but she was right.  Worse than that, she knew that I knew she was right.  I’m digressing…

We happened to be on vacation in Oak Island, NC during an early spring break – this was a couple years ago.  The island is full of, you guessed it, oak trees – lots of willow oaks and some smaller live oaks.  One evening we were walking to one of the shops and I happened to see a large willow oak that was lit by the streetlights and was set against the dark night sky.  Without the summer leaves, and silhouetted against the black sky, the tree looked like a set of lungs, upside down of course.  The main trunk of the tree was the trachea.  The tree bifurcated to the two lobes of the lungs, and each of the subsequent branches appeared like bronchi, right on down to bronchioles, and continued its fractal pattern down to the alveoli-like leaf buds. It was a remarkable sight.  A beautiful tree acting as a lung – returning to us oxygen and feeding the earth with tree made sugars.  

I recently came across the book Breath by James Nestor.  An interesting read about the physiological effects that can be achieved by better controlling your breathing and benefits of simply breathing through your nose.  It’s worth the time to read.  Nestor touches on the benefits of emphasizing the exhale phase, extending the exhale.  One of the benefits with extending exhalation is the reduction of pressure on the heart.  As the air pressure in your lungs decrease, the heart has a bit more room to operate and the result is a drop in blood pressure, even if only momentary.  He continues with sections on meditation and prayer saying they are essentially exercises in controlling your breathing.  I thought about this while praying a Rosary:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee


Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus


Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death


That’s a good amount of exhaling while speaking with only three short inhalations.  And when repeated, let’s say 53 times, the effect can be felt, not only spiritually but also physiologically.  

Again, I had chalked all of this up to fanciful spirituality and the wonderment of God’s handiwork.  But, then, I came across some literature by Rabbi Lawrence Kusher in a discussion about Moses at the burning bush.  Moses asks, “When people ask who You are, what shall I tell them?”  This is where we get, “Yahweh”, but Kusher points out that in Hebrew the vowels were not there.  And that the answer given by God are the four Hebrew letters YOD, HAY, VAV, and HAY- mispronounced as Yahweh, when in truth the four letters cannot be said. The word given to Moses, Kusher claims, “is the sound of breathing”.   He continues, “The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.”  

I stopped.  My air puzzle piece was snapped into place.  

The breath of life.  Divinity breathed into man. All mankind.  Yet another reason to love your neighbor as yourself.

(Air, Trees, and the Breath of Life was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

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