tap·root | \ ˈtap-ˌrüt , -ˌru̇t \ (Merriam Webster)
1 : a primary root that grows vertically downward and gives off small lateral roots
2 : the central element or position in a line of growth or development
I spent a long time in the final weeks of 2021 reflecting on why I still wanted to write and what to write about. Five years ago, my early posts here found well-tilled soil and welcoming weather. Their roots grew fast and strong, ultimately forming my first book Tiny Medicine. Many stories were deeply personal, but I had needed to tell them for a long time. Writing it was hard but often cathartic.
Since Tiny Medicine was released (and then re-released after COVID drove my first publisher out of business), I have struggled with what to write next. My writing has jumped from topic to topic without the taproot needed to secure a new, strong tree.
So at the outset of 2022 I gave myself the space to really figure it out. I walked my mind through all the things I’ve found inspiring, sustaining, and enduring in my life. Time and again, these thoughts returned to the live oak tree we planted in our front yard last year. I was ultimately struck by how – through the tree – I could see so many aspects of #mindfulness that I needed to bring into my own life. It turns out that’s where I really needed to grow, and what I really wanted to write about. It’s where I’ve chosen to anchor my taproot on this part of my journey, and its why I started this series of posts.
Our live oak is a ten foot sapling now, but with a solid taproot it will someday (like Charleston’s famous Angel Oak) become a testament to nature’s sheer force of will. As a sapling drives its first burst of energy deep into the earth, the strongest, deepest expression of that energy becomes its taproot. In some plants, taproots are massive energy stores (e.g., see Alton Brown’s classic expose on carrots). Other plants – like dandelions – can regrow an entire plant from just a portion of taproot left intact after an animal eats its greens (or a human tries to weed his yard).
For oak trees, a taproot’s role evolves over the course of a hundred year lifespan. As a sapling – like Willow Oak pictured above – the taproot serves two major purposes. First it burrows deep, anchoring the infant tree against high winds, heavy rains, and hungry passers-by. Second, it serves as a major source of nutrition for the rapidly-growing seedling, pulling nitrogen, phosphorus, and moisture up from the ground.
By the time it reaches full maturity, a Black Oak has thousands of branching roots spreading radially in all directions. While its now labyrinthine root system can reach up to 7 times the width of the tree’s canopy, the overwhelming majority of such roots live within 12-18 inches of the soil’s surface. The tree’s century-old taproot, however, has by now burrowed all the way to bedrock, an anchor for 130 feet of trunk, branch, leaf, and acorn.
In this regard, our needs as humans are not dissimilar. Whenever we start something new, our first roots are close and deep. Whether we are starting a business or learning to ride a bike, we quickly develop core skills, our own approach, a set of beliefs, and tight-knit bonds with friends, teachers, and fellow travelers on whatever journey we’ve undertaken.
As we embark on this new quest, we rarely spend much time thinking about our taproot. Things are moving too fast and we’re having too much fun (or are too overwhelmed) to give it our full attention. Over time this can become deeply problematic. Moving a taproot is incredibly challenging (and sometimes damaging). Just ask anyone who’s tried to “unlearn” a golf swing, a dance step, or an unhealthy habit.
That’s why this week’s mission is to mindfully anchor our taproot. As you set off on your next adventure – be it building a new team, starting a new job, moving to a new community, or whatever the early days of 2022 have called you to do – give yourself the time and space you need to drive your taproot deep into the ground. You’ve already picked the right place to plant your tree and funneled your roots the energy they need to thrive. So whatever journey life calls you to take, anchor your taproot wisely, and (like the mighty Black Oak) fasten the foundation of your future growth into the bedrock.