My backyard has one large tree in the center of it. I look at it every day, first from my bedroom windows and then when I let Mazie out in the yard. Every day I sit in a chair while she romps on the grass and I stare with admiration and gratefulness at this big beautiful tree.
She is regal and strong. In all the years that I’ve been lucky enough to share space with her, she has repeatedly tried to shed what she doesn’t need. She routinely solicits the wind in this effort and when the wind obliges, weak and dead limbs fall to the ground and clutter the grass. Only last fall did my landlord finally have her pruned. The tree is grateful. She stands taller now, her healthy limbs reaching for the sky. And her leaves seem a brighter shade of green.
Am I anthropomorphizing this tree? Of course.
Trees have much to teach us.
When I think of the wisdom of trees, I think of the Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama sat and achieve enlightenment, becoming Buddha.
I think of Treebeard, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the leader of the ancient guardians of the forest, shepherds of trees. He and his kind are tree-like beings with conscious thought. They are Ents and keep to themselves. Treebeard says,
I do not like worrying about the future. I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.
And so he and the other Ents stay out of the battle for Middle Earth, until he learns that the wizard Saruman is decimating the forest to support his domination. Then he calls together all the other Ents and they march on Saruman’s land, providing the crucial help needed to defeat this evil foe.
When I think of the nature of trees, I think of the great Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote:
I know that in our previous life we were trees, and even in this life we continue to be trees. Without trees, we cannot have people, therefore trees and people inter-are. We are trees, and air, bushes and clouds. If trees cannot survive, humankind is not going to survive either. We get sick because we have damaged our own environment, and we are in mental anguish because we are so far away from our true mother, Mother Nature.“The Last Tree,” Dharma Gaia, p 218, 1990
When I think of the love of trees, I think of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This tree loves a little boy so much that she gives him everything she has: apples, play, and shade. Eventually, she gives her branches and even her trunk, until she is nothing but a stump. Even then, she continues to serve. This story makes me sad. The boy is all of us: a culture consumed with taking, cutting, using. Perhaps only considering the effect of our actions until it is too late, until there is nothing more the tree can give or no more trees to give.
When I think of the holiness of trees, I think of Black Elk from the Oglala Sioux and his sacred vision as a child of nine:
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.Black Elk Speaks, p 33, 2008
When I think of the life of trees, I remember how the Amazon breathes. Backpacking in Venezuela, looking out over the Brazilian forest, the wind coming from behind me as the earth inhaled and macaws flew overhead beneath a full moon on Beltane. And in the morning, looking down on her again, the trees exhaled and their breath blew up into my face.
At my home in Idaho, I planted every tree in my backyard, creating a garden where there had only been dirt and weeds. First in the ground were Aspens, meant to be a wind block. I didn’t even think of naming them. They stood there, always present and in the background, much like the chorus in a Greek play.
Then came Scarlet, the first to be named, just a tiny bareroot sapling. We nearly lost her that first winter to the cold, poor thing. In subsequent years, I would encircle her with chicken wire stuffed with fallen Aspen leaves to protect her. Nine summers later, she had grown into a beautiful Scarlet Red Maple bound to outlast the Aspens behind her.
Then came Lucious Lucy and Summercrisp Sam. Purchased as a pair of pears to pollinate, Lucy grew wide and Sam grew tall. When only Lucy bore fruit, you had to admit they lived up to their gendered names.
Next was Royal, the miniature plum tree who provided a tiny bit of shade and lots of small oval dark purple plums, depending on the year. Rachel and Rebecca were pink-flowering non-fruit-bearing crab apple trees. Like paternal twins, I had a hard time telling them apart and was never sure which was named Rachel and which was Rebecca.
A Cherry tree, appropriately named Cherry, and a Hawthorne named Nathanial didn’t make it. Did I plant them incorrectly or were they too fragile for the zone? I never did know.
But the crowning joy of the yard was Grama. Set in the center, she was the matriarch around which all activities happened. She was the guardian. She was inspiration and comfort. I loved her best of all.
When she got sick, I nursed her vigilantly for two years. Antibiotic shots, vitamin drinks, and deep pruning. When the tree doctor diagnosed that nothing more could be done, I knew it was time to leave. This was one death I couldn’t bear to watch.
It’s appropriate that Arbor Day is celebrated so close to May Day. May Day is often marked with gifts of flowers and a maypole. The maypole is a symbol of fertility, with ribbons braided in a dance around a vertical wooden pole.
Behind this activity, however, is the ancient understanding that every tree is an axis mundi: the place where heaven and earth meet. Trees are a ladder by which we ascend from one realm into another.
The origins of May Day go back to Beltane, the first of only two festivals celebrated by the Celtic Druids. Beltane is a fire festival, honoring the return of the sun after a long and gloomy winter. Beltane is also a fertility festival, where, in ancient times, the people jumped over a bonfire, then coupled in the forest. This spreading of seed was meant to reach the earth and the fruits of the ritual would be harvested in August.
The Wanika of Eastern Africa, who believe that every tree has a spirit, say that to destroy a coconut tree is the equivalent of matricide, because the coconut tree gives life and nourishment, just as a mother does for her child.
Legends say the Banyan tree has roots that never stop growing, reaching all the way down to the center of the earth. If the tree is harmed or cut, it will always heal and grow again, like a phoenix. The Banyan, it is said, is an eternal tree that cannot die.
Since the beginning of time, people have revered and worshipped trees. Every culture and every faith has its own mythology around these sacred sentient beings. Until perhaps today. Today we are destroying trees at an alarmingly rapid pace. Is it too late?
Trees by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
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