Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By A.T. Mann
We can learn much from the beauty of trees, their infinite variety, their inspiration, their emotional significance, their spiritual heritage and symbolism, the psychology they engender and their sheer independence. There are many ways in which trees contribute much more to our well being and sense of rootedness in nature.
In the early 1970s, I moved to England with my daughter and soon met friends interested in music, the visual arts, theater, writing, Jungian psychology, symbolism, and the traditional bohemian culture of Europe. We often travelled to North Wales to visit a close friend who lived in Plas Llandecwyn, which stood on a hilltop near Harlech Castle (built in 1283), and within view of Mount Snowdon, the ancient Druid initiation center.
Plas had stacked stone and slate walls four feet thick, which protected the voluminous interior from the howling winds that blasted across the hillsides. The main entrance hall carried a magnetic presence that you could feel. One day I swung my crystal pendulum over the central octagonal stone in the hall, and it immediately began an odd series of movements: it swung back and forth several times in a particular direction, and then rotated 60 degrees in a clockwise direction and started swinging again. It repeated this unusual movement until completing a circle. I plotted the exact directions with a compass on a diagram of the house, and after a while realized that the pendulum might be pointing at something outside of the house. I went out to investigate and what I found was extraordinary. Each of the angles pointed toward trees that surrounded the house. What is more, the oak, willow, ash, hawthorn, holly, and hazel trees were a part of the ancient Celtic tree language. They formed a magical ring that ostensibly protected and sanctified the place from its earliest days. This discovery brought a feeling of sheer bliss.
At that time I was just learning about what Robert Graves called the Beth-Luis-Nion Celtic tree alphabet for a chapter in the Phenomenon Book of Calendars, which we were writing and creating.¹ In the process, I discovered that networks of sacred trees, likely planted by Druid priests, stretched over that part of Wales.
The first temples were trees ceremonially decorated with symbols of the gods, who were often symbolic forces of nature. Indeed, treetops hit by lightning were seen as powerful, as they formed the letter “T,” hence names like thunder, Thor, temple, and Thursday. Early temple architecture reflected the glory of these simple forces and places by abstracting elements of the natural world into architecture. As the architect William Lethaby stated:
When the world was a tree, every tree was in some sort its representation; when a tent or a building, every tent or building; but when the relation was firmly established, there was action and reaction between the symbol and the reality, and ideas taken from one were transferred to the other, until the symbolism became complicated, and only particular buildings would be selected for the symbolic purpose: certain forms were reasoned from the building to the world, and conversely certain thoughts of the universe were expressed in the structure thus set apart.²
Rows or groves of trees inspired sacred architecture and we can still see their forms abstracted in the columns, capitals, and decorations of revered buildings through the ages.
We are all connected in a web of nature, although many today deny this. However, it is essential that we understand the role trees play in our planetary health, providing the air we breathe, many fruits, foods, and medicines we use, the wood we use to build our homes, the paper we use to print our books, and much more.
The beginning of language and the creation of the earliest alphabets evolved from tree shapes and branches, which were pressed into clay tablets, just as the Druids translated these shapes into runes, and they were later further abstracted until now few realize that each letter is a symbol in itself.³ The relevance of trees in early history brings a new understanding of language and form, because they hold a key to language.
We speak to trees and they respond. We snuggle among their roots so they can comfort us. We touch their rough skin and feel a bond with deeply felt nature. We look up through their leaves that dance in sunlight. Trees, shrivelling from drought, talk to us about their pain, as canaries in mines warn us that we might soon be fighting for our breath. Yet, in full knowledge of the dire implications of their cries, we cut trees down by the millions, with no regard for the paucity of oxygen that action will cause to our own lungs and those of all living things.
If trees are us, how did this happen? And if we revere them, why do we destroy them?
Trees are an essential element of our outer and inner lives, whether or not we realize this. Our first step as stewards of the earth is to learn about and then teach the sanctity and importance of nurturing trees, by respecting, planting, and maintaining them. We should begin by appreciating all that trees do for us, in their silent ways.
Folk tales and legends present forests as dark, mysterious places where we can lose our way. It is there that heroes and heroines face unexpected challenges or discover hidden secrets, and often identities are disguised or magically hidden. The magic of forests lies in ideas people have about trees. All over the world trees appear as mysterious ladders or gateways between worlds, sources of life and wisdom, and as the physical forms of supernatural or magical beings, yet increasingly the young in the West avoid if not fear forests and trees, to the extent that psychologists have identified pathology they call “Nature Deficit Disorder.”4
There is something spectacular about trees especially when you are in them, because you can feel their aliveness, their longevity, and almost experience their souls, as I did when I was a child climbing in them and beholding the night sky. It has even been postulated that walking in dense forests is a kind of powerful natural therapy, a remedy to life in our modern civilization.5 The true value of trees cannot be underestimated, yet we have little real perception of how essential they are to our world, not only in physical and material terms, but also in spiritual and psychological ways. Recent research by architects in Scotland demonstrated the positive psychological value of trees and nature.6 Until we learn to value trees, their protection cannot be insured forever. It is essential to educate the young and old to the value of trees, to teach them to learn to embrace and love them like family, and even to learn the language of trees because recycling is just not enough—we need to learn to love nature.
From above a rural village in India, we see magnificent trees around a central square, and it seems that protective trees embrace every house. Rings of white paint identify sacred trees, with untold numbers of objects hanging from their low-lying branches as symbols of fertility, as children play around the tree roots. Banyan trees spread their branches in a protective ring close to the ground, which gradually sprout new trees, symbolizing their solidity, fertility, and good fortune. People identify their own “family trees” and nurture them like members of the family, look after their needs, and protect their interests. The health of the tree reflects the health and wellbeing of the family and by extension, the entire village.
Trees purify the environment, their twigs are incense, they bear fruits, nuts, and medicines, and it is believed that trees transmit healing energies to the surrounding families within the village. The tree is even more potent and auspicious when it houses termite nests or cobra lairs in its base. Recent studies show that such anomalous beliefs have strong correlations: termites burrow around their nests for hundreds of yards, making the surrounding land much more fertile than usual, and the cobras clear the villages of small predators, protecting their crop storage and houses. This kind of integration with nature is almost totally lacking in Western culture, which is a profound realization.
While myths seem outlandish to many in our contemporary age, they are basic to our inner reality. In the blockbuster movie, Avatar, the blue-skinned Na’vi people maintained a direct communication with all biological life on their planet through a visceral connection with a tree deity called Eywa. They literally link up to their home “tree of souls.” Both Indian or Balinese village trees and the Avatar sacred tree allow initiates to connect with ancestors and experientially tap into the living biological matrix that sustains all life. It is now known that mycelium fungi form a communication network below ground, protecting “mother trees.”7 In many places around the world, they are literally family trees. It is now known that trees have their own social networks within forests, connecting with each other for many collective purposes.8
Early humanity recognized that sacred places were in the sky and earth, but they also found the divine in trees. Legends of a “World Tree” abound in most early cultures, such as the trees of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life of the Hebrew Kabbalah, the sacred oak groves of the Druids, and the apple trees sacred to the Roman goddess Venus. The Yggdrasil World Ash Tree in Norse myth rises up from the center of the earth, its branches forming the heavens of the gods and its roots striking down into hell, where a serpent is entwined at the world’s dark core. This tree represents the shape and fate of the world and determines the welfare of the universe. Beneath the roots is the well where the three female “fates” spin the courses of human lives.
Vegetation symbols abound in older monuments and buildings Europe, wherever one looks, particularly in the carvings amidst the architecture, in the roof crossings, in the form and symbols of tombs, and of course in the stained glass of the cathedrals. Schama mentions the representations of Bacchus (like Pan or Dionysus), Druidic oak twigs, leaves, and acorns that abound in the rose windows, which are obvious symbols of rebirth and resurrection.9
Trees are natural receptors, accumulators, and transmitters of wave energy beyond sunlight.10 The structure of trees (DNA, leaves, needles, branches, roots, and the crown as a whole), and the materials of which they are composed (complex organic chemistry, sap, resin, wood, and the waxy coating of needles) are natural wave-receptors and energy accumulators. Conifer tree needles are prototypes for man-made spike antennas, and traditional antennas are simply imitations of the branching structure of trees. We can learn much about the ecology of natural energy systems by studying and understanding trees.
Direct perception of the plant world is available to us through our heart, as well as through our mind or our science.11 We are taught to think objectively about nature, a habit that the modern scientific paradigm insists we accept as the only valid way, however they imply a separation from the process being studied. Unfortunately, this distances us from the natural world. Categorizing and “explaining” nature totally misses the essential point—we have much to learn from nature—and this can only happen if we are open to its languages, transmitted through being in nature, hearing the natural sounds of animals and plants, and through the substances that we ingest, smell, and use as medicines or psychotropic drugs. Even if we have the inclination, we don’t always listen in the ways that we should, but tend to see nature as mute, an exhibition to be observed and studied, rather than a critical element of the consciousness of planet Earth. This might be because trees live so long that their changes take lifetimes of our time. We think that science knows best, even as we collude to put nature in supreme peril because of our irresponsible stewardship.
At one time old-growth forests existed across all continents, including most of Japan, the entire British Isles, most of the Americas, Iceland, Europe, Central Asia, and much of the Far East. The only places on earth where such environments still exist, apart from the Pacific Northwest, are Chile, Tasmania, and the South Island of New Zealand, albeit being much smaller in size and reach. We have already done and continue to destroy this precious legacy of the few remaining forests of great trees.12
Evocative images of a modern day tree of life seem fanciful to us, but they are among the most visual and poetic expressions of early humanity’s need to make the connection between earth and heaven tangible. Throughout northern Europe and North America are forests of sacred trees and the mounds, where early people communed with their nature divinities. So many phenomena of nature, such as fertility, creativity, sexuality, wisdom, knowledge, and many other profound qualities of humanity, are described in relation to the tree. Rain comes through holes in the fabric of the world tree. If one climbs high enough, one can ascend to heaven. Various regions of the tree’s growth symbolize places where men and their souls exist. It is as though the universe were seen as a giant tree house wherein humanity, the angels, the gods, and devils all live, their domains determined by their various levels, all connected as a vast, eternal living organism
- The Phenomenon Books of Calendars, Phenomenon Publications, London, 1973-1980.
- Lethaby, W.R., Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, Dover, New York, 2004. p. 35.
- See Kallir, Alfred, Sign and Design: The Psychogenetic Source of the Alphabet, Clarke & Co, London, 1961.
- Shinrin Yoku, also called Forest Bathing in Japan is an increasingly popular form of nature therapy. Also see Louv, Richard, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, Algonquin Books, 2012.
- Salon, September 21, 2013, “Parks make us smarter — science proves it!” Amazing new studies and brain results show nature reduces aggression, fights depression. Henry Grabar.
- The new documentary film, “Mother Trees,” describe the significance of these ideas. See the trailer at http://bit.ly/20y5Irl
- Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, to be published by Greystone Books, Canada, 2016.
- Ibid, p. 218.
- Megre, Vladimir, Anastasia: The Ringing Cedars, Ringing Cedars Press, Henderson, NV, 2008. p. 7. Megre covers this material in the Ringing Cedars series of books.
- See Buhner, Stephen Harrod, The Secret Teachings of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature, Bear & Co., Rochester, 2006.
- Vaillant, John, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, W.W. Norton, New York, 2005.