A Life Among Trees

“In the country it was as if every tree said to me ‘Holy! Holy!’ Who can ever express the ecstasy of the woods?” (Ludwig van Beethoven).

Late last year I joined the newly formed Wild Mountain Collective and have since become the convener of an annual series of seminars. The first was titled ‘Celebrating Trees’ and featured environmental artist Janet Laurence speaking on her commissioned work in the MCA Gallery and Louise Fowler-Smith talking about sacred Trees in India. Both speakers clearly felt a great affinity with trees and saw them as in some sense sacred.

IMG_1264I was reminded of my own introduction to the notion of sacred trees and groves when reading Ursula le Guin’s EarthSea Trilogymany years ago when I was living in County Meath in Ireland. My cottage was close to a collection of Neolithic passage tombs and the atmosphere of ancient human activity immersed in nature was palpable. My fascination with sacred groves in fantasy fiction and the surrounding sense of mythic antiquity led to my becoming a frequent visitor to the Balrath Woods with their massive old beech trees.

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Although the Beech tree is not native to Ireland it is connected to Ogma, the Celtic warrior god who is credited with inventing the Ogham alphabet, known as the tree alphabet and in general beech trees are symbols of study and knowledge, books and learning. From an etymological perspective there is a strong connection between ‘beech’ and ‘book’ in many European languages. Gilford’s The Wisdom of the Trees, for example, states that ‘boc’ was the word for beech in Old English and later became ‘book.’ German uses ‘buche’ for beech, which later became ‘buch’ (book) and buchstabe is the word for alphabet. Likewise, collections of early manuscripts also have aboreal origins as ‘codex’ is a later spelling of the Latin ‘caudex,’ meaning the trunk of a tree.

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I travelled round the country visiting many sites of Ogham stones, which date from around the fourth century AD. They were in use for about 500 years and many of the letters are linked to old Irish names for certain trees. Each Ogham symbol has a name, for example, the letter ‘b’ is called beithe– ‘birch,’ and the letter ‘c’ is called coll– ‘hazel.’

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All this enhanced my fascination with both trees and writing that had its genesis in my childhood in New Zealand where bedtime stories often included Maori myths with their reverence for Tane, the lord of the forest who brought this world into being by separating earth and sky. He had his roots in the earth and his head in the heavens. He fashioned the first humans, adorned the heavens and brought the baskets of knowledge, wisdom and understanding down from the sky to human beings. All trees in the forest are seen as mimicking the god Tane, as the tree holds the sky aloft, bringing light into the world. As a child I was enchanted by this notion of trees holding up the sky but the removal of a giant Rimu tree, amid much angry protesting, at the end of our street to provide space for more housing constantly erupted in my nightmares.

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Although there is no Maori equivalent of Ogham, each of the biggest and oldest Kauri trees are given personal names. One, called Tane Muhutahas a trunk like a lighthouse and was already 400 years old when the Maori first arrived from Polynesia. Colin Tudge writes in The Secret Life of Treesthat, “many a redwood still standing tall in California was ancient by the time Columbus first made Europe aware that the Americas existed. Yet the redwoods are striplings compared to some of California’s pines, which germinated at about the time that human beings invented writing and so are as old as all of written history. These trees out on their parched hills were already impressively old when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, or indeed when Abraham was born. So it is that some living trees have seen the rise and fall of entire civilizations” (p.2).

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Trees matter in the world. Not just iconic trees, ancient trees with names, huge trees that are a tourist attraction, but all trees. And writing matters too. Nowadays it would seem we would prefer to relegate trees to the odd splash of greenery among shopping malls or confine them to areas where it is impossible to farm. Why I endlessly ask myself do so many of us in industrialized countries find trees anathema and it there an unacknowledged disdain also for nature writing: writing that calls us into life amid the trees.

Years later studying for a PhD I read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, Forests. The Shadow of Civilization in which he writes of our paradoxical attitude of reverence and hostility towards forests, of how we somehow see them as opposed to civilization. He quotes Giambattista Vico, an Italian theorist of the eighteenth century who offers an imaginative insight into this psychic split with his story of the first men, brutal giants, living in dense forests that shielded them from the sky. When they experienced their first thunderstorm they “were frightened and astonished by the great effect whose cause they did not know, and raised their eyes and became aware of the sky.”

Because they saw nothing, or at least nothing definite, they pictured the sky to themselves as a huge, animated body: a body not seen but imagined as there beyond the treetops. Harrison writes of how, “this act of picturing an image within the mind marks, for Vico, the first humanizing event in prehistory. The giants produce an image in the empty space of their minds – a space as empty and abysmal as the sky itself. In this manner the first human idea was born, that of Jove, father of the world, hurling the lightning bolt from his abode in the sky. In the guise of Jupiter and Zeus, this deity will later reign supreme among the gods of antiquity.”

In Vico’s story enlightenment began at the moment when it was possible to see beyond the treetops, and so the opposition of forest and civilization began. The forests came first, before the human world with its cities and civilization and it was the forests that hid god from the people. Vico’s crucial insight was that the dread and fear of forests in western civilization derives from the fact that, at least since Greek and Roman times, we have been a civilization of sky-worshippers, children of a celestial father and only by creating clearings in the forest could we establish a world.

How very different the many Indigenous and pre-Christian relationships with trees are in comparison. The dualism that pervades western understanding of life is absent and the pernicious need to destroy trees while at the same time cultivating a nostalgic and sentimental attitude towards special trees to remind us of what we have lost is not in evidence.

In European culture the word ‘savage’ was derived from silva meaning a wood and the progress of humankind was considered to be from the forest to the field. However, in the pre-Christian era forests were also considered to be the site of miracles and the source of great spiritual awakening. The forest itself was seen as a primitive church and the first temples were forest groves although subsequently replaced by built structures. Such sacred groves were imbued with powers beyond those of humans. They were home to spirits that could take or give life. Druids, known as those with tree knowledge, used trees as places of gathering for worship. They valued the trees and even planted trees to form groves in which they could worship. For their most sacred places they chose the deepest parts of woodlands and either planted trees or used existing groves as places of worship.

Centuries later William Blake praised the Bards, the first order of Druids, who understood trees as doors to the spirit world.

O hear the voice of the Bard

Who present past and future sees

Whose ears have heard the holy Word

That walked among the ancient trees.

How, then, might we turn this destructiveness around and return to a viable sense of trees as sacred? It is possible? Janet Laurence and Louise Fowler-Smith both approach trees through visual images but, taking the Beech tree as my cue, I would like to explore language and specifically writing as offering another small step in the right direction. Apart from the Beech, there are many varied examples of direct connections between trees and writing. In the Old World of Mesopotamia, for example, an ancient Egyptian cosmology has a central axis of the universe which is a gigantic tree with the Sun God perching in its branches. As in Nordic and Celtic cosmology, the Egyptian Tree of Life is closely linked with the alphabet and writing.

Fred Hageneder in The Heritage of Trees describes how the temple of Ramses II in Thebes “shows the god of scripture, Djahuti (Thoth), and the goddess Seshat inscribing the king’s name on the leaves of the sacred Persea tree … It was the tree itself that gave the knowledge of writing” (p.50). Hageneder details a multitude of examples of how the vocabulary of both ancient Germanic languages and Icelandic all suggested that social concepts of growth and communication were strongly associated with the woods. “Perhaps,” he writes, “the most astonishing link of all is the origin of the simple but profound words withand without – vid (Icelandic), ved(Danish) and wad(Swedish) – in the same root. The Icelandic vid-oetanmeans ‘without’ – literally ‘outside the forest.’ Inside the forest the human being could be visited (vitja) by wisdom (vitra) or witness (vitna) a revelation or vision (vitran) that completely changed his or her consciousness (vita; Anglo-Saxon witan). Under trees people could mature into a true leader (viti), a prophet (vitki) a wizard or witch (vitta), or a sage (vitringr)” (p.125).

There are far too many of these linguistic links to detail here but I’m also reminded of Buddha finding the ‘ultimate and unconditioned truth’ under the Bodhi Tree, the Tree of Enlightenment. Early Buddhism apparently did not depict the Buddha in human form. All that was shown was the tree, with the vacant space at its foot where Buddha should be seen. Buddha was at one with the universe and could therefore be represented best by the Cosmic Tree itself. Furthermore, the earliest Buddhist texts call the Bodhi tree – and not the Buddha – the Great Awakener.

So these are a few of the alternative ways of being, ways that hint at a different sort of wisdom and knowledge to that of western Enlightenment with its need to destroy trees in order to establish civilization. Early non-western literature also explored such ideas. The most famous is the epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest work of literature, composed about four to five thousand years ago. In this story Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, the guardian of the forest and then proceeds to indiscriminately fell the great cedar trees. The very beginnings of literature therefore recognized the symbolic significance of trees and the consequences of humankind’s destructive impulses against nature.

Last year I was on holiday in Japan and one kilometer from the site where the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima there is a tree that miraculously survived the bombing when everything around it was destroyed. It still survives and continues to grow. I took heart that a tree could withstand one of the worst acts that humankind has inflicted on the earth.

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Around the world trees continue to survive although sadly not in the abundance necessary for the health of the planet. In Australia we thoughtlessly destroy old growth forests for timber or clear-fell vast areas for agriculture. Regenerative agriculture offers a glimmer of hope by planting trees to capture carbon from the atmosphere and allow their deep-rooted systems to recycle nutrients from the soil. Some farmers diversify by incorporating fruit and nut trees while others provide trees as sanctuaries for depleted wildlife such as birds and insects. These trees also prevent erosion, keep waterways and the air clean.

Fortunately western literature also has its alternative writings that claim trees as sacred, forests and woods as places where wisdom may be gained or a change in consciousness experienced. This ‘regenerative’ writing disputes the notion that trees exist solely ‘for the good of humanity,’ that their wellbeing is important but only if it serves humankind. It is not writing in which an active knower examines a passive object. A tree for a regenerative writer is something to be encountered and addressed directly, as a fellow being in all its immediacy; an object of empathy, not simply of manipulation. It involves a reasoned reflection about humans and their place on the earth as well as acknowledging mystery. Our use of trees can never be heedless. They lead their own lives and have their own agenda. Much of the point about writing about trees is communication. In recognizing the tree as part of a community of discourse, we are hopefully shaping acts and attitudes; we are generating a manner of writing that is true to the task of sustainable dwelling at peace for humans and the earth alike.

The poet Alice Oswald captures the overlap of trees and writing in her poem:

If you bend a branch until it’s

Horizontal, the sap will slow to a

Stopping point: a comma or colon,

Made of leaves grown into one

Another and over one another and

Hardened. Out of this pause comes a

Flower which unfolds in spirals,

As if the leaf form, unable to keep to

Its lines, has begun to pivot.

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One thought on “A Life Among Trees

  1. Fascinating. I was completely unaware of those linguistic links. I will go off now and spend time ruminating in this new world you’ve opened up here. Thanks, Lorraine!

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