By Margaret Bates
Sacred is a tree.
Whenever a tree is cut down near where I live I get upset. I have an immediate emotional reaction, bypassing my brain. There were several lone trees and a couple of stands of trees near our house, in other people’s gardens. There is now only one large red gum along a curb and the rest are deciduous trees. Two large majestic red gums have been cut down and two scruffier groups of gums; all homes to bird families and who knows how many other creatures and insects. Cut down because branches were falling on someone’s fence or leaves were clogging up the guttering or the wife or husband thought they were unsightly. Stupid reasons; pathetic reasons to kill something.
I have tried to explore why I have such an emotional reaction to trees. My emotional reaction seemed to centre on a lone tree being cut down. In a forest there are no lone trees, they live in a community in a way. The breath of wind starts and then travels across the treetops like sighing waves, like a conversation. My note from a journal kept after a night in a forest:
Was thinking how haven’t been aware of spirit entity in tree but a connectedness, grounded in the earth. Trees don’t stand alone but live and talk in communities. Maybe that is why it upsets me so much to hear and see a lone majestic tree cut down – its connections have been the people living with it and they are the ones cutting it down.
I can now locate and name the source of my emotional response - to me trees are sacred. It has been through the study of Social and Sacred Ecology at Monash University that I have come to put words to it. I felt this to be true. Which started me on a research journey. I wanted to know if they used to be sacred to our culture in earlier times and in what other cultures they are sacred.
I also wanted to explore, a little, other people’s grief over death of trees or rather the murdering of trees. I vividly remember the chapter in Ecopsychology on grief. I found a beautiful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Binsey Poplars’ – felled 1879-‘ and a book by Roger MacDonald, The Tree in Changing Light, which I have included extracts of in Appendices in the spirit of sharing with a sympathetic audience! As well I realise I have gathered them as representative of kindred spirits out in the world. I have also included a couple of prose poems of my own tree-inspired writing, as it has been a part of my journey and thinking for a while. In 2000 I wrote a piece (Nirandia) on the spirit of a tree after weeding around a lemon tree and feeling a gentle live presence there. I have included this in Appendix B.
I have structured the essay to follow my research trail in a sense. It began with the Celts where I found my first reference to sacred trees. And then it broadened to the world and many cultures through time. The discoveries I made throughout our human history of sacred relationships with trees became so moving to me I have tried to write it as a prose poem. I then return to the academic to some extent to ask why are we at the point of profanity now. Actually there are a lot of questions peppered throughout!
The Celtic relationship with the land was a sacred one. The Celtic belief system was an indigenous faith with an oral history, rituals and spiritual beliefs closely entwined with their perception and interactions with the land. The land was their history:
The Celtic bards, in the times before literacy, recorded and remembered everything poetically. Notable events, and their location in the landscape, were recalled in oral aphorisms, ballads, sagas and triads. This poetic vision of the landscape, ensouled with spirits, is a particularly human and therefore humane vision of the world.
All the features of the land were imbued with sacredness and story - from trees, rocks and springs to mountains and caves. Rituals were built around them, festivals and celebrations, the bonds of marriage and the parting of the ways.
There were sacred groves called nemetoi into which only priests and priestesses entered and lived. The people held these clearings open to the sky in awe. The druids worshipped there without temples. There were groves that were sacred like the forests of Brocéliande and Caledon and others that were consecrated by Celtic Christian priests like land in Wales dedicated to St Bueno. The evangelising Christians from Julius Caesar to St Patrick also destroyed and desecrated many sacred groves. The destruction of a grove was sacrilegious and the "ultimate result of ecological destruction is the Wasteland, which is as much a spiritual as a physical state."
The natural forest represented the wild part of the human soul. To the Celts, wildness was a state of being that "signified innate naturalness existing in balance with natural principles." The human relationship with trees is a part of our relationship with wilderness. Trees can be a part of wilderness but they can also be in towns and fields and more human-controlled situations. We respond to the stability of a tree and the sense of calmness time with them can bring. The only fear with trees is of falling branches – their only randomness.
Single trees were the focus for shamanic activities across the northern hemisphere. The significance of the single tree for shamans is the close association of a tree’s general symbolic characteristics with a person’s psychic make-up and their journey and development. Trees are living indicators of an active place, subjected to prevailing influences of their location. Trees have there own special qualities and reflect where they grow and the adaptions they have made. A tree was viewed as an outward manifestation of the spiritual qualities of a place.
Celtic veneration of trees came from archaic animistic beliefs and Grecian influences. To the Greeks and Celts, a tree could be a deity and every god had its own holy tree. Trees could absorb and remove harmful (to humans) spirits such as hobgoblins. Spirits between incarnations were believed to wait in trees. When a sacred tree dies, a cutting from it should be planted in its place for continuity and regeneration – to hold and sustain that spirit in place.
(Fragments of human history symbols and myths)
Between a human and a tree is the breath.
We are each other’s air.
Enter the shaman
human and tree
all a part of cosmic reality.
Sacred is the familiar
the close and the dear
seen with new eyes
of all that is common & everyday
that is the gift of the shaman’s life.
The lone tree is important
for there a shaman can journey
with his and her mind through the air.
Enter the Celt
Inseparable twinings ~ human and tree
all a part of cosmic reality.
People for whom the unexplainable was sacred.
Anima loci- place-soul
Genius loci- spirit of the place
Britain once covered in trees (even Europe long long ago).
The Celts of Gaul venerated trees
there was the Yew tribe (Euborones)
and the People of the Elm (Lemovice)
Coffins come from older time
burial in a tree trunk, covered in earth
Celtic lore ~ the first woman was a rowan, the first man an alder
death a return to origin, birthed under a tree
trees to help with labour
To a Celt, myths ‘represent primordial truths
expressed at the highest level comprehensible to human beings.’
World Tree, Cosmic Tree
revealer and diviner of deeper reality
sustainer of all things with its life force
Meaning hidden within an image
the tree as a ladder, a link between worlds
all are connected ~
the spiritual landscape a physical landscape transformed.
Scandinavian Odin climbed a tree to see a tree, the World Tree.
Tree as an image of our inner life
Psychic make up
model of our ‘deepest wisdom
and highest aspirations.’
a tree expands in all directions
connecting three worlds
heaven, earth and underworld
(spirit, body and mind)
marrying heaven and earth
(through a body)
Tree man, green man
Man in a tree, woman in the moon.
invested with dignity
across our human history.
In ancient Egypt there were sycamores for the dead
and willows for Isis.
Osiris was overgrown by a cedar.
Babylon with hanging gardens of sacred trees,
a palm branch for Christ’s victory over death.
In Ancient Greece there was a sacred grove of plane trees
at Lerna, and ash trees on Ionia.
There was an oak said to be oracle
rustling of its leaves was Zeus.
For Athena there were olives
and Aprodite, myrtle
Each tree with its own characteristics
strong in limb weak in the wind
weak in limb flexible and gracious
Each species of wood is unique
Dionysus was also called Endendon ~ he in the tree
In myths people were turned in trees:
Daphne a laurel, Atys a pine
the felling of a pine symbolises castration
A tree can symbolise a mother
Fertility, living, reliving, enlivening
Shedding their leaves ~ dying in order to live
Evergreens symbols of eternal spirit
Dryads lived to guard their trees
Tree nymphs in India and in Greece
Trees appear as the foundation of religions
so rare in the sands of Arabia
seen as powerful portents, containers of wisdom
Canaanites worshipped Asherah and her trees
until the Israelites established monotheistic Yahweh
Boddhi sat under a pipal tree
One of the Five Trees of India’s paradise
symbolises the centre of the earth
point of generation
Indians believe ghosts live in trees waiting for liberty.
Trees in churchyards to feed the souls
food from the air and earth
for some, souls live on in the trees
(my friend has a Granny tree)
Japan has a heaven tree
sakiki is planted near a shrine
a link between the worlds
of life and after life
Trees to commemorate
Trees live on
planted at the beginning of a life
and anther for the end
to chart the evolution of your grief.
It grows toward heaven while holding you here with roots in the earth.
We make tree houses for children so they can play in the middle of them
a big hard lump of civilisation sitting among the cooling branches
(hopefully with an unruly child in the midst).
China has the Tree of Life to symbolise renewal.
From the Buddhist Tree of
Wisdom flows the rivers of life
streaming from all four branches
(every tree is a living watercourse
water diviners looked for twisted trees)
The Holy Forest of Sangeh encloses a temple
deep in the heart of Bali
German tribes set pillars made of trunks
on hilltops to represent the tree of the universe
(did they dance there and sing songs to the universe?)
evolution and growth of an idea
Ancient trees as symbols of the development
of a psychic life and animals have been symbols
of the intellectual life.
Every tree is unique
slow process of individuation
we all start as saplings
(little dogs always think they are bigger than what they are…)
Dylan Thomas’ tree of words scattering its leaves
Blake’s Tree of Mystery
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Tree of Man by Patrick White
Emblem of justice - hanging tree
and the unjust lynching tree
oh our fallen humanity
seat of the gods
emblem of family
heritage, turning points
Prophetic trees with magic properties
Tree of Fate
world as a cosmic tree hung with a net
starry leaves and roots recording all our history ~ past and future
Enter the Christians
Charlemagne cut down the venerated Irmensul
to convert a pagan tree cult
(would you listen to a man who cut down your centre, your god?)
Christians cut the tree, murdered the grove
built a church of stone
piled on the stump
of a once living god.
They also tried to graft Christianity~
Chartres Cathedral has engravings of twining oak twigs and acorns
the vaulted ceilings echo arching branches
but the sun can’t filter through
and dapple the ground beneath your feet
or splatter you with sudden showers
from a forgotten rain left on the leaves
as a soft breeze ruffles and shifts its leaves.
Mark said ‘I see men as trees walking’
with their seasons and fruit
fed by a river
living by a breath
Life is precarious, precious
A storm can knock us all over, both tree and human
but a tree can sometimes outlive generations of man
The Tree of Knowledge
profane it and you have your death and fall from grace
A Christian Tree and yet they kill a tree in life
tis no crime tis only progress
holds no sacred, that was a tree some place else
a place we cannot go and no longer know
the tragedy of Eden’s rejects
(Why is Adam and Eve taken so literally by many Christians
but the tree is just a symbol?)
Christ on a cross, the Jewish symbol of life
Tree and a snake,
symbols of fertility, antidotes to death
the snake and tree began it all
this long journey towards
individual wisdom after falling away from it
(A journey shaped like a tree?)
Life and love is a sacred tree.
There is so much symbolism and story and emotional history associated with trees. This must reach into our subconscious on some level of understanding or perception. The question becomes why aren’t trees sacred now? How many times and in how many different ways can we ask that question – why do we treat the environment the way we do when we once had reverence? And when did the change occur? Berry considers the possibility that the trauma occurred with the Black Death of the 1300s, recurring in the 1600s. There was an eclipse of the sun 10,000 BC which lasted 2-3 years. Were we so frightened that we were scarred? Did we try every ritual, every sacrifice that had worked and been meaningful in the past and nothing could shift it? Did we begin to lose our faith, our religion then and become open to a religion in which the god and power that is in heaven looking down? Pennick’s contention is that:
… under both Celtic and Roman Catholic churches, the shrines of saints and cults of holy places flourished; only when national Churches were invented were the ancient places abandoned, the stopping places wrecked and the shrines profaned and robbed. An emphasis on the ascendancy of messianic scripture, and the concomitant doctrine of the unimportance of place, overwhelmed the more gentle devotion to the sacred earth, paving the way for the modern, desacralised world.
There are a lot of theories. It has been a process, which began with the discrediting of older religions and the replacement of belief in higher or greater sources of creativity than just human. These beliefs were replaced with that of science in which humans are the rulers and catalysts. Science cannot fill the void left by love of the spiritual around us and in us. It cannot replace connection or reverence. It is a tool of man which some like to say has turned against us. But it is still only a tool (which means as users of the tool we have turned against ourselves and each other), an expression of mankind’s belief – its technological evolution and spiritual devolution.
The clearing of trees wasn’t only done for converting pagans but also for practical reasons. Wood is fuel, furniture, homes, ships and paper. But it is also air, habitat, mulcher, soil-holder, shade, buffer, life-giver and life-taker sometimes. It was also burnt in clan wars and to get rid of wolves and through mining. The primary aim of landclearing was to create space for agriculture. In breaking the bond with nature it makes it that much easier for people to exploit it.
Not the Conclusion
Sacred trees remain with us. They are sacred to a modern society because of their age or size or who planted them or what happened near them. They generally aren’t worshipped but there are still some festivals celebrated with trees. They have a diminished sacred role but hold a continuing lure of sacred relationship.
Trees still call to us. There are people who respond and fight and get upset about what is happening. There is still a sense of sacredness for trees in our western society when there are demonstrations against loggers and those that are passionate objectors to point that they are willing to tree-sit for years to try to save a tree.
Our relationship with trees is a reflection of the shift from sacred to profane view of the land. Through the shift we have lost a lot, for example-
The oak represents the trial we all go through in life while changing and becoming that whom we are meant to be. We must also consider the greater good and moral responsibility. It represents the soul, which in Celtic terms is the eye of God: change, sacrifice and understanding.
There is so much learning and deeper knowledge invested in cultural symbols which we have lost the context and ritual that made them real for us, related to and of us.
What we seek is reconciliation with the natural world. There are many ways and many echoes to follow to their source.
Bates, Brian ‘Sacred Trees,’ http://resurgence.gn.apc.org/articles/bates.htm
Berry, Thomas The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988.
Borschmann, G. The People’s Forest: A living history of the Australian bush, People’s Forest Press, Blackheath, N.S.W. 1999.
Bosler, Susan ‘Sacred Trees, Oghams and Celtic symbolism,’ www.geocities.com/Area51/Shire/3951/dryadart.html, 1999.
Gee, H. For the forests: A history of the Tasmanian forest campaign, Wilderness Society, Hobart, 2001.
Glesinger, E. The Coming age of wood, Secker & Warburg, London, 1947.
Guha, R. (ed) Social Ecology, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994.
MacDonald, Roger The Tree in Changing Light, Random House, Sydney, 2001.
Pakenham, T. Meetings with remarkable trees, Phoenix Illustrated, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1996.
Pennick, Nigel Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, London, 2000.
Perlin, J. A forest journey: the role of wood in the development of civilisation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1989.
Prine, P. & H. Gold, Wild Places: Wilderness in NSW, Colong Foundation for Wilderness, Kalianna Press, Sydney, 1997.
Pyers, G. Chipping away: Woodchipping and logging in native forests, Reed Library, Port Melbourne, 1996.
Reed, E. S. Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996.
Roszak, T., Mary Gomes & Alan Kanner (eds) Ecopsychology: restoring the earth, healing the mind, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco,1995.
Vries de A. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery, North Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1974.
Watson, I. Fighting for the forests, Allen &Unwin, Sydney, 1990.
Witcombe, Christopher ‘Trees and the sacred’ in ‘Sacred Places’
The Freesouls website: http://members.tripod.com/holy_98/trees.htm
Extracts from chapter entitled ‘Into the Light’ The Tree in Changing Light by Roger MacDonald (Random House, Sydney, 2001, pp. 153-169)
We wrote philosophies, built faiths and took every kind of comfort from trees. They gave language to our existence as we put down roots, stretched our limbs, budded in infancy and were felled in old age. They were mute companions to our lives and worshipped beyond themselves as the better part of balance and aspiration. They offered steadiness and long patience even as we failed in those. They were meeting points and sites of rough justice. They gave the idea and supplied the material for shelter. They offered an image of completion, which was an illusion, but enough. Theirs was a whisper in the wind to the human ear both tragic and hopeful. Civilisation grew from exploiting, destroying, venerating and looking back on them. Trees led us to ourselves and we stood against them, trunk to trunk, arms upon branches, our thoughts tangled in the stars.
Was it possible to know nothing about trees and yet experience with certainty what they were? To know nothing in the same way we know just rudiments of people – yet readily love them, possessed by the certainty of knowing them?
I was drawn to trees without knowing why. ‘Longing to grow, I looked outside myself, and the tree inside me grew.’ I read these words and wanted understanding. If there was a physical tree in an actual place, in myself, where was it?
Asking the question seeded an answer. Branch, root, hand, step, sensation – it was an urge complete in itself, an outburst unfolding. No need then for any parable of trees. The direct speech of feeling was allegorical, and irreplaceable by anything else.
Planting out was taking trees from a nursery tray and putting them in the earth. Planting out was kneeling, breaking open ground, getting dirty, smeared with soil, holding a trembling seedling in a work routine that was agricultural and primitive, sacremental and sexual. Planting out was the physical character of the spiritual tree continued.
‘To find nature herself, all her likeneses have to be shattered; and the further in, the nearer the actual thing.’
When someone said, ‘Why should I plant a tree if I’ll never see it grown?’ I thought, look at the seedlings in the moist ground, they are beseeching.
Trees and people were of the same spark, the essence of light made conspicuous in material existence. A tree’s woody skeleton and the human frame returned the gift, craving light for growth.
The aliveness of trees was a discipline and an economy, whereas our human aliveness led us to deny (in trying to overcome) environmental effects. This way we made ourselves richer to the detriment of our surrounds. We burned trees in our hearths and burned them for agriculture. We gained room for contemplation (otherwise no culture). But our comfort in denial was transitory. The tree submitted to a more ruthless penalty and perfected its beauty, branches bared to the light of the sun.
My own writing.
My name is Nirandia.
I have been here many years.
I can sense my age.
I have stood here unshaken by fate.
Others have come and gone.
I have remained.
The wind is my friend and my enemy if I do not bend.
The night is softer, quiet compared to day.
The light is demanding and sometimes so very draining,
but I am built to withstand long stretches of sun.
Sometimes my world has shaken and taken
my friends from around me.
I grow again and again.
I like a soft wind now that I am old.
I like to flow with it and hear the stories it tells
of far off places and others of my kind.
But I cannot hear them if it rushes by.
I have shed many layers in my time and I have grown thick.
My wounds take a long time to heal,
but I grow around them all the time.
I still feel where old limbs used to be
and my wound is swollen around the cut.
I search low for water and reach deep.
The ground is hard and they are delicate threads,
my strings of growth.
I am large with age now.
I have had many children
and they have drifted with the wind,
dancing on the breeze or bouncing at my feet.
It is a relief when they are gone.
So much has gone into their making
and sustaining for the time of release.
Summer is long and hot and the wind carries the heat
and dries me out.
Summer has brought fire
but this can release my children to new life.
Heat is needed to make life,
but it rips through me so fast,
changing me so long.
But this is Summer.
Autumn does not affect me.
Winter comes again and I must wait
for the forgiving Spring.
My skin dries and sheds
and lies in drifts around my feet.
I wrinkle and stretch.
New tendrils reach for light.
I can feel the changes of all things
in the flow of my blood-sap
that rises and sinks with the chances of heaven.
My dance of leaves drift with the breeze.
Long have I lived here.
Slow has been my time.
My name is Nirandia.
She looked like a wild thing; raw uncut
But not unfinished
Had life been kindly to her?
(Was it kind to anyone?)
Not I, she whispered, not I
The night felt strangely
The day stranger still
She dwelt in wood –was free to move
She could slip from floorboard to wall to chair to book and back again.
Slip through desks and garden pailings, up power lines and jump to a tree,
But she couldn’t stay there – no room, to much life.
A wood sprite, urbanised, compartmentalised
Blessed are the termites
As their soft bodies eat away at your home
full of politeness, losing the poisoning veneer
Encroached upon. There is no safety.
Life oozes in, creeps upon you,
as it is already in you.
You can’t escape your part.
The wood in you was once a tree.
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