John Swanson

Trees have played a central role throughout the ages in providing humans with food and shelter. They provide fuel for the fire to protect us from the cold, shade from the heat, homes and furniture, tools, fruits and nuts, and sources of medicine. They fertilize the soil and prevent its erosion. Forests play a critical role in the regulation of our atmosphere. By recognizing the many gifts received from trees, we can experience the gratitude and respect that opens us to feeling our deep connection with them.

Perhaps another reason that we can connect so strongly with trees is that they were home for our prehuman ancestors. Children everywhere love to climb and play in trees. Tree houses are highly prized dwellings for most youngsters.

Trees are astounding. Here are a few of their extraordinary accomplishments. The oldest known trees, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, have lived for more than 4,000 years on dry, cold, windy sites in Nevada The tallest trees are the Coastal Redwoods. With lifespansof 800-1500 years, some grow over 350 feet tall.Touted as "the world’s largest living thing," The General Sherman Tree, a Giant Sequoia 2600-3500 old, has amassed 50,000 cubic feet of trunk volume and weighs 4 1/2 million pounds.

Trees provide aesthetic and spiritual sustenance as well. They have carried important symbolic and mythic value in many cultures and religions throughout the world. Trees are symbols of life, abundance, creativity, generosity, stability, uprightness, and strength. Nathanial Altman in his book Sacred Trees describes three types of mythical trees: World trees (symbolizing the universe), Trees of Life (symbolizing fertility and generativity), and Trees of Knowledge (symbolizing wisdom and distinguishing between good and evil).  The Christian Scriptures refer to trees symbolically in these ways: "the tree of life" (Gen. 2:9, 15:4; Rev. 22:2,14) and "the tree of knowledge" (Gen. 2:9, 3:3).

The "tree of life" marks the center of the world. In Christianity, the tree oflife is found at the center of the Garden of Eden. For early Egyptians, it stood in the middle of paradise, providing immortality. For the Mayans, a ceiba tree grew at the sacred center of their communities. Black Elk's vision had a flowering tree at the center of a sacred hoop.

Jesus frequently used trees in his parables and teachings.  Biblical propheciesof restoration also refer to trees. For example, Isaiah’s vision of the wilderness blossoming includes the growth of cedar, acacia, myrtle, olive, pine, fir, and cypress trees (41:19).

Trees also serve as sacred sites for personal inspiration and religious ceremonies. They are connected to legends and historical events. In Buddhism for example, it was under the sacred bohdi tree that Buddha received enlightenment. According to Celtic tradition, oak groves were especially venerated. The word druid, from dru-wid, means both "known of oak trees" and "steadfastness." In Japan, pines stand for loyalty and longevity. The Buriat people in eastern consider groves of trees sacred and always ride through them in silence. Commemorative trees are planted throughout the world for remembering births, deaths, and special events of all kinds. A grove of trees creates a special spirit of community. People want to meet, have picnics, and get married amongst the trees.

My wife and I made love for the first time under a beautiful old oak tree.  We were married and celebrated many of our wedding anniversaries under a big locust tree. Our children swung from its branches and climbed it for fun. To benefit from its cool shade on hot summer days, I hung my hammock from its branches. It was our favorite place to rest and rejuvenate.


"Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place whereI felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring

       C.G. Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections



Activity - Your Favorite Tree


Do you have a favorite tree? Do you have a favorite kind of tree that you are drawn to? What is it about this tree that attracts you? Does this tree have qualitiesin common with you or one’s that you admire or desire for yourself?

Find out as much as you can about your favorite tree including its natural history and the roles that it plays in myths and legends. Visit your favorite tree. Sit beneath it and meditate. Try also incorporating Opening to Nature's Messages (p. )and Dialogue Activities (p. ) with your tree.


The following activity provides you with another way of identifying your own unique connections to trees. It is also a way of finding out more about yourself by examining through mental imagery your identifications with trees.


Activity - Imaginary Tree Identification


Begin with the Calm Breathing Activity on page. After you have established your calm breathing pattern, continue to relax with your eyes closed. Spend a few moments inside observing your inner feelings and bodily sensations. . . .

Now see if you can imagine yourself as a tree. Just let it come to you. What kind of tree do you feel like inside? Are you old or young? What size are you? Where are you growing? What are your roots like? Can you sense the kindof ground are they rooted in? What are your branches like? Leaves? Needles? Fruit? Seeds? What season is it? What is the weather like? What are your surroundings like? What is the view, the smells, the sounds? How do you feel as this tree? Continue to discover even more details about your existence as this tree. What is your history? What has your life been like? Let your imagination develop this vision of yourself as a tree for awhile. When you feel finished, gently open your eyes and return to your present time and place. In what ways was your experience as a tree, an indicator of the kindof person you are? thekind of person you would like to be? If you were to meet a tree like this in real life, would it feel more like kin than other trees?


 "Trees have individuality. A tree, therefore, is often a symbol of personality. . .

It is the prototype of the self, a symbol of the source and the goal ofthe individuation process.         C. G. Jung



Our feelings as well as our language can be a barrier to opening up to nature. This was especially true for me on one of my first solo backpacking trips. I'd arrived at the trailhead at sunset for a few days of hiking and fishing. Anxious to get a few miles behind me before darkness set in, I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders only moments after turning off the ignition and bounded down the trail. My mind raced with excitement and anticipation. "What a gorgeous place! Isn't this going to be wonderful? Weather's perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. Eden, here I come."

As it began to grow dark, my anxious energy started to dissipate. Less than a mile down the trail, no more whistling or humming tunes, the bounce in my step gone. Walking into a thick cloud of silence, I came to a grinding halt, suddenly feeling utterly lost. My body shuddered, and into my head popped the thought that I could hightail it back to the car before dark. What for?

What's going on here? Then it dawned on me. Even though I was telling myself this place was beautiful, I was not really taking in its wonder and beauty. My words unmasked as wishful thinking, I just stood there in the middle of the trail, dumbfounded, the self-deception of my good time exposed.


A big tallconifer, standing off by itself on a nearby knoll, caught my eye. In response to its beckoning, I staggered over beneath its branches, dropped off my pack, plopped down and pressed my back against its massive trunk. I pulled my legs up to my chest, grasped them with my arms, and dropped my forehead to my knees.

Well, I went a little crazy right there under that tree as waves of confusion and fear, then pain and sadness surfaced. On the hike in, I was carrying a burden of psychological junk that was blocking my responsiveness to this beautiful setting. I surrendered to my feelings and accompanying thoughts as they surfaced. I sat there under the tree and grieved. I uncovered some hidden layers of myself. I had no person to cheer me up, distract me with talk, or help me rationalize it all away.

By the next day, having done my grief work, purging myself of the disruptive unfinished business, I was no longer merely telling myself, "This is wonderful." I was cleared out and genuinely experiencing the wonderment of it all.


I-It vs. I-Thou Relationships

To clarify the nature of human dialogue, the gestalt approach incorporates Martin Buber’s theory of I-Thou and I-It modes of relating. The I-Thou mode of relating has the qualities of directness, openness, presence, and mutuality. I-Thou relating is integrative and affirmative of one’s wholeness, whereas I-It relating is more narrowly task-oriented, relating to the other

interms of its functionality or usefulness. Thus, the I-It mode has more of a conditional quality, in contrast with the unconditional acceptance that is more characteristic of I-Thou. When in I-Thou mode, we recognize the subjective presence of the other and willingly enter into relationship with the other.

The I-It mode recognizes the other as an object to be manipulated to one’s advantage and thus is experienced as more distant rather than intimate. "I-It" ways of relating are overwhelmingly predominant in modern technocratic society. The natural world has been largely reduced to "natural resources" to be utilized for human production and consumption. Entranced by the powers of the industrial revolution to provide material marvels beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams, the overzealous and misdirected leadership of this global industrial complex has precipitated an unprecedented assault upon the planet.

The "Midas touch" has spun out of control and, as the story goes, threatens the human touch that feeds the essence of our humanity. However, the "I-It" mode itself is not bad. It is necessary. We couldn’t get rid of it even if we wanted to. Both modes of being have an important place in our world. We could not live in an ordered practical world accomplishing tasks and making progress towards goals without the I-It mode. Both dimensions co-exist in dynamic relationship. One or the other may become the dominant focus of attention. Ideally the "I-Thou" remains active as the underlying container of the I-It. Or in Maurice Friedman’s words, "The I-It is in the service of the I-Thou." Healthy living involves creatively balancing these two modes of existence. What is unhealthy is when the I-It mode dominates to the exclusion of the I-Thou. As Buber in the text of his most famous work I and Thou stated, "Without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives with only that is not human."


The I-Thou mode of relating can be extended to include not just the interpersonaldomain, but the whole of nature. Early in the text of I and Thou, Buber, himself, expressed this belief in an often overlooked statement, "But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It." The creatures of the natural world, nature’s phenomena can all be addressed and experienced as "thou." Native Americans relate to "mother earth," "father sky," and the earth’s winged, four-leggedsand creepy crawlers as "kin." Adopting this point of view helps us extend our bonds of empathy and compassion to include all of creation.


The activities in this book invite you to explore I-Thou relating with nature.To be is to be related, for relationship is an essential aspect of existence. The universe, rather than existing in an inert objective way, is a "mutually evocativereality." We can see the value the natural world places on relatedness in the intricate mating rituals that have evolved. So much plumage, coloration, dance, and song of the world comes from this desire to enter into relationship. To be cut off from intimacy with other beings, to be incapable of entering into the joy of mutual presence, to be alienated from life, is a great loss indeed!


Your beliefs can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe, for example, that all people are selfish and untrustworthy, you are not likely to act in ways that encourage the development of trusting relationships. If you believe the universe exists only in an inert objective way, that it has no compassion for your well-being, no morality, that it is basically a harsh and cruel reality which dishes out suffering and death, then what are the chances that you will be reaching out to commune with it? On the other hand, what if you view nature as a wise teacher and yearn for its lessons? What if you have already experienced nature as a living presence or are at least curious and open to the possibility? Approaching nature hoping for an I-Thou encounter greatly enhances the likelihood of experiencing these special moments.  

Scientific paradigms and methods can also be examined in terms of whether they promote or assume I-Thou or I-It relationships with nature. John Briggs in his book Fractals expresses it this way, "The question is, shall we inhabit a world shaped (as we have long believed) by lifeless mechanically interacting fragments driven by mechanical laws and awaiting our reassembly and control? Or shall we inhabit a world . . . that is alive, creative, and diversified because its parts are unified, inseparable, and born of an unpredictability ultimately beyond our control?"

This emerging paradigm shift within science involves changes in perspective and values that are essential for our continued survival on the planet.

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