ertainly there is no doubt about the fact that trees are important in our lives.To gauge their significance, you need look no further than this website.A quick check reveals 170 articles on ornamental trees and shrubs, 33 on evergreen trees and shrubs, 57 on individual kinds of trees, and nine referring to Christmas trees.
Civilization as we know it today would not have been possible without trees and the wood they provide.Think about such primary aspects of life as fire, food, shelter, the wheel, smelting ore, agriculture, spinning, weaving.As we move forward in time to the modern era, we can add clothing, paper, tools, rubber, musical instruments, art, and furniture.Pharmaceutical products also rank high in this list, as one out of every four such products originates in a tree somewhere in a tropical forest.Perhaps not quite as obvious are soil enrichment, erosion prevention, fresh air (trees produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and extract pollutants), windbreaks, and noise reduction.
Trees in Worship
And then there are the intangibles.Trees provide incomparable beauty and fragrance.Beyond that, they serve as a connection to and play a role in our spiritual lives.Let's move back in time again, to the era when the Celts held sway in northern Europe.Pliny reports in his writings that they chose forests of oak as their sacred groves and performed all their sacred rites using oak branches.Fires fed with oak wood were lit to bring back the sun during the dark days of winter.It is thought that Celtic tribes believed that the sun was strengthened by fire, and that this fire resided in the sacred oak.Pliny himself most likely worshiped the oak, as both ancient Romans and Greeks considered the tree sacred and inhabited by gods.
Alder-, ash-, cypress-, and yew trees were also held in high esteem by early European cultures.The Druids of Ireland, for example, believed that yews protected them from evil witches and fairies.The Christmas tree has its roots in Germanic tribal rituals as does the oak.It was actually the oak that Germanic peoples first decorated, in the hope that this practice would lure the gods of nature to return to the trees each spring.Scandinavian tribes developed the tradition of the Yule Logfor roughly the same purpose.The switch to pine trees was a compromise worked out with the Catholic Church as Christianity spread northward from Rome.And speaking of Christianity, the most important symbol for Christians is that of the wooden cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.
The tree of life image is depicted in many different ways, but they all serve as a motif in mythologies and as a metaphor for the common descent of life on Earth.
Trees in Legend
A Native American Tale
An injured sparrow realizes that he can't fly south for the winter with his friends and relatives.The sparrow asks, in turn, all the trees in the forest if they will provide shelter from the coming cold and ice.The oak, the maple, and all the other tree varieties reject the sparrow's pleas.Save one, the pine."Pine thought to himself, ‘I am the least of the trees, what can I do?'..But his heart heard Sparrow's plight. ‘Sparrow, my leaves are tiny... more like needles... my branches are not as many as other trees... but what I have you are welcome to share."
And so, Sparrow spent the cold time with Pine. And when the warm times returned in the spring, Sparrow's family returned also. And Sparrow had healed over the cold time and flew to greet their return.
Creator had seen and heard all that had happened between Sparrow and the Trees. And Creator called a great council of the Trees and spoke to them..., ‘You, who were given so much..., who had so much, would not share the least of what you had with Sparrow in his need. Because of this, from this day forward, when the cold time is upon the land, your leaves shall wither and die and blow away.'
Among the Ancients Still Alive Today
Great Basin Bristlecone Pine ('Methuselah') Pinus longaeva in California: 4,844 years (Pictured is a stand of Bristlecone Pine)
European YewTaxus baccatar in a churchyard in North Wales: over 4,000 years
Alerce Fitzroya cupressoides in Chile: 3,622 years (Pictured is an Alerce forest)
Giant SequoiaSequoiadendron giganteum in California: 3,266 years
Sugi Cryptomeria japonica in Japan: 3,000 years
Huon-pine Lagarostrobos franklinii in Tasmania: 2,500 years (pictured is a young specimen)
Creator then spoke to Pine .
‘Pine, you, who had the least of all the trees, and gave so much, have touched my Spirit. When the cold times come, you of all the trees shall keep your leaves; they shall remain green through all the seasons for the gift you have given me, through Sparrow.'
And that is why, to this day, that when the cold time comes to the land, all the leaves wither, and die, and blow away. Except for Pine."--First Legends
A number of Celtic and English legends revolve around the churchyard yew.Such yews were thought to embody the ghost of the person buried under it. Even in modern times, the veneration of churchyard yews continues.Many still believe that it is dangerous to cut them down or harm them in any way.A Celtic legend, now so common that is it virtually universal, involves lovers who die tragic deaths.Trees spring from their graves, and the roots and branches intertwine.The supposition is that the spirit of the dead is embodied in the trees.
Ancient Trees Still Alive Today
Trees are the largest and longest-living above-ground organisms on the planet.Among them are specimens alive today that experienced directly their veneration by Celtic tribes, while others began to grow when there were no humans around to worship them.Among the trees whose ages have been officially documented are the ones pictured at right.
It seems fitting to close this article with a plea to save our forests."Notwithstanding the debt we owe to trees, their emotive power, and their importance to other forms of life, the forested area of the earth is steadily being depleted. This is leading to the degradation of the environment and the extinction of many species. There is now a real danger that in the not very distant future man will destroy a large proportion of the present population of species on earth [and] create an uninhabitable environment..." (Brian Clifford, The Woodturners Workshop)
Let us hope that it does not come to that.The power to remedy this state of affairs lies within each of us.May we use it.
Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth's 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.Credits All tree photographs are courtesy of Wikipedia. Tree of Life is a non-copyrighted image. Thumbnail drawing of yew tree is in the public domain.
About Larry Rettig
An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: http://davesgarden.com/community/blogs/m/LarryR/. Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.