When I write in my journal, I do it on paper, and what is paper but very thin slices of wood? Each time I write, I enter this old partnership of human and tree. We join together to create a magic of exploration and memory which neither of us could do alone. Think of the vast store of human wisdom and history found in libraries around the world. All of it would have been impossible without trees to hold our words in their keeping.
Many years after I sat in the beech tree, I discovered another link. According to Gilbert Waldbauer, the ancient Germanic peoples would carve their runes on thin slabs of beech wood. These were sometimes laced together with thongs to create what they called a Buch, which is the German word for both beech and book.
The tree is our original text, the bearer of all text. When I sat in the beech tree, I was face to face with that perennial yearning of humankind to leave our mark. I too had a yearning to leave my mark on paper, writing my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and memories, creating something new with the magic of words.
Trees have been the foundation of so much human life and culture. The first fuel of many of our ancestors was wood. Our houses are made of wood. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the window frames and doorways. We are surrounded and held up and sheltered by the gift of trees. Our musical instruments, our tools, our boats, many of our foods and medicines, all are possible because of trees. No wonder we say “Knock on wood” when everything is going well and we wish to protect ourselves from bad luck.
Trees also play a significant role in the crisis we face today for the health of our planet. Deforestation has contributed to global warming, and planting new trees can contribute to reducing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Beginning in 1977, she organized poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees, and learn small scale trades that benefit the environment while providing a living. Over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty-six years.
Sometime I wish we Americans could go back to the old European pagan approach to trees. They didn’t believe it was wrong to cut down trees or use their products for their needs. But the old pagans taught that before cutting a tree one must ask permission of the tree. To request its consent acknowledges that we have a relationship of mutuality and respect. Some might say that asking wouldn’t alter the act of cutting the tree. But just compare how consent and respect differentiate acts of lovemaking from acts of assault.
To relate to a tree with respect will change the nature of the use we make of it for our survival needs. I believe that a tree is not merely a tool and resource for human needs. The tree is a sacred Other, with its own inherent value and meaning. How do we know that the tree does not have its own sentient life? Recently I learned that trees emit low frequency vibrations that human ears cannot detect. My lack of knowledge about its language, does not determine that the tree is without a language of its own.
When I was the nature counselor at Camp Wohelo I used to take the campers on night walks–no flashlights allowed! We headed for a high rocky point overlooking Sebago Lake and during our time each girl would find a tree of her own to wrap her arms around, put her ear against its bark and listen to the tree’s wisdom. I was a powerful experience for many, I think, and for me as well.
What a beautiful way to cultivate a deep earth connection!
Myke, I am thinking about the parallels between humans and trees with respect to the life cycle. Some trees are healthy and strong and live a long time, but eventually they get old and die-some from disease and some just from old age. Others a frail from their very beginning and require care and nourishment from humans to survive. Trees are most beneficial to carbon dioxide take-up and oxygen generation when they are in very active growth periods. What do we do with trees when they are in decline and of less value in terms of air quality? What do we do with humans when they are in decline and of less value to society? More to ponder.
We sometimes see a pileated woodpecker in our back yard. We had a birch tree that died, and the woodpecker would often be there getting bugs or whatever treasures there were to be found in the dead wood. When we took down the tree (so it wouldn’t fall on our house) the woodpecker came back and pecked on the top of the stump. It is interesting to me that in nature everything has a usefulness.