The Holiness of Trees

“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 where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.”

C.G. Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”

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A book The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben was to me deeply comforting and rather alarming in equal measure. The alarming part had to do with a realization that trees are too often treated by humans as objects, forests – as lumber factories.  The comfort I found among the book’s pages was a certainty, a scientific fact proven rigorously by the author, that trees are receptacles of the deepest mysteries of life. Wohlleben may be a scientist but he approaches his subject with affection, even devotion. In another book I have been reading in parallel to The Hidden Life of Trees, Alexander von Humboldt is portrayed as a cold-hearted measurer of the world but when he encounters an ancient dragon tree on Tenerife, his cold heart cracks open, if only for a brief moment:

“It had been here before Christ and Buddha, Plato and Tamburlane. Humboldt held his watch up to his ear. It carried time within itself as it ticked away, while this tree warded off time: a crag against which its river broke. Humboldt touched the deeply corrugated trunk. High above, the branches opened out, and the twittering of hundreds of birds pierced the air. Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him.”

Daniel Kehlman, “Measuring the World”

The wealth of information on trees contained in Wohlleben’s book is staggering. He starts by emphasizing the fact that most tree species are communal beings. Forests are “superorganisms” which can be likened to ant colonies. There, nutrients are ceaselessly exchanged, and no member of the community is abandoned in times of need. Why are trees so protective of each other? The author explains:

“Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”

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Caspar David Friedrich, “Forest in the End of the Autumn”

The primary means of communication among trees is scent. On the Savannah, acacias warn other trees when giraffes start feasting on their leaves. This enables the trees next in line for the predator to emit toxic substances and thus keep the giraffes off. Signals between trees are transmitted by means of fungal connections. Wohlleben uses every opportunity to stress that artificially planted forests (unless they are organic plantations) do more harm than good because they seriously impair trees’ ability to communicate:

“Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.”

Communication of trees happens both below and above ground. The former is effectuated by means of roots, which for trees extend twice the spread of the crown. Apparently, roots send sound waves (220 hertz) to other roots to communicate about danger. Roots have been compared to brain-like structures; they are neural pathways that transmit both chemical and electrical impulses.  How strange that still many scientists refuse to call plants intelligent. Wohlleben reflects:

“The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?”

A walk through an old-growth forest reduces blood pressure and has a calming effect. Tree plantations do not have the same effect. What is more, forests that have experienced no intervention from foresters, grow more harmoniously:

“Because of the deep shade, wild flowers and shrubs don’t have a chance, so the color brown (from old leaves) predominates on the natural forest floor. The small trees grow extremely slowly and very straight, and their side branches are short and narrow. The old mother trees dominate, and their flawless trunks stretch to the sky like the columns in a cathedral. In contrast to this, there is much more light in managed forests, because trees are constantly being removed. Grass and bushes grow in the gaps, and tangles of brambles prevent detours off the beaten path. When trees are felled and their crowns are left lying on the ground, the debris creates further obstacles. The whole forest presents a troubled and downright messy picture. Old-growth forests, however, are basically very accessible.”

Within the same species, trees do not follow the principle of survival of the fittest. Rather, they “synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful.” They make it so that they all produce an equal amount of sugar per leaf regardless of their strength or age. Again, it is the roots which are responsible for this equalization of the rate of photosynthesis, as “whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.” In a natural forest trees grow close to one another. This “huddling together” is an advantage for the whole community since “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” However, a lot of foresters remove what in their opinion in an excess of trees. Again, such acts prevent trees from communicating with each other, leaving them at the mercy of predators.

In order for a tree to live a long life, it needs to grow slowly. To that effect, older trees purposefully deprive the young of light so that the rate of their growth becomes restricted. Modern forestry with their eyes on the profit margin does not promote steady and slow growth of trees. Trees are felled before they reach maturity in Europe, where we have lost almost all of true old-growth forests. One example is the primeval Bialowieza Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, the exclusive refuge of the lowland bison. The Polish government has started logging parts of the forest in recent months, which was met with a public outcry over a destruction of the 10 000- year-old ecosystem.

Ancient trees are crucial for the ecosystem, explains Wohlleben:

“…Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University in Montreal researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old. First of all, she discovered large quantities of moss on the branches and in the branch forks of trees of this advanced age. Blue-green algae had colonized the trees’ mossy cushions. These algae capture nitrogen from the air and process it into a form the trees can use. Rain then washes this natural fertilizer down the trunks, making it available to the roots. Thus, old trees fertilize the forest and help their offspring get a better start in life. The youngsters don’t have their own moss because moss grows very slowly and takes decades to get established.”

Old trees are stronger than young ones; they also grow faster. Thus, they are our most powerful allies in the fight against the climate change. Even dead trees have an important role to play, as a fifth of all animal and plant species depend on them for survival. A felled tree trunk can even serve as a cradle for young trees, especially in the case of young spruces. This process is called “nurse-log reproduction.”

On other continents, the pivotal role of ancient trees is recognized and respected; in fact, it is only in Europe where ancient forests do not receive adequate protection:

“In the United States, forest preserves, such as the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York State, keep economic interests out of the forests. According to the state constitution, the preserve ‘shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,’ and the timber shall not be ‘sold, removed or destroyed.’ In the wilderness areas of these preserves, most structures are not allowed, power vehicles are banned, and chainsaws require special permits. What started as a measure to ensure that excessive logging in the nineteenth century didn’t lead to soil erosion and silting up of the economically important Erie Canal has turned into a resource dedicated to the forest itself and visitors who ‘leave no trace’ as they pass through. Even more remote is the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, which covers almost 25,000 square miles along the rugged coast. Half of this area is forested, including about 8,900 square miles of old-growth trees. This primeval forest is home to the rare spirit bear, which although it is white, is not a polar bear but a black bear with white fur. First Nations in the area have been fighting since the 1990s to protect their homelands. On February 1, 2016, an agreement was announced to keep 85 percent of the forest unlogged, though it does allow for 15 percent of the trees, mostly old growth at low elevations, to be removed. After a long hard struggle, some progress, at least, has been made in protecting this very special place. Chief Marilyn Slett, president of Coastal First Nations, is well aware of the forest’s importance: ‘Our leaders understand our well-being is connected to the well-being of our lands and waters… If we use our knowledge and our wisdom to look after [them], they will look after us into the future.’ The Kichwa of Sarayaku, Ecuador, see their forest as ‘the most exalted expression of life itself.’”

It is no wonder that trees are happiest in the balmy forest. An especially eye-opening chapter of the book was dedicated to “street kids,” that is the trees which live in cities. They suffer very harshly because of the temperature being too high for them, due to the dryness of the air and its pollution. Their bark gets burned and their roots rot because of dogs’ urine. They get damaged heavily by winter salt. Some species of trees suffer more than others when they are torn away from the protective forest. Others, such as poplar, quaking aspen, silver birch and pussy willow are born pioneers and actually enjoy striking out on their own and colonizing new territories. Their seeds can fly longer distances. They often grow alone in wide-open spaces. Therefore, their bark is often lighter in colour to protect them from sun scald. Birches and other lonely wolves among trees typically live more intensively and shorter than oaks, beeches or redwoods which prefer the familial atmosphere of the forest.

I found Wohlleben’s book awe-inspiring. It made me think how it seems that we humans cannot help applying our short-term thinking to beings, which are radically different from us. Trees are slow, still, majestic and, at least compared to us, eternal. They were here before us and will outlive us. Their symbolic meaning is vitally connected with the totality of life processes in the universe: “its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes,” as Cirlot wrote in his Dictionary of Symbols. The tree represents “absolute reality” positioned at the centre of the world. It is a world-axis connecting the above with the below. There were two trees in Paradise: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Living and knowing, notices Cirlot, are two distinct and parallel processes. The tree of Life is usually depicted in full bloom, the tree of Knowledge, which brought people death and awareness, is shown as dry or on fire. It is a marvellous coincidence that in scientific taxonomy the endings of the names of trees are masculine whereas their gender is feminine. The tree is a central symbol of totality that connects microcosm and microcosm, the feminine and the masculine, life and death, change and permanence, and other opposites.

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William Morris, Tree of Life tapestry

Hermann Hesse offered the following beautiful reflections on trees:

“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”

Hermann Hesse, “Bäume” (Trees)

http://www.suhrkamp.de/buecher/baeume-hermann_hesse_19393.html

https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/21/hermann-hesse-trees/

the-sacred-grove-1886

Arnold Böcklin, “The Sacred Grove”

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40 Responses to The Holiness of Trees

  1. Only in Europe old trees and forests are not getting any protection? This is a quite stupid allegation because there are a lot of natural parks, biosphere reserves, special protected natural areas in growing number and in a lot of European countries. Even in my hometown in Berlin you will find today quite a lot of beavers at the most strange and unexpected places of the town!

    • Hi, I think he meant only old-growth forests, not old trees and certainly not wildlife. Also I wrote “not getting adequate protection” instead of “not getting any protection.” Here is a relevant quote about Germany:
      “There’s consensus among German politicians that 5 percent of the forests should be left to their own devices so that they can become the old-growth forests of tomorrow. At first, that doesn’t sound like much, and it’s downright embarrassing when compared with states in tropical parts of the world, the ones we always reproach for the lack of protection for their rain forests. But at least it’s a start. Even if only 2 percent of the forests in Germany were freed from human interference, that’s still more than 770 square miles.”

      Here in Switzerland we also have plenty of unspoiled wildness. Here what he says about it:
      “In the case of Switzerland, a whole country is concerned with the species-appropriate treatment of all things green. The constitution reads, in part, that “account [is] to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms.” So it’s probably not a good idea to decapitate flowers along the highway in Switzerland without good reason. Although this point of view has elicited a lot of head shaking in the international community, I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants.”

      So, you are right that we are not so bad in Europe and perhaps I should have emphasized it more. Thank you for your comment.

      • Europe is not Canada, because much more people live here at limited place for thousands of years. Now, Germany does at least take great care of all existing old trees, they are carefully registered and are standing under supervision. A special tree-register comprises over 4,469 individual old trees/locations partly with an age of more than 1,000 years (http://www.baumkunde.de/baumregister/). It is obvious that much more efforts are necessary, but comparing apples (Europe) with bananas (Canada) is not really helpful as the social/historical backgrounds are completely different. Besides, the community of trees is a real amazing story. Good book for understanding of this topic: Brilliant Green by Stefano Mancuso & Allesandro Viola, Island Press 2015. Take care and never mind my words!

      • That is really great to know. Puts things in perspective. Thank you!

  2. herongrace says:

    I think I would die if I were forced to live in a concrete environment. My soul needs to feel nestled in my little house here surrounded by 1000s of beautiful trees. Unfortunately all the huge red cedar trees were logged before my time and could not regrow. Greedy people! Of course if I were a tree murderer I could make a lot of many from their slaughter, but I am custodian of this place and I do try and manage crook and dead 1s, but always mindful that they are creatures’ habitats.
    In my young days had a couple of mind altering wanderings through rain forests and was privileged to be able to tune into their consciousness which is totally a group consciousness.
    Thank-you for this Monika. Trees are so important to our very existence!

    • I am blessed to live close to the woods. I really share your sentiment about living in a concrete environment (shudder). I have said that before but I’ll repeat – I am in awe of your life in the heart of wilderness.
      A big thank you for your comment.

  3. Zarah says:

    Thank you Monika for the beautiful article and that beautiful piece by Hermann Hesse! I had never come across that before. What happened with the forest in Poland? Were they able to save it?

    BTW, do you know the Treesisters? They want to reforest the planet. You can find them at http://www.treesisters.org/. 🙂

    • Hello Zarah, I have never heard of Tree Sisters (read “tree sitters” first:)) but I think they are truly inspiring. Also that piece by Hermann Hesse was discovered by me by sheer chance while writing my post. I wish this unique collection of his reflections and poems about trees was translated into English. Well, that is not a problem for you!

      The forest in Poland is definitely not going to be all logged. The oldest part – the sanctuary, where the bison roam – will stay intact, hopefully. But the loggers are moving in dangerously close, which is criticized by the European Union and by the environmentalists. Let’s hope the government will come to their senses, but I would not hold my breath about these people.

  4. Amy Campion says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece Monika. Shall I share with you 3 wonderful synchronicities (yet again?) I have that William Morris tapestry on a couple of my cushions; I am currently reading Hesse again, “The Prodigy” is on my bedside table; yesterday I was contacted by, and committed to supporting a charity called “Bush Heritage Australia” who buy land of high conservation value to protect native species of plants and animals as well as partnering with indigenous people. Your post could not have come at a better time! And I will put “The Hidden Life of Trees” on my must read list! Thank you!

    • Dear Amy,
      Thank you for sharing your reflections on yet another synchronicity between us. It is comforting to think that we can dream the same dream despite the physical distance between us.
      Take care
      Monika

  5. anitashree says:

    I love trees..always have. Thank you for sharing the information on them..I found it really interesting and this line: The old mother trees dominate, and their flawless trunks stretch to the sky like the columns in a cathedral….that one for some reason just filled me with awe!

    • I was struck by the very same sentence! And now you have inspired me to illustrate it with a photograph. Thank you very much.

      • anitashree says:

        hehe..you’re welcome. It does give you a wonderful feeling when you read that sentence…AND yes, the visual that goes with it too. Some sentences give you a good visual…some..leave you with just a strong feeling..and that was one of those types. 🙂

  6. Trees mean life for all who depend on fresh air to breath.
    A superb article Monika, written with grace and style that you are famous for.
    Thank you and have a peaceful weekend

  7. Jeff Japp says:

    Hi Monika. Thanks for another inspiring post. I feel a deep connection to trees. I remember when one of my daughters was young, and in class the students were told to draw pictures of what they were most excited about seeing on an upcoming trip. My daughter drew a picture of a tree and she was upset because the other kids made fun of her. I told her how proud I was of her choice, and it was genuine. Hope you have a wonderful weekend. I’m attending sessions in the Faith in Literature conference that is happening here. Expect some posts on that soon. 😉

  8. How beautiful. Thank you so much, Monika. I have always loved the stillness, depth and ancient slow wisdom of trees.

  9. Pingback: The Holiness of Trees | Lumen Naturae

  10. litebeing says:

    Thanks for such a fascinating and informative piece, sumptuously illustrated as well. I am reading a book on Ecotherapy by Buzzell that describes how to work with people in conjunction with nature and that the condition of the planet is intertwined with the individual psyche. You may enjoy it.

    There is an old oak tree in my backyard less than 2 feet from my terrace and it protects me with its strength and energy. I adore trees and my affection grows with every passing day.

    hugs, LInda

  11. Gail Green says:

    This sharing has such numinous meaning to me, especially at this time. Hurricane Matthew hit Hilton Head Island, my home, directly bringing tragic devastation, especially to our trees. I grew up in this part of the country with majestic Live Oaks, some as old as 500 years and an abundance of them. The Spanish Moss hanging from their limbs inspired a deeper feeling of mystery and spirituality especially when a breeze swayed the moss to and fro. And now, the neighbors are having many of them cut down that were not damaged as if they are angry at the trees for falling on their houses and property. My heart grieves for the trees and for our lineage that will no longer experience the majesty of a mighty oak.

    I cannot agree with Wohlleben in regard to a lack of communication with trees that are planted instead of naturally seeded. I must believe that seedlings can learn to communicate, especially when there are older trees to teach them. I plan to order some Southern Live Oak seedlings to plant where they will be protected and near our older trees in the hopes that the future generations will experience them as I do.

    Thank you for sharing this with me. I really needed to hear what I have been feeling.

    In Love, Gail

    • Dear Gail, thank you so much for sharing your experience here. So sad to see those trees go, I imagine.

      Perhaps I did not express it clearly enough but Wohlleben did not say that planted trees do not communicate. He was only talking about the trees which are too dispersed, too far away from one another. Then it is harder or even impossible for them to communicate.

      Best wishes to you.

      Monika

  12. Don says:

    Thank you Monika for a wonderful article. I’m in awe of what has been said and it resonates with me in ways that are hard to explain.

  13. herongrace says:

    Wonderful comments here Monika! I forgot to say on my post that I was watching an old cooking show on t.v the other day and the cook was visiting a beautiful farm in Provence, France and the woman was making a pie with olives from a 1000! year old olive tree. I was awestruck. That tree is an institution, imagine the information and memories stored here not to mention the amount of olives it has produced. 1 tree!

  14. I’m delighted to see a discussion of this wonderful book. I started reading it in German, and am happy to now be reading the English translation.
    I’m surprised in your discussion of how trees communicate, that you omitted Wohlleben’s discussion of the use of electrical impulses (much like our own nervous system) as an additional tool, in addition to scent and sound, both within trees, and as part of the fungal web that helps the trees communicate.

    • Hello, thank you very much for your comment. I did mention electrical impulses, though, while discussing the importance of roots. The book is packed with so much important information and so my post was getting really long.

      • You’re right. Sorry I missed that. It is quite a book. Revolutionary in our understanding. Paul Stamets has done similar work around mushrooms.

      • My knowledge of science is strictly amateur, so I welcome your input. I have never heard of Paul Stamets. It is so heartwarming to see scientists go mainstream like this.

  15. Fascinating – I loved the quote about Humboldlt.

  16. Pingback: The Holiness of Trees — symbolreader – VIRTUAL BORSCHT

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