I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet 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.
—“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer,
We have all had that feeling; the perception of insignificance we feel when in the presence of something capable of evoking in us a sense of awe. Perhaps you have felt it when gazing up at the night sky, contemplating the expanse and mystery of the Milky Way in all of its grandeur. Could it be that the magnificence of the ocean, great waves bathed in the gentle light of the setting sun, induces you to pause during that walk on the beach and just stare in wonder at the spectacle before you? It might be something as seemingly simple as watching a spider build an intricate web or a sunflower turning its face toward the rising sun. It is reverence you are feeling.
Paul Woodruff, Mary Helen Thompson Professor of the Humanities at the University of Texas, defines “reverence” as “the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when those are the right feelings to have” (Woodruff 8). As Spiritual Naturalists, we can all list the phenomena capable of kindling these feelings in us. Imagine this scenario: you step out of your car and within minutes are on a woodland trail leading you deep into an old growth forest. You have the sense that you have entered another reality, one far removed from the hectic, oppressive world now left behind you. You also feel that your presence is known; small birds flit past you, animals peer out at you from their dens—and then you see it. A tree, one taller and more majestic than its brethren surrounding it; its densely intertwined branches nearly blot out the light of the sun, save for a few errant, mote-laden rays that manage to reach the forest floor. Questions begin to come to mind as you tilt your head back in an effort to gauge the tree’s height: How old are you? What must you have seen during all those years? Do you know I’m here? If only it could answer you. What wisdom could it share? What lessons could it teach? You shake your head in silent awe.
You would not be the first to revere a tree. Such feelings stretch back to antiquity and beyond. Joules Taylor, in The Book of Celtic Symbols, shares how the ancient Celts of Britain and Ireland revered the tree:
All trees were sacred to the Celts. They provided so much—shelter, wood, nuts and fruit, even medicines from bark and leaves. To the Druids, they spanned the whole of existence, their roots deep under ground in the Otherworld, their sturdy trunks the solid foundations of the physical world, while their branches brushed the sky; reaching up to the heavens and the secrets of the celestial spheres. All had a place in the Celtic world, although some trees were more revered due to their practical uses or their deeper emotional and spiritual significance. (Taylor 85).
In chapter nine of The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer, we learn that natural woods were some of the world’s oldest sanctuaries. In ancient Germany, sacred groves were very commonplace, and there were severe penalties for so much as breaking a twig or peeling back the bark of a standing tree (en.wikisource.org). The sanctuary of Aesculapius at Cos forbade the cutting down of cypress trees, the penalty being 1,000 drachmas (one drachma was a rough equivalent of a skilled worker’s daily pay, and half a drachma per day could provide for a comfortable subsistence, so…yikes! Don’t hurt the cypress trees). In the center of ancient Rome stood a fig tree—the sacred fig of Romulus—and this tree was said to be worshipped until the days of the Principate, or what we would refer to as the Roman Empire. A cornell tree growing on the slopes of the Palatine Hill was also esteemed as one of the most sacred objects in Rome. Seneca himself, stoic philosopher and minister to Emperor Nero, said this in one of his letters:
If you have ever come on a dense wood of ancient trees that have risen to an exceptional height, shutting out all sight of the sky with one thick screen of branches upon another, the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, your sense of wonderment at finding so deep and unbroken a gloom out of doors, will persuade you of the presence of a deity. (Seneca 87).
The reverence of trees was also not unique to ancient Europe. The Hidatsa Indians of North America believed that all objects possessed a spirit—called a shade—and that the shade of a cottonwood tree in particular possessed intelligence (en.wikisource.org). The Wanika people of Eastern Africa believed that every tree, particularly the coconut tree, had a spirit. If you were to cut down or destroy a coconut tree, you would basically be guilty of matricide, as the coconut tree provided nourishment to the people just like a mother does to her children (en.wikisource.org). Siamese monks would no more break the branch of a tree than they would the arm of an innocent person; to intentionally destroy anything would “forcibly dispossess a soul” (en.wikisource.org). The list goes on.
Well, you might say, that was all happening back before we knew better. Surely modern science has done away with the notion of plants or trees being anything more than they seem, correct? Aren’t they just individual plants whose resources can be harvested as we see fit with no further consideration? Not so fast. I am not calling for the worship of trees, but rather for a renewal of the reverence and respect due to these majestic fellow inhabitants of the interdependent network of life to which we all belong. In the article “The Social Life of Forests” by Ferris Jabr, appearing in the New York Times in December of 2020, I learned of the work of Suzanne Simard, currently a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.
Dr. Simard’s work indicated that it was possible for trees to communicate and even cooperate with each other through underground networks of fungi, called “mycorrhizas.” These networks consist of small, thread-like fungi that wrap around and fuse with the roots of the trees. The fungi and trees then enter into something of a symbiotic relationship; the trees receive nutrients and water in exchange for the sugars produced through photosynthesis. She also discovered, through analysis of root tip DNA and the paths of molecules through these subterranean networks that almost every tree in the forest, even trees of different species, were linked together through this symbiosis. The oldest trees in the forest seemed to be funneling resources to the younger ones. There were even indications that the trees were able to warn one another of dangers through the generation of chemical alarm signals. When trees are near their deaths, they are able to utilize the mycorrhizas to pass their resources on to other trees. These discoveries would suggest that forests are not collections of large, individual trees that are purely out for themselves, but rather that they exist in a massive, complex civilization of organisms that work together for mutual benefit (Jabr).
This research has profound implications for modern forestry practices. If denuding a forest of all plants and shrubs on the forest floor occurs, then newly planted trees may not survive due to the destruction of so much of the “society” and network that surrounded them. Some “parent” trees need to be left behind so that the networks can be re-established and new plantings have an opportunity to flourish (Jabr).
Our forests serve as the lungs and vital organs of the planet, and to mindlessly destroy them can only lead to disaster. Imagine if we could someday learn to “communicate” with the trees, understanding their needs and how to best co-exist with the arboreal societies still left to us. It is tempting to drift off into a world of science fiction-like speculation here, with humans learning to genuinely commune with the trees and exchange information. We can also wander into the tangled undergrowth of philosophical questions this research suggests—are trees sentient beings? Are trees deserving of legal protections such as animals receive?
Such explorations would warrant articles of their own, but having established the tree as something deserving of reverence, we can turn to practical steps for preserving and living in balance with them. Some ideas along these lines, adapted from the article “31+ Fabulous Ways to Protect Trees and Conserve Forests,” include working to print less and conserve paper; sign up for digital billing services; buy only products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); use paper made from bamboo; switch over to reading digital books, or make more extensive use of your local library; use ecards and reuse gift bags—and once one or more of these steps have been taken, you might choose to engage in activities that will conserve our forests. These might include supporting regulations to prevent de-forestation, and advocating that tree cutting should be closely planned and regulated. You might advocate to protect existing forests and encourage the full utilization of our forests and forest products. Just helping to raise awareness of the dangers facing our forests is a positive step (Conserve-energy-future.com).
I would like to close by quoting some of the lyrics of a beautiful song by Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt which came to mind during the composition of this article. The song is entitled “Bonny Portmore” from her album The Visit:
O bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree
For it stood on your shore for many’s the long day,
Till the longboats from Antrim came to float it away…
All the birds in the forest, they bitterly weep,
Saying “Where will we shelter” or “Where shall we sleep?”
For the Oak and the Ash they are all cutten down
And the walls of Bonny Portmore are all down to the ground.
The great trees of the world deserve better. Go for a walk now, and find a tree near your home. Contemplate it, admire it, thank it for its labors—but most of all, revere it.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough. Ebook; en.wikisource.org/wiki/The- Golden-Bough/The_Worship_of_Trees
Jabr, Ferris. “The Social Life of Forests.” 2 December, 2020. nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication- mychorrhiza.html Accessed 27 December, 2020.
Kilmer, Joyce. “Trees.” The Poetry Foundation. poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/12744/trees Accessed 27 December, 2020
McKennitt, Loreena. “Bonny Portmore.” The Visit. Quinlan Road, Ltd, 1991. loreenamckennitt.com
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, London, Penguin Books, 1969.
Taylor, Joules. The Book of Celtic Symbols: Symbols, Stories and Blessings for Everyday Living. New York, CICO Books, 2007.
“31+ Fabulous Ways to Protect Trees and Conserve Forests.” Conserve Energy Future. https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/fabulous-ways-to- protect-trees-and-conserve-forests.php. Accessed 27 December, 2020.
Woodruff, Paul. Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001.