Andrew Ormerod’s personal view of the subject as little ‘snap shot’s’ exploring the importance of trees.
Part 3/3 Sacred trees.
The number of significant trees In the Garden of Eden depends on religious interpretation. In the Judeo/Christian interpretation there were two significant symbolic trees ‘The tree of life’ and ‘The tree of knowledge of good and ill’ in the Quran there is only one the tree of immortality forbidden to Adam and Eve.
The tree of life represents symbolically links qualities of trees with human attributions for growth and promulgation; the diverse fruit representing diversity of the human family tree. There are moral references among others to respect resources that nature provides use them wisely without wasting or destroying them. Suggestions for a supernatural version of an Olive Tree have been suggested for the tree of life as the olive tree represents life. One of the most striking portrayals of the link between humanity and the Tree of Life I have seen in sculpture is by Gustav Vigland reflecting the close link between humans from cradle to grave intermingled with the unchanging symbol of the Trees of Life.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Ill has been represented botanically over time by a range of fruit, which range in geographical origins. In the Western Christian traditionally represented as domesticated apple trees possibly because of a Latin pun mālum means apple; malum means evil or may be just as artistic license. Some suggested crab apples or even quince trees are better candidates. The fig trees has been suggested and played an important role in providing leaves for modesty – possibly the world’s first under wear and clothing collection! Although not definitive, many of the classic Jewish commentators believe that the Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree. Other alternative candidates have also included grapes, pomegranates or even bananas favoured by Hinduism and suggested by Linnaeus. (Bananas are referred to as a fig in some cultures).
Sacred groves and trees with religious connections.
Sacred Groves are woods of religious and mythological significance for particular cultures planted throughout the world. Olive, fig, oak and plane trees and date palms have been planted in sacred groves in Eurasia. They were often associated with druidic practices. Churches were commonly built on the sites of sacred groves in the Scandinavian and Baltic regions.
There are at least 500 churchyards in England, which contain yew trees older than the church buildings. They were possibly planted to protect and purify the graves of dead plague victims or away from fields as their toxic leaves are inaccessible to cattle. May be they were deliberately planted to protect graves from cattle and to provide springy boughs for bow making. Their wood also was traditionally valued for lute making. Evergreens were consider sacred, as they are always green – and were treated as living representatives of the Tree of Life. Yew trees as examples of this release a toxic gas Taxine on hot days that can cause hallucination – which possibly may have been interpreted in the past as visions.
The Glastonbury thorn unusually flowers twice a year, once in the winter and again in the spring. The original ‘Holy Thorn’ associated with legends about Joseph of Arimathea and the arrival of Christianity in Britain has had to be replaced several times because of destruction and vandalism.
Trees as natural places of worship
Occasional natural plant habitats naturally mimic or provide inspiration for religious buildings, such was the case with natural stands of plain trees intertwined with vines in river valleys observed in Turkey by archaeobotanist Gordon Hillman in the 1970’s. Trees have also been planted to create natural living places of worship – such as the tree cathedrals created in England, Italy and the USA. Some are in response to conflict and are ecumenical in nature. Hazel, apple, cherry, beech, fir, hornbeam, chestnut and lime are among the temperate tree species used to form living arches.
Don’t take them for granted
There is a danger that if treescapes are taken for granted they start to decline – ancient trees though they have been around for generations will eventually die. Poor inconsiderate management and a lack of understanding of risks from ancient trees can lead to wrong decisions being taken and trees either dying or being cut down unnecessarily. Some years ago when hollow trees were cut down due to a perceived risk that they were a greater risk of falling over in strong winds – this was often not the case many were able to stay up as their trunks are hollow and flexible based on the scaffolding principle. Taking trees for granted means not using them in a sustainable way – which provides value and ecological benefits. So old pollarded (where branches are harvested) and coppiced trees (harvested at ground level) develop thick regrowth as the practice and knowledge about their sustainably management dies out. Finally if old treescapes are taken for granted there is a danger of lost opportunities for replanting the next generations of young trees to produced populations of mixed ages to go through their lifecycle into old age. This is made apparent when violent gales blow through leaving swathes of destruction of old trees – with little else to follow. It is so much easier to create continuity by planting a few every year to ensure a continuing cycle that forms the extraordinary miracle of trees,
Expanded from a talk at South Hampstead Synagogue to co-inside with the Jewish festival Tu Bishvat – the New Year for trees (or the Birthday of trees) associated of renewal, rejuvenation and new planting of trees. Thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Levin for the invite to speak at the event.
Andrew Ormerod copyright @ 2017