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Trees: their mystery, magic & myths.

I started my lifetime education with trees at the age of 8. Formally that process began at the age of 20, and has continued with each day of my life to the present. The more I learn about trees, the more mysterious they become to me. I liked what David Suzuki said about trees in his book, Tree: A Life Story (1):

All trees attest to the wonder of evolution, the ability to adapt to unexpected challenges and to perpetuate itself over vast periods of time (p. 1).

The mystery of trees is not lost on young children. As the "tree man" I have often visited schools to talk to children about trees. The class outing to a local park is as much fun for me as it is for the youngsters. Kids in Kindergarten to Grade 2 have no problem with hugging trees. Trees and kids are like magnets to each other. I will ask them to close their eyes and tell me what they feel as they are hugging the tree. At that age they tell me they feel "happy," or "safe," or "wonderful." By Grade 5 the kids start to feel "rough bark," or "loose bark," or "ridges in the bark." If I were to ask a Grade 7 student to hug a tree, they refuse because that would not be "cool." Some might say they feel "silly." Society seems to "knock some sense" into young people as they develop into adolescence. The magic of being with a tree has gone. We grow up. This change of attitude towards trees is reflected in Shel Siverstein's memorable children's book, The Giving Tree (2). The patient tree was always there to help a boy deal with his needs at different times of his life. As an adult the boy could only see the utilitarian value of the tree. The tree, however, was always happy to help even when it was cut down.

It may surprize some people to learn that scientists do not have a complete understanding of how a tree grows. There are several theories, but none explain the complete process. Here is a good mystery. Plant scientists and horticulturalists have formally studied trees in the Western World since the 14th Century. Over six centuries later, no one can tell you how a giant redwood grows over 100 metres high in the course of 3,000 years. No other life form on earth is as mysterious as a tree in giving up its secrets. Each annual ring in that tree represents one year of the tree's memory. The Irish poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue in Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (3) makes reference to the tree's "memory rings." He further states that: "The most powerful image of memory is the tree" (p. 171).

How often have we heard, "It must be spring because there is magic in the air"? In the north temperate part of the earth, we become blase about the renewal of green vegetation each year. Not so if you are a young person exploring your world and you suddenly discover for the first time what spring is all about. There is surely magic and mystery there. J.R.R. Tolkien expressed this beautifully in his small book, Tree and Leaf specifically in his essay entitled "On Fairy-stories" (4):

Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: Like events, never from world's beginning to world's end the same event. Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men (p. 51).

Tolkien's view of nature is charged with fantastic visions and illusions that are embodied in fairy tales such as enchanted forests, walking and talking trees, and ancient trees that are portals to other incredible realms. His essay is very complex, but one phrase he puts very simply is, "We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue, yellow and red." Spring should be a startling recovery period to challenge both our senses and our tendency to be sensical. He makes a wonderful argument to be and to stay childish in our visions of the natural world.

Tolkien also refers to the trees: oak, ash and thorn. These three species are prominent sacred trees of the Celts. Specifically these tree species are referred as the "faery triad." Deanna Conway's book By Oak, Ash and Thorn (5) gives an excellent account of the role of trees in Celtic shamanism. When all three tree species were represented in a grove, the Celts believed that this is where their faeries (fairies) lived. The oak is the holiest and most sacred of the Celtic trees.

Branch wood from the thorn or hawthorn was used to make the most powerful of shamanic wands. The Celtic culture has given more reverence to trees than any other recorded culture. Even the months of their traditional calendar were named after trees and prominent woody shrubs.

The Celts believed that earth was the middle region of three realms. The other two were called the upperworld and the underworld. Access to these other worlds was restricted to shamans who entered via "visualized tunnels or portals" in the "World Tree." The ash tree symbolizes the World Tree in both in Celtic and Scandinavian cultural traditions.

The mythology of world cultures and religions is almost universally connected in many ways with trees. There are many hundreds of interesting stories in these accounts. An anthology of these mythical accounts can be discovered in Moyra Caldecott's Myths of the Sacred Tree (6). One of the most famous accounts relates to the Bodhi tree (likely a banyan) under which Siddhartha Gautama experienced enlightenment and became an "Awakened One" or Buddha. When Adam and Eve tasted the fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, they fell out of divine grace and experienced expulsion from the garden by God. It has come to be believed that Isaac Newton discovered the basic physical laws of motion while sitting under an apple tree when an apple hit him on the head.

There are many entertaining stories of mythological trees from cultures all over the world in Caldecott's book. Another fascinating book is Nathaniel Altman's Sacred Trees (7). This book explores the spiritual aspects of many common tree species around the world. Almost every world culture has developed legends, myths and religious rites centered on trees. In many of those accounts there is an enormous "World Tree" that seems to take on the status of the pillar of their civilization. Enormous trees especially were thought to be ageless.

No other natural object has been so revered as the tree which universally inspired mystery and a sense of wonder in peoples' beliefs about the natural world.


(1) David Suzuki & Wayne Grady, Tree: A Life Story, 2004, Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC.

(2) Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, 1964, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, NY.

(3) John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, 1997, Cliff Street Books (paperback ed.), New York, NY.

(4) J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf 1964, Unwin Books, London, UK.

(5) Deanna Conway, By Oak, Ash, and Thorn, 2002, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN.

(6) Moyra Caldecott, Myths of the Sacred Tree, 1993, Destiny Books, Rochester, VT.

(7) Nathaniel Altman, Sacred Trees, 2000, Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., New York, NY.

Michael Allen, of Viburnum Tree Experts, in Winnipeg, MB is a frequent contributor to The Prairie Garden. See for more information.
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Author:Allen, Michael
Publication:Prairie Garden
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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