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  Issue Date: 4 / 2017  

Treasured Trees

Iris Brooks

PHOTOS & MONTAGE © JON H. DAVIS & IRIS BROOKS Click image to enlarge.

       "What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?"
       -Pablo Neruda, Chilean Poet
        When visiting a new place, trees are often relegated to the background. But these universal, silent guardians, with branches stretching towards the sky, nourish us. From magical trees in mythology to ancient, living icons, trees are worshipped as totems symbolizing wisdom, strength, longevity, and fertility. In my travels I have encountered trees making a lasting impression from an island in Japan practicing nature worship, where a pine tree expands horizontally to a 600-year-old oak tree in New Jersey, dying from the effects of climate change, and sturdy tall coastal redwoods, where my neck cranes to see the tops of these lofty sentinels. During springtime I have admired delicate pink cherry blossoms in the States, ancient olive groves in Italy, cherished cork trees in Portugal, and white almond flowering trees in Spain, where they are linked to a tale of a princess nostalgic for snow. As Earth Day approaches, let us celebrate trees of all varieties.
        Trees contribute to creating healthier air by producing oxygen and reducing the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. But they also are a resource for other plant-related drugs: aspirin (from willow bark), chemotherapy drugs (from yew trees), and an endangered Cambodian tree used in illegal drug trade to produce ecstasy. The bodhi tree is said to relieve intestinal disorders with its leaves, cure asthma with its fruit, and its roots may aid with ulcers. The therapeutic properties of trees, called upon through the ages, continue to be a source of healing for body, mind, and spirit.
       "Should a tree write its autobiography it would not be unlike the history of a race." -Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese-American Poet
        The tree is an important, cross-cultural symbol of fertility, immortality, and strength embodying seeds of fruit for regeneration and roots, which some believe reach down to the underworld while the branches stretch towards heaven and foliage grows anew. With both feminine and masculine attributes, the universal Tree of Life–often representing unseen forces–is an emblem uniting different parts of our world.
        Artists around the globe have interpreted this mystical concept with evocative art such as the bold and imaginative painting, "Tree of Life" by Gustav Klimt, an Austrian known for his decorative and allegorical paintings. Klimt captured a tangle of swirling gold branches of this iconic symbol in 1909. In the 21st century, New Yorker Jennie Chien, a mixed-media artist inspired by archetypes and rituals, created a powerful wire sculpture titled, "Free Blessings from the Tree of Life," with quotes and prayers (on slips of paper attached with red thread) dangling and dancing from its branches. I view a similarly themed piece on exhibit in Norway at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, were the "Wish Tree" by Yoko Ono invites viewers to notate a desire, folding the paper and tying it around the branches of a live tree. Alberto Carneiro is a contemporary artist from Portugal blending art and nature, often incorporating roots, vines and tree trunks of olive and orange trees into museum installations such as one I view at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, where some of the trees are intertwined with mirrors and text to create new perspectives.
        Throughout Indonesia, the leaf-shaped shadow puppet, known as the "Tree of Life" marks the beginning and end of performances, acting as a cosmic curtain. This form of entertainment also communicates important mythological stories told and retold to the delight of many generations. The artful creations of these Trees of Life are usually carved from buffalo hide.
        The Tree of Life, representing the concept of the universe, is common to much world folklore from Micronesian myths (with both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death) and tales of talking trees by the Yaqui of the Southwest to Persian creation stories in which the tree was guarded by an invisible dragon, and legends of the Yoruba in West Africa, where a palm tree was considered the first vegetation on Earth.
        The World Tree for the Maya represented the source of all creation. And deep in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, it is the kapok tree, with dramatic, giant exposed roots, where I learn about the beliefs of the Achuar people. For them, the kapok tree holds the Great Spirit and it is a sacred place for ceremony and song.
        Norse mythology tells of a Tree of Life, or pole, running as an axis through the universe, linking our world with supernatural beings and spiritual realms. This holy, ash tree or Yggdrasill, connects all living things. In some legends, an evil serpent gnaws at the roots of this significant tree.
        "Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it." -African Proverb
        The mystical qualities of the large baobab tree (also referred to as the "upside-down tree) are celebrated throughout Africa. The bushmen believe its flowers are the spirits and if someone plucks these blossoms, they will be torn apart by lions. Other superstitions surrounding this tree say if you ingest the water in which baobab seeds have soaked; you will be safe from crocodile attack. On a practical level, some of these giants provide structures as shops, prisons, bars and bus shelters and its fruit–containing more vitamin C than an orange–can also be made into a smoothie.
        Sometimes a tree is considered the embodiment of the gods. In India, the sacred fig tree is part of Hindu prayers and ceremonies. And Buddhist monks are prohibited from cutting down a tree, since it may be home to a deity. For Buddhists, the bodhi tree has magical powers such as the ability to cause rain, granting children to barren women, and predicting the future by withering branches or oozing secretions to indicate impending danger. Today, bodhi trees are often planted in monasteries.
        According to Hindu mythology of India, the venerated banyan tree representing immortality and wisdom provides the fulfillment of wishes (as well as shellac and dye). Longevity is linked to its long roots and associated with Brahma, the divine creator, while Shiva is connected with the branches, and Vishnu is believed to be the bark of this tree. The banyan tree has been part on many songs by poets and mystics in India. In the Vedic Bhagavad-Gita, it is written: "The banyan tree with its roots above, and its branches below, is imperishable."
        India has a variety of other sacred trees including the coconut, used in religious ceremonies, the mango tree as a symbol of love and on auspicious days, its leaves are hung as garlands over doors. Sandalwood is the source of fragrant pastes applied to the body and aromatic incense used by both Hindu and Buddhist practitioners for ceremonies and meditations.
        There is a tradition in Japan of sliding down a hill on an enormous fir tree trunk, when the corners of local shrines are replaced (coinciding with the Chinese zodiac year of the monkey or tiger). This festival, called Onbashira, involves moving the logs as well as riding them.
        On the Indonesian Island of Tana Toraja, dead children, who pass away before they start teething, are placed inside a hole of a tree, allowing the tree to grow around the baby and absorb it.
        Western cultures also have tree superstitions. Tapping on a tree represents good luck (hence the expression and practice of "knock on wood"), which is thought to summon protective spirits of the trees. The Princes of Brittany have offered prayers under the yew tree, believing it to have come from the staff of St. Martin.
        For the indigenous people of America, trees are respected and revered. They were considered an important source of herbal medicine and food as well as material to create baskets, furniture, and houses. There are numerous Native American tales about tree spirits including creation myths of the Iroquois, the first pine tree of the Micmac, the sacred oak of the Lenape, and the cedar tree of the Cherokee, who call trees "Standing People."
        Native Americans also create totem poles, talking sticks, drums, and canoes, believing the great spirit of the revered tree remains. Often the craftsperson asks permission of the tree spirit before creating a talking or prayer stick. The wood is chosen for its strength and personal qualities: ash symbolizes sacrifice and sensitivity, birch represents new beginnings, and maple offers balance and generosity, while the willow is connected with wisdom. The White Pine was called the "Tree of Peace," since it was used to establish an Iroquois Confederacy of five tribes.
       "Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. We fell them down and turn them into paper that we may record our emptiness."
       -Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese-American Poet
        No other organism lives as long as a tree. Among the most ancient known trees in the world are a Norway spruce in Sweden, "Methuselah," a bristlecone pine in California, a llangernyw yew from Wales, the Sarv-e Abar, a cypress in Iran, and "General Sherman," a sequoia from northern California. Other old trees are "The Senator," a bald cypress in Florida, Te Matua Ngahere, a kauri in New Zealand, Jomon Sugi in Japan, and pando quaking aspens from Utah, where an entire, 80,000 year-old forest comes from a single tree with a massive underground root system.
        And while it is not on many lists of the world's oldest trees, the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka was planted at a temple to represent happiness over twenty-two hundred years ago. This holy fig tree variety, native to India and Southeast Asia is also called the bo or bodhi tree, since it is believed to be a cutting from the original Bodhi tree in India. Buddha attained enlightenment underneath this "Tree of Awakening." Today, thousands of devotees make offerings to this ancient tree and Sri Lankan leaders worship it, especially before major political campaigns.
        On the Portuguese island of Madeira I visit the world's largest laurisilva forest. This living relic dating back 20 million years–designated with the UNESCO World Heritage Site status–sustains a rich biodiversity with endemic flora and fauna of the island. Located in the Madeira National Park, this indigenous, subtropical forest includes massive, old trees (over 800-years old), which were growing before the island was settled (when Zarco the sea captain visited in 1419). It is a forest type now extinct in most of the world. And I am honored to be an Ambassador of the Laurisilva Forest.
        When I travel to La Gomera, in the Spanish Canary Island archipelago, I am in pursuit of the endangered whistle language, but discover it is also home to another laurisilva forest. In Garajonay, many of the trees grow at an angle because of prevailing winds and this area is among the best examples of the woods in southern Europe before the last Ice Age.
        Surprisingly, trees–which have individual fingerprints, or more accurately DNA to identify them–don't die of old age. Insects, disease, or humans kill trees. But some trees–like willows–have the capacity to "talk" to, or alert others when attacked by webworms or caterpillars. As a protective mechanism, when aware of an imminent danger, trees pump extra tannins to their leaves to make them more difficult for insects to digest.
        Sometimes old trees, such as the cypress, were harvested along the coastal plains in the South of the United States during the 1600s and 1700s. As they were transported to mills, some of these old-growth trees sank into rivers (changing their color). Today these Colonial-era cypresses are being retrieved and repurposed in many woodworking projects such as chairs, clocks, cradles, and cabinets.
       "Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world."
       -John Muir, Scottish-American Naturalist
        In Basking Ridge, New Jersey, I visit a massive 600-year-old white oak tree dominating an old cemetery alongside graves dating from the 1700s (not like the green cemetery in Pennsylvania, where no caskets are buried and people hike and picnic in this national forest). The adjacent Presbyterian Church (on the site of an old log meeting house from 1717) celebrates its 300th year in June 2017. Local lore about this impressive tree maintains it was a resting spot for General George Washington, who picnicked there during the Revolutionary War. And some say Betsy Ross was buried beneath the tree.
        The impending death of this historic, "Great White Oak," an icon, which some speak of as "The Holy Tree," was due to extreme summer heat followed by heavy rain storms. In the past it survived six hurricanes, but now the end has come. There was a memorial service for the tree (which is incorporated into the town logo) and when it will be cut done, various items will be made from the wood, including musical instruments. Members of the congregation, who planted acorns from the mighty tree a decade ago, have offered to donate the resultant trees (5 - 10 feet tall) to stand in place of their ancestor, purportedly the oldest white oak tree in the Western Hemisphere.
        While it is doubtful this tree will survive, sometimes there are tree miracles. After the tsunami of 2011 destroyed the town of Rikuzentakata in Japan, which was home to 70,000 pine trees, only a single, 250-year old survived the wave. As resulting salt water threatened to kill its roots, synthetic ones were created to keep the tree alive, symbolizing hope for a distraught community.
        This is not the only special pine tree in Japan. On the pristine, southern island of Kumejima, I am awe-struck by a majestic, sprawling pine. This extraordinary 250-year-old tree stretches horizontally, rather than reaching for the sky. At its base is a stone shrine dedicated to the God/Goddess of Agriculture. On this island of nature/ancestor worship, the forests, mountains and sea are the important spirits. It is here I discover a magnificent tree in a place where piles of stones represent prayers. Yet it is a land with a no-name religion, no-name gods, and no-gender gods/goddesses amidst an inviting, relaxed society. I remember this pine, as a treasured tree.
       "The custom of tree planting should be favored in every way."
       -Theodore Roosevelt, April 1900

PHOTOS & MONTAGE © JON H. DAVIS & IRIS BROOKS Click image to enlarge.

        Earth Day–founded in 1970 by U.S. Senator from Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson, was the birth of the modern environmental movement–is now celebrated worldwide by more than a billion people on April 22. This annual homage to the Earth highlights support for environmental protection and green awareness. It has grown into the largest secular, civic event in the world. In 2016, Earth Day focused on "Trees for the Earth," with the goal of planting 7.8 billion trees (representing one tree for every person on the planet) by Earth Day 2020, the 50th anniversary of the holiday. The reasons for this effort include fighting climate change and pollution, protecting biodiversity, creating cleaner air, and inspiring millions of people to join in environmental citizenship and stewardship. In 2009, April 22 was also declared International Mother Earth Day by the United Nations, with an aim of protecting the Earth for future generations.
        Earth Day is not the only holiday in April aimed at celebrating the environment. Arbor Day, originally set aside as a day to plant trees on April 10 in 1872, was established by J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraskan journalist and editor, who advocated tree planting in his articles and eventually became the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. "Each generation takes the earth as trustees. We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed."
        Arbor Day was officially declared in 1874 and later became a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885, when Arbor Day was changed to coincide with Morton's birthday on April 22. National Arbor Day is celebrated today on the last Friday in April by all 50 American states. In 2017, it falls on April 28. Similar tree planting holidays have blossomed around the world with different names: Tree-Loving Week in Korea, Student Afforestation Day in Iceland, New Year's Day of the Trees in Israel, and National Festival of Tree Planting in India. In China, citizens are asked to plant three trees every year.
       "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
       The second best time is now."

        President Teddy Roosevelt, a founder of the modern environmental movement, was a great conservationist who loved trees and believed in the importance of forestry. During the years of his presidency in the early 1900s, reforestation and ecological preservation was a priority. Due to his work, 200 million acres of wilderness remain in the United States today.
        America has a national tree, the oak! In Hawaii some trees are standouts for their decorative appeal, such as the eucalyptus trees with naturally colored, rainbow bark. Some states are associated with particular trees: Vermont sugar maples, California coastal redwoods and giant sequoias, magnolias in Mississippi, the New Hampshire paper birch (a fast-growing tree used for building canoes), eastern white pine in Maine (ideal for tall ship masts), and Sitka spruce in Alaska (sometimes used in early airplane construction). The Connecticut Charter Oak is not only its state tree, but also an important reminder of history. In 1687 this white oak hid the liberty-granting charter document, which was in danger of being revoked by the British. But many Americans forget a tree had a key role in our independence from England.
        When is the last time you planted a tree?
        During the month of April, we can celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day by planting a tree. It is a simple way to help the environment, contribute to the Earth Day goal of having 7.8 billion new trees planted by 2020, and inspire awe.
       "The cultivation of flowers and trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in man, and for one, I wish to see this culture become universal."
       -J. Sterling Morton, Founder of Arbor Day

Iris Brooks writes about a myriad of topics inspired by her travels around the world. When working as cultural documentarians on the island of Madeira, author Iris Brooks and photographer Jon H. Davis were officially proclaimed as Ambassadors of the Laurisilva Forest. Learn more about Iris Brooks and Jon H. Davis at the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website.
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