Collectively, trees are guardians, protecting all life on Earth, just as a single tree gives refreshing shadow under the summer sun. Because of this guardianship of all life and because of the guidance trees provide us with on our spiritual journey, everywhere in the world humans have respected, loved and revered trees. Evidence for this goes back 6,000 years and more, way back into the Stone Age. Humanity has had a deep, ‘religious’ relationship with trees long before ‘religions’ were invented. The wisdom of trees is as old as the dawn of human consciousness. When early humans first started to ask questions, about themselves and the cosmos, trees were among the first to answer. The spiritual and practical reverence of trees only fully stopped in the 20th century, following industrialisation and the exploitation-of-resources mentality.
Why are trees so special? How did our ancestors show their respect for them? And what can we do today?
Primeval forests – trees for life
Everywhere in nature we can observe the tendency for cooperation. Even in the subatomic world particles don’t stay separate and in ‘competition’ but ‘team up’ to form greater structures. Atoms in their turn couple to form molecules and, in the biological dimension, these are organised into living beings of a complexity incomprehensible to us. In the landscapecountless animal and plant species constitute biotopes, while in the macrocosm planets, stars and even galaxies group to make up vast systems with their own rhythms, as well as energy and information exchanges.
But the richest and most perfect example for cooperation and teamwork in nature is the natural mixed woodland. The tree cover creates balanced conditions in regard to light, temperature, moisture, soil, the level of the groundwater table and the electric charge of the air. Thus a habitat is provided for a wide variety of smaller plants, animals, birds, insects, spiders and microorganisms. In symbiosis, fungi help the trees to develop nutrients. The deciduous trees, whose deep roots can reach layers of the soil inaccessible to smaller plants, share these nutrients every autumn by shedding their leaves, which get decomposed in the top layers of the soil. Protected from direct light, hard rain and erosion, the soil of the mixed forest is the richest humus on Earth.
Of course, competition, too, is an element in nature, as, for example,when young tree seedlings race for the light in a gap of the forest canopy left by a fallen old tree. But certainly competition has not the primary importance in nature that Charles Darwin ascribed to it. Very quickly, the ‘survival of the fittest’ theory was used to justify the social conditions and imperialism of 19th-century society. But nature tries to avoid competition. In the animal world, for example, different species with overlapping habitats generally have a different diet while those species who eat the same or similar things generally live in different places.
With its multitude of thriving life forms, its teamwork and intelligent adaptability, the natural mixed woodland is the most essential expression of the character of planet Earth. And, where water or mountain altitudes allow for it, the forest has been the dominant biotope for hundreds of millions of years.
More than just lungs
Since the campaigns to save the tropical rainforest started woodlands have been called the green lungs of the Earth. But trees do much more than just produce oxygen and bind the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
For one thing, trees are exchange organs between the planet and outer space. The Scottish mathematician Laurence Edwards discovered in the 1980s that the winter buds of leaf trees are pulsating rhythmically, reflecting the movements of the planets of our solar system. In this way, the oak, for example, particularly responds to the movements and positions of planet Mars while beech responds primarily to Saturn, birch to Venus, and elm to Mercury.
Furthermore, the electrical currents of living trees have been examined in extensive measurements since 1948. The bio-electrical fields of trees react sensitively to the changes of light and darkness, to the moon phases, the seasons, the eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity, the changes in the electrical charge of the air, and even the changes of the Earth’s magnetic field. Every event, every change in nature is mirrored inside the trees. Since their electrical currents are so closely linked to their biochemical metabolism it is now possible to predict a tree disease before any outer symptoms are evident, just by measuring the electrical currents of the tree.
But trees receive information from even greater distances. In the mid-1970s Russian botanists discovered an 807-year-old juniper tree (Juniperus turkistanicus) in a very high altitude in the Serawashan mountains (Tajikistan). Its annual rings clearly mirrored the supernovae in our galaxy that we know about (1604, 1770, 1952). They slowed its growth down for up to 15 years. No star in our galaxy can die without trees perceiving and recording it.
Their vertical sap stream turns plants into electrical conductors. Trees in particular constantly discharge air-electrical voltage from the positively charged ionosphere to the negatively charged Earth’s crust, as can be seen in their role as lightning conductors. Every electrical conductor creates an electromagnetic field around itself while an electrical current flows through it. And, according to another simple law of physics, the electromagnetic fields of electrical conductors amplify each other when they are parallel to each other and have currents running through them in the same direction. This applies to trees as well. Worldwide, billions of trees are participating in maintaining the Earth’s magnetic field which is the only protection from the cosmic radiation that otherwise would be fatal to all life on Earth.
Sacred groves – gates to the spiritual world
On the subtler levels, each tree species resonates with different frequencies from its environment. In winter, the trees act as antennae, receiving the multitude of formative forces from the cosmos. Hence each species develops unique qualities which it emanates into its surroundings. Humans have sensed this from the very beginning, visited certain trees at certain times, and always used particular types of wood for particular tasks.
What science has rediscovered in our time has been known to our forebears for millenia: the forest is holy. ‘Holy’ because it is ‘whole’, complete, because it works for the balance and wellbeing of the whole, and because it gives strength to us humans on our paths towards spiritual wholeness.
With the ongoing severe deforestation of the continents we truly cut the branch that carries us: without forests everything dies, including our species. Our so-called ‘split from nature’ has really only happened within the mind.
Forests – temples of life
Forests are natural temples of life. To search for the divine in trees is the most natural thing humans can do. Sacred groves are the perfect place to bring joy and gratitude to the forces of nature, to complete the circle of receiving and giving.
Let us look at a few aspects of how people in different cultures have lived with trees.
In India, every local community had its sacred tree, an ancient custom that was not changed by the coming of Hinduism or Buddhism. The three Hindu principal deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are described as the three main branches of the World Tree. The Rig-Vedas see Brahma as the infinite World Tree and his essence is manifested in trees. When Prince Siddhartha (who became Buddha) chose an ancient Pippala tree (Ficus religiosa) for his final approach to enlightenment, he was following a time-honoured custom. The place had been a powerful tree sanctuary before that, and after, the Bodhi tree, the Tree of Enlightenment, became the symbol of Buddhism in general. During the first centuries of the new religion the Buddha was not depicted as a meditating human but as the transpersonal World Tree because he had overcome his human boundaries and become one with the world spirit. Many places in India still have a sacred tree.
In the ancient Japanese Shinto religion the earliest temples were sacred trees. Over time, altars were added to the trees, not vice versa.
This is also true for the tribes of pre-Christian Europe. The Celtic druids are famous today for their sacred groves. Apart from their role as priests, healers and shamans (using the right hemisphere of the brain) they were also educated scholars and orators (using the left hemisphere of the brain) and were admired even by the contemporary Greek philosophers and writers. The essence of Druidic lore generates from the ‘power of the word’, whether spoken or written, and this knowledge came from the grove: the Bardic tree alphabet. Similar to the Kabbala, the mystical lore of ancient Judaism, which connects every letter of the Hebrew alphabet with energy lines in the Tree of Life, and with numerical values and spiritual contents, the letters of the old Irish tree alphabet (Ogham) have tree names and correspond to different aspects of being. In the Celtic as well as Germanic languages the words for knowledge, learning and wisdom are closely related to those denoting tree and wood.
The term ‘druid’ means ‘one with tree knowledge’ while in the old Germanic languages the words for temple are identical with those for wood/grove. The guardians of the ancient Germanic groves were called parawari (from Old High German para = sacred grove, sacred tree) and harugari (from OHG haruc = temple, sacred wood or grove). The ancient languages identify the sacred grove as a higher being and a place for spiritual rebirth.
Also, further in the East, groves were the central sites for worship among the old Baltic and Slavic peoples. Right into the 19th century the Christian clergy had to work hard to locate and destroy these festive places hidden in the far-reaching woodlands. They never fully conquered the Baltic.
In ancient Greece, the principal place of worship was the sacred grove and not our modern cliché of white marble temple buildings. Even at the heart of the Acropolis stood the sacred olive tree of Athens. (Greece derived its wealth and economic supremacy from the olive trade and therefore had a lot to be grateful for.) Similarly, the ancient sea-faring nation of Phoenicia honoured the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) after which it was named. And Lebanon’s pride and wealth were the Cedar-of-Lebanon forests.
In Classical Greece the sacred groves were untouchable to such an extent that they could even provide asylum to people who were persecuted politically or by jurisdiction. A twig from one of the sacred trees, granted by the local priesthood or guardians, could ensure the indemnity of the persecuted person on the way to the border or the coast. The idea of a sanctuary providing asylum was later taken up by the Christian Church.
Since the Greek deities had developed out of celebrated nature spirits, particularly tree nymphs, it was only logical that they each had a sacred grove dedicated to them, consisting of their respective tree species: Apollo, for example, was worshipped in laurel groves, Aphrodite under the myrtle tree, Pan in the pine. Zeus was seen in the oak and his worship began in all probability in the oak grove of Dodona (a tree oracle in Greek Epirus which was run by resident priestesses). Its fame and significance was as outstanding as that of the oracle of Delphi (which in turn was a sanctuary of Apollo and the laurel). Dodona was an important place of pilgrimage for almost 2000 years (!). Governments, life styles, wars, religions, entire historical ages passed, while in the deep peace of groves like Dodona human talked to tree and tree talked to human.
The future of tree and human
In today’s time of transition and crisis, we have to do what we can to preserve something for those who come after us. The ruthless exploitation of all life has been going on for too long. But what can we do?
We can plant trees, of course, many trees, and support the preservation of existing woodlands and other biotopes in our local communities.
But true care for the planet begins with a change of our minds. Humankind is not the centre of the universe, to be served by everything. Instead we are co-creatures, fellow beings in a much grander, living system. The Earth does not belong to us but we belong to the planet.
And like every other species, we have a special task for the benefit of the whole. Our mental and technical abilities demand a special responsibility. To be human means to resist greed and collective self-destruction, and to acquire true dignity by acting from an attitude of deep care and respect for all life. Since the dawn of humankind trees have supported our material and spiritual ascent, and now it is high time for us to be willing again to give something back to these formidable creatures.
Then the ancient friendship between tree and human can flourish once again.