Trees are essential to our outer and inner lives. They create the oxygen we breathe; we burn their bodies as fuel; and they provide our houses, furniture and the very pages of our books. Trees are also central images, symbols and manifestations of life itself. We love their solidity, their immovable beauty and grandeur, as well as the shelter they provide us.
Early humanity recognized the sacred in natural places: initially in the sky and earth, but they also found representations of the divine in trees in ancient times before language, myth and religion. Legends of a “World Tree” abound in almost all early cultures, such as the Tree of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life of the Hebrew mystical Kabbalah, the sacred oak groves of the Druids and the apple trees sacred to Venus in the Garden of the Hesperides. The Yggdrasil world ash tree in Norse myth rises up from the centre of the earth, its branches forming the heavens of the gods and its roots striking down into hell where a serpent is entwined at the world’s dark core. This tree represents the fate of the world and determines the welfare of the universe. Beneath it is the Well of Fate where the three female “fates” spin the courses of men’s lives.
Robert Graves wrote about the Celtic peoples who created a tree alphabet based on their twelve sacred trees, while yews and oak groves were places of worship for the Druids and later the church.
For the Greeks, the goddess Daphne turned into the laurel, which was sacred to Apollo. Sacred groves of ash and oak trees existed at sites like the holy place to the healing god Aesculapius at Epidaurus and to Athena on the Acropolis in her city of Athens.
Branches arch out into the sky and gigantic roots dig deeply into the ground, as trees symbolize the integration of heaven and earth, above and below. Early Chaldean myths mention a tree at the centre of the world, the tapestry of which revolves to describe creation. Although such images of the world tree might seem fanciful to us, they express the need of early humanity to identify and worship living symbolic connections between earth and heaven.
The tree is a powerful metaphor expressed in ancient mythologies and the early religions, from the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved Nirvana to the wooden cross upon which Christ was crucified. The Tibetan Buddhist Guru Rinpoche, also called Padmasambhava, was born emerging on a lotus from a lake and his initiates meditate on the refuge tree to remind themselves of their teaching lineage.
Phenomena of nature and qualities of humanity come together in trees just as they played a central role in Eden. Rain comes through holes in the fabric of the world tree and majestic trees are ways by which we can ascend to heaven. The various levels of the tree’s growth symbolize hierarchies and therefore places where men and their souls exist, in what later morphed into the idea of a family tree. It is as though the universe is a giant tree-house wherein humanity, the angels, the gods and devils all live, their domains determined by their various levels, all connected as a vast, eternal living organism. There are medieval paintings that show just this quality inherent in trees.
The psychologist Carl Jung worked with and revered tree symbolism because he found trees abounded in significant dreams as a symbol of growth, of wisdom, aging and corporeality. Trees have a major place in alchemy, often having nymphs that symbolize their magical aspects. The Ents In the “Lord of the Rings” are gigantic moving trees, under which live the trolls and elves that populate our fairy tales and children’s stories — their role is to surround and mysteriously guide those humans who can hear them.
Trees are the longest lived and oldest living being on earth. Some Californian trees have been alive since before the Pyramids were built, in Gethsemane are trees that witnessed the crucifixion and in Sri Lanka trees that were alive in the time of the Buddha. Ancient trees dating from 760 AD in central France are symbols of peace and justice for rural people. Cedars of the Lord still rise above Lebanon in the Middle East. Giant trees in the Amazon are so high that entire self-contained plant and animal eco-systems exist in their branches.
In our modern world we must learn to respect and husband our trees as a cornerstone of new, emerging ecological visions, partially because they consume greenhouse gasses and transform them into the oxygen we breathe. We must carefully restore their sacredness as a matter of urgency and reverse our wholesale rape of their habitat on all continents that continue to this day. Trees are central to our ecological visions of the future.
This book will celebrate the beauty of trees, their infinite variety, their inspiration, their emotional significance, their spiritual heritage and their sheer independence. It will marry evocative images with the poetry and literature and spiritual texts that best describe their ineffable spirit.
“There rose a tree. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O high tree of the ear.
And all was still. Yet in the stillness
new beginning, summoning, change
sprang forth.” — Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke
“What quietness, at the hub of things!
Beneath the tree of my life, the last river,
Surrounds an island where there rises
In the mists, a cube of grey rock,
A Fortress, the Capital of the Worlds.”
— Poem by Noël Pierre in Jung “Alchemical Studies.”
“I part the out-thrusting branches, and come in beneath the blessed and the blessing trees.”
— Woods by Wendell Berry
“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees, and flowers, and clouds and stars.” — Martin Luther
“Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers, but the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms.” — Twelfth Century Zen Master & Gardener Ikkyu Sojun
About the Author
A. T. Mann is an architect, author, and astrologer. He graduated from the Cornell University College of Architecture, practiced in New York City and Rome, and won a Progressive Architecture design citation in 1970. He has written or co-written 20 books (translated into many languages), including Sacred Landscapes (with Lynn Davis), Mandala Astrological Tarot, Sacred Architecture, Sacred Sexuality, and the 2011 Mandala Calendar. Mann has lived and lectured around the world, and has taught at the Danish Design School, the Netherlands Design Institute, and Manchester Metropolitan University. His website is atmann.net.