Thursday, June 30, 2011

This thing we have for trees.

Many years ago I heard a snippet from a Christian theologian (amongst other descriptors he wears) Matthew Fox about our relationship with trees.  In essence, he opined (excuse the pun) that we humans, as the first relatively erect primates, had a special affinity for trees above other members of the plant kingdom for they too were the first of their kind to 'stand up'.  Maybe there's something in this, but I think it's fairly undeniable that we humans do have a special love for trees.

Could it be their utility?  If it were utility that gave affinity then surely annual grains, the means by which we directly (and indirectly through animal feed and pasture) have managed to increase our numbers so dramatically these last few generations (and thatch and build our houses and so on), would be the object of our awe and love.  Not many odes are written to the humble wheat, rice or millet though.

As you probably know, I'm organising my nascent funeral and natural interrment right now, and there's that classical image to contend with in my mind - the planting of a tree to commemorate a loved one.  I have seen tales where people have been buried foetal-like, with a fruiting tree planted atop, and later excavation has revealed a human-skeleton-shaped network of roots as the hungry tree recycles the body's nutrients and carbon back into use, seamlessly, over time.  Who wouldn't love that?  But it requires a tree.  I have no control over what will happen on my gravesite, bar that I understand the area will be revegetated with endemic species over time as the sites are utilised.  And some of these plants will be trees.  I'm fine with the grasses too, but the trees........the word romantic springs to mind.

Perhaps you're English, and think of the venerable Yew tree, omniprescent in English graveyards since time immemorial.  Apparently it was to do with securing a supply of Yew branches for the revered English longbow that would not be desecrated by an invader; but never mind the practicalities.  And almost every culture that has trees (and few don't, Iceland being almost unique in this I think) has a Tree Of Life somewhere in its heritage.  The Norse tree Ygdrassil, the Kabbalah.....the list is endless.  Even the Icelanders remember the tree from their Scandinavian roots.  Wherever you go in the world that has even a few trees, there are sacred stories and myths.

Yet, they are only plants, a family among many.  Was Mr Fox on to something?

When we think of the environmental destruction we mindlessly wreak our thoughts quickly turn to the great forests and rainforests of the world, destroyed, logged, or just simply burned at the rate of however many football fields a minute, and we shake our heads sadly.  This is a thing we can comprehend.  We are in this information age always there to hear the sound of that tree falling in the forest.  Despite perhaps more pressing environmental issues, grassroots (pardon my pun again) campaigns to save forests garner probably wider community support than many.  Because of the trees, I guess.

So what of our immediate lives?  Increasingly we live in urban environs where trees are scarce.  So often the suburbs we build are clearfelled before building too, and then trees are often selected to be small, no-fuss, easy-maintenance.  And with climate change, wildfires are wilder than ever and suburban tree-phobia has begun to take hold in many parts.

The noble tree is having all our problems projected upon it, it seems.  We love them in numbers, but we fear them as well now.  Coexistence is problematic, just as it is with our fellow man.

I have lived in areas with tree preservation orders - where you need a permit to lop or remove a tree above a certain size, and they.......feel different from places that don't.  I would humbly submit that by sorting out our relationship with trees, we would go far with sorting out our relationship with our fellow man.

Lastly, this is a favourite getting-to-know-you game: What tree are you?  Let me know, I'll be very interested in your answer.



  1. I have a great love of vegetation too,as have my ancestors.A tradition in my family is to have ashes around the rose garden no plaque,and we are remembered.I am much more into the Australian Bush so when my time comes ,the same but without plaque in the Freo bush section which hopefully as trees and many shrubs.I guess the there was a romantic link with roses,I find the same romance in Aussie Native Shrubbery.We all have our own way to be respected-Doug

  2. I'm not deciduous because I'm not very good at dropping stuff. I would have to be some kind of big long-living Eucalypt. A red tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii) I guess, because the Tingle forest is my favourite place and a tree like that supports humungous biodiversity which is something I enjoy and encourage.

  3. Perhaps I am a Peppermint. I particularly love Peppermints (Agonis Flexuosa) and Willows. Anything willowy. When I moved to Harvey I took a tiny little Arbor Day Peppi with me, and planted it in my front garden. It grew well, and gave a lovely dappled effect to the pathway. Clare.

  4. i have a continuing draw to birch trees -- the way the leaves move, the white-black of the bark (which was used for writing). carry me back to the old country of my birth.