Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. — Warren Buffet
Some trees are among the oldest and longest living beings on Earth. As such, they represent safety and a sense of eternity and draw us to them, although we are seldom aware of it.
We commune with trees almost unconsciously by bringing them into our lives. We plant them in our gardens and yards and along our city streets for the shade they give in summer’s heat. We plant them for their beauty of flower in spring and their color of leaf in autumn. We select them by their shape of leaf and pattern of branch, by their straightness of trunk and texture of bark. The trees we plant are chosen for the contextual dimension their presence adds to our lives as they grace our soulscapes, gardenscapes, cityscapes, and landscapes.
Their presence, particularly that of deciduous trees, demonstrates for us the seasons of the year even as they remind and instruct us about the inner seasons of our lives. Some trees support within their mighty branches the playhouses of the young, while others become the coffins within which rest those departed. Some trees are planted as memorials to deceased loved ones, where their longevity may somehow counterbalance our brevity. And some trees become the houses in which we live and the paper upon which we write. “A stricken tree,” wrote author Edna Ferber, “is, next to man, perhaps the most touching of wounded objects.”
In areas where wind blows incessantly, such tall, slender trees as the Lombardi poplar are planted in tight rows as windbreaks to protect homes and crops, which may be other trees bearing fruits and nuts for human consumption. Windbreaks are also used to protect topsoil from being blown away. When these trees die, they may be felled for firewood to keep home and hearth cozy against plummeting temperatures ushered in by winter’s winds.
And as if that were not enough, we name towns and cities in honor of trees, such as Buttonwillow and Cottonwood, California; Oakville and Pine, Oregon; Cedar City and Elmwood, Utah; and Aspen and Alder, Colorado.
In light of all this, you might well ask what a tree is. If you were to ask me that question directly, I could not answer it. I don’t know what a tree is; I only know what a tree is not—it’s not a horse, it’s not a mountain, it’s not lightening; yet it has something in common with all three. A tree, like a horse, is a living being. Like a mountain, a tree is a historian, recording Earth’s history in its annual growth rings as a mountain archives cosmic events in its geological strata. And like the electrical soul of lightning, a tree’s impulse to live is transmitted throughout its being by electrical current.
But a tree is much more than this, for a tree travels the world in time, its roots growing out of the same soil in which lies the seed of our human heritage. If I followed my ancestral lineage back some 5,000 years, the life span of one bristlecone pine that was cut down at Great Basin National Park in the state of Nevada, I would be looking at the history of 100 generations if the average life span of my ancestors was fifty years or 71 generations if the average life span was seventy years.
These generations are a bridge across time within the lineage or ancestral tree of a single human family. As such, the shape of a deciduous tree in winter without leaf is a cosmopolitan motif. Consider, for example, the branching behavior of a tree, be it maple, oak, chestnut, elm, or beech.
As a tree moves from Heaven to Earth collecting into branches, consolidating into trunk, and outflowing into roots, it forms a great repetitive dendritic pattern seen everywhere in the waterways of the world. Dendritic comes from the Greek dendron, “tree.”
This dendritic pattern appears across the surface of the Earth’s landscapes as the arterial system guiding rain and melting snow from mountain and plain to valley and sea. As raindrop and snowflake become trickle, stream, and river, gathering into main stems (trunks) like the dendritic pattern, the Amazon, and the Nile, they come together in their flowing only to dissipate again over the great deltas where river and sea meet.
Here the waters spread out over the submerged land of the continental shelf and maintain the integrity of their past flowing when the glaciers of ancient times hoarded unto themselves the water and lowered the level of the sea. Today, with the death of the Pleistocene glaciers, these rivers flow in secret, sandwiched between the pulsating sea and the continental shelf, building their deltas, expanding their ever-changing network of channels as each discharges the fresh water of its being into the salty body of the sea.
What is hidden by the great body of salt water, however, can be seen in miniature on its sandy shore as the receding tide leaves it musings in the shape of little trees with their collecting branches, uniting trunks, and outflowing roots. This dendritic pattern, which unites land and sea, is sculpted by water under the tutelage of gravity. But not so the tree itself, where its trunk defies gravity’s tug and sends skyward its branches to bare leaf, flower, and fruit. The leaves in turn send the sun’s energy downward through branch and trunk to feed the hungry roots.
As a cosmopolitan motif, trees represent the spiritual ground out of which the human struggle for consciousness evolves; witness the battle over old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest or in the tropical rain forest. As the oldest living individual beings on Earth, trees also represent the continuity of life in time and space.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser, 2006. All rights reserved.