The Meme of Trees

The Tree of Knowledge

The tree is intimately rooted within human culture and consciousness with significant exposure in religion and myth – often serving as a link to the Earth and the subtle worlds beyond. From Egyptian hieroglyphs tying the character’s soul to the tree, Buddha’s realization under the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), old Semitic texts of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the Mesoamerican world tree – a symbolic axis mundi connecting the seen and unseen, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life – which still influences Western esotericism, Yggdrasil – the giant Norse tree on which the nine worlds exist and the sacred trees of the Arabs which provide council in one’s dreams.

Yggdrasil, the Norse connection to the 9 worlds

By its very form the tree suggests connection with above and below; a mass of tangling, dark roots changing via a conduit to an expanse of branches in the light of sky. It is no surprise that shamans have used this form in journeying; returning with stories of worlds unseen. There are also long associations with ideas of shelter, contemplation, warmth – from the burning of wood, food – from fruit and nuts, construction and support, sacrifice and punishment, and for the pure enjoyment for children’s play. While human knowledge has grown and ideas and cultures have been created, destroyed and mutated, the tree has ever been present and has appeared in our lives’ stories and memories.

The bodhi tree, where buddha sat all night before enlightenment

We should thus ask the question, what it means from a symbolic or mythological perspective, to destroy the tree, and to cut down far more than those that can take their place? Is it representative of a war within ourselves, or do we wish to sever the undying link between the above and the below, the conscious and perhaps that part of ourselves that is more intuitive and more connected with the unknown? And to plant and to connect with trees – is this a desire to achieve wholeness and integration? Myths and mentations are of the past, but they influence us now, and the course of action that we shall take. Let us remember the many human lives and their stories before us.

The Language of Trees

The Forest of Dean. Much more is going on between trees than we can see. (CORBIS)

As much as tree evolution and adaptability is affected by selective pressure from the environment, we must not forget that trees have evolved communication processes over hundreds of millions of years which are more forgiving than playing life’s deadly experiments alone. Each tree produces hormones, (with evidence of many being undiscovered) and these molecules act as signals and allow communication with their selves and fellows in the area. Common science talks about 5 major hormones: auxin, cytokinin, gibberellins, abscisic acid and ethylene. These hormones switch on or off chemical pathways and affect responses not only by the type of hormone, but also by their concentration. In this way the same hormone may induce two different responses. And some of these responses are very interesting.

The tent caterpillar

In 1979, David Rhoades, a zoologist at the University of Washington, was investigating the effect of tent caterpillar attacks on willow trees. He monitored two groups of trees in a field in Seattle, one with no caterpillars as a control, and the other infested. Two weeks later he plucked leaves from the infested tree and fed them to caterpillars in a laboratory and found that they grew slower than usual. What was interesting was that plucked leaves from the nearby control group of willows also inhibited caterpillar growth. The willows flood their leaves with unsavoury chemicals (normally phenolics) which discourage insect growth, however, this defence tactic had also been used by the control group, suggesting that communication must have happened via chemicals in the air from the infested tree. Since then similar results have been found with poplars and by using isolation chambers to have a third control which prevents diffusing molecules from being in contact with other trees, and with no resulting phenolic increase.

Air pollution of Mexico City. Not an easy environment for a tree.

Unfortunately trees in urban environments are exposed to many more chemicals and hormonal communication can be somewhat confusing. Thus root growth may be mismatched to foliage growth, or early blooming may occur from unnatural local ethylene concentration. This is the price trees pay living with us until we can sufficiently increase our air quality. And this is a price they pay while they absorb carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen, shade, and the natural beauty of their presence.

Getting and Spending, We Lay Waste our Powers

The vistas of Dubai

Humans have had different relationships with Nature in their short history. This is easily forgotten when peeking out of a high-rise window, safely enjoying the effects of vertigo and surveying the might and grandeur of our architecture, or standing upon a ridge overlooking tamed fields and penned cattle, with all wildness furrowed and calmed.

No convenience stores 12,000 years ago

Yet agriculture and technology do not necessarily mean disconnection. If we look back 12,000 years ago at early Neolithic farmers in Syria, an organized approach to food production allowed stability and the formation of community. The direct link of food availability and type to seasons also meant that a deeper connection with Nature was necessary for survival. The path of the Earth through Space and its closeness to the Sun and Moon and the resulting weather and tides directly affected one’s food, and there was no backup plan, or 7-11 around the corner.

Waterfalls in Iceland

Perhaps, with time, we began to focus more on the tools that we created for survival and comfort than on what really sustained us. This was not a fantastic leap, as what we began to see when unlocking the secrets of Nature dazzled us, and gave us that hope of ultimate control and hope of the realization of our unconscious seeking of immortality. This was also combined with systems of thought that promoted and confirmed us as masters of the realm.  As connections with trees and natural landscape faded in our awareness to the periphery, our potential for wider choices was affected until eventually the path of logical action began to exclude Nature.

Trees are an accessible connection with Nature

While this may be more of a Western story, it is still part of a wider human theme, and it is a theme that affects all on the planet. While we can psychoanalyze our stories and myths to trace our spiral outwards, simple actions can create new stories and new modes of awareness: walking and exercising in natural landscapes, a conscious approach to what we eat and where it comes from, and the connection and maintenance of our gardens, if fortunate enough to own one. In these new stories the tree can play a leading role, and it is a form we all recognize, just as our Neolithic ancestors once did.

Methuselah: Trees of Old

Methuselah, still growing at 4,843 years old in the White Mountains of California

While humans surpass the traditional threescore and ten with modern medicine, some trees have been growing for well over 4,000 years. This is certainly a feat and possible through their ability to add new cells without mutation, even while sections are rotting. Most old ones are slow growing like the yew and bristlecone pine. In fact bristlecone pines are so slow growing that they may not be able to sustain their population and are a protected species. Methuselah, currently the oldest and located in eastern California, has been verified at 4,843 years old via core sampling.

The Buddha, 563 BC. Methuselah had already been growing for more than 2,000 years

If we think about that for a moment, that tree has been around and outlived the Bronze Age, the Egyptian dynasties, the Iron Age, the birth of Buddha, the life and death of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the birth of Christianity and the destruction of Jerusalem, the dictation of the Koran by Mohammed, the slaughter during the Crusades, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, Christopher Columbus, the declaration of independence by the U.S.A, the industrial revolution, world wars and the development of modern science which led to the core sampling in 1957.

Lightning storms above the forest

But things have changed since the Bronze Age. Nearly 5000 years ago there were 14 million humans living scattered across the globe, now there are 7 billion. And these 7 billion are certainly not living the same way as the 14 million were – so perhaps you would have some understanding if Methuselah looked upon a nearby hiker with a gnarly eye of suspicion. That eye which has seen thousands of summers and winters, fires and storms, droughts and flash floods, countless birds and scurrying beetles – yet it is the human who is in the ironical position of being able to appreciate its age while being the most threatening.

The question is, especially for Methuselah, can humans learn and can they change? All actions spring from thought, and thought and behaviour arise from identity and our conception of the identity of others, which yield relationships. The relationship between Methuselah and humans is currently troubled, but it is not cast in stone. We need to revisit the conception of ourselves and the conception of other living things and our relationship to them. It is only a matter of thinking.