Trees and Humans: Stories in Film and Literature

The tree is a powerful symbol in human consciousness and one that often manifests in our stories. There, they are often used in journeys or as a connection, as a source of wisdom or redemption, or a representation of the mystery and untamed in Nature.

The magic tree of Enid Blyton's enchanted forest

The magic tree of Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest

In Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, a magical tree in an enchanted wood allows access to different lands, some pleasant and fun e.g. The Land of Birthdays, and others a nightmare for children e.g. The Land of Dame Slap, a horrid teacher. One must also return in time before the lands rotate, or else one waits another full rotation. Here the tree is similar to the conduit envisioned by shamans to access different worlds (The Meme of Trees), as well as there being a karmic concept of cycles, and consequence, if one stays too long in one land.

The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an important link between humans and nature

In The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, the tree is a place of redemption and sacrifice, and one that can renew the spirit and allow contact with Nature. One who survives this sacrifice on the Summer Tree, the 3 days of being tormented by one’s self, without food or water, arises stronger, with powers and direct communication with the wildness of the land.

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, trees, and especially forests, are embodiments of the mystery and power of Nature. Elves, who are more connected with natural magic, do not fear these ancient abodes and some make it their home. There are also Ents, tree-like creatures with a tonal language, having become the trees they herded. Large and incredibly strong, they protect the great forests and provide a face for Nature. The Ents, who are slow, but steady, have their anger roused by the deforestation by Saruman and the orcs, and wage war, showing a limit to their tolerance.

Tolkien’s Ents from Middle-earth

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), people in cities and suburbia inexplicably fall dead leaving people fearful and confused. Terrorism is initially blamed, but the cause is traced to trees releasing a chemical in order to remove a threat (humans). Here, Nature is fighting back and this brings in similar concepts such as those mentioned in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia.

A scene from The Happening in Central Park

The Fountain (2006), by Darren Aronofsky, provides a surreal experience with the Tree of Life (inspired by the Kabbalah) an important symbol connecting the three periods (conquistador, the neuroscientist and the space traveller), as well as a paraphrase from Genesis 3:24, that eating from the Tree of Knowledge began human’s experience of duality and limitation.

The tree from Aronofsky’s The Fountain

In Terrence Malick’s visually stunning Tree of Life (2011), there are themes of existence and human suffering in a grand cosmology, while the large oak tree symbolizes connections between generations and the witnessing of family tragedy, while ever growing and being a source of life.

Malick’s Tree of Life: a source of life and connection, and continued existence

Even in ancient stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature from Mesopotamia, the hero has to overcome many obstacles, including a Great Flood, to reach a garden of jewel-laden trees where he leaves the physical world. In this ancient epic there is the same account of the flood myth as Genesis 6-8 as well as the account of Enkidu and Shamhat, similarly relating to Adam and Eve.

A tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh, about 4000 years old

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”   William Blake

Creatures of the Forest

While we may consider that many trees make a forest, we should not forget that forests are ecosystems, and that there are many large and small players beneath the canopy. Interactions are too numerous to mention in detail and have evolved over millennia, but pictures can highlight some interesting characters.

The vast canopy, with a tributary of the Amazon

A jaguar having a scratch (Environmental Graffiti)

Emerald tree boa

Leafcutter ants

Howler monkey on a break (Environmental Graffiti)

Baby bear hanging on (Environmental Graffiti)

Tree frog (Ranitomeya summersi)

Baby 3-toed sloth (Environmental Graffiti)

Amazona oratrix

Amazon horned frog

The beady eyes of Tarsiers

Muliticolour treefrog (Ranitomeya benedicta)

Bengal Tiger

The well known anaconda

Amazon Morpho butterfly

Visions and Dreams: Natural Hallucinogens

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a natural molecule (Erowid)

Life, with its never ceasing experiments, has evolved with vast chemical complexity not only in the production of individual molecules, like proteins and alkaloids, but in the way that these messengers, regulators and controllers interact.  Harmala alkaloids are especially interesting as they appear not only throughout the plant kingdom, but are also present in the human pineal gland. Similarly for Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which also induces psychedelic states, powerful visions and immersive experiences in humans. These are chemicals which are more familiar to the body than ethanol in beer, but are treated with the utmost respect (in their raw plant form) by indigenous tribes, especially in the Amazonia region.

Ayuhuasca often induces colourful and ecstatic experiences

Ayuhuasca preparation

These ritualistic brews are created from bark, leaves and vines in the forest, as is the case with ayuhuasca. This is normally under the watchful eye of the local shaman, although  now a dying breed, who manages the process and the interpretation of journeys. While journeys to different worlds in complete 3D environments with music, ecstatic kaleidoscopic colours and interaction with creatures and beings of the forest make good stories and for some, real life changing experiences, what is sometimes forgotten are the remaining questions. Questions such as: how do the shamans know which plants to use in the right combinations and so much about them? And why should these trees and plants cause such an effect on humans in the first place? Do the trees benefit at all from this interaction? Why did trees develop these molecules and why are they also present in humans? And how is it that some dream creatures and their characters are also known to shamans, indicating that experiences are not uniquely random?

The Amazon shaman

If one also thinks from an experimental design perspective, to run enough experiments including inescapable trials and deathly errors, and even considering the known 40,000 plant species in the Amazon region and various combinations thereof, how would one tribal shaman come to this knowledge of plants and trees and their effect on the human body, even considering a long shamanic lineage? Well, when this question has been posed to shamans they have answered quite simply and said “the plants tell us”.

This indicates that shamans have a different world view, one that all beings and living things can communicate with each other and have unique relationships. While this currently may be a fair jump for an urban westerner, what is more obvious and astounding than this shamanic perspective, is that ‘modern’ humans have very little or no conscious relationship with nature. It is this lack, this gaping wound in our awareness, that underwrites our apathy in the face of environmental destruction.

Ayuhuasca inspired vision