A Home in the Trees

A refuge in the garden (source: treehouse company)

Climbing a tree is a universal joy while growing up and constructing a tree house is a further source of fun, especially as an exclusive meeting place barring adults. Schemes for alien defense, gender battles and plots for world domination are often hatched, until we are told to come down or grow up, or when such an abode no longer inspires our imagination.

Nutritious Sago grubs are a delicacy

However, there are some people who are never told to grow up and climb down, and for whom the tree is an endless source of joy, shelter and essential part of family life. These people are the Korowai and Kombai tribes who live in the dense forest of West Papua in Indonesia, and until 1975 had hardly any contact with the outside world. A large portion of their life is spent 20 to 40 metres above ground in tree houses, and on notable occasions eating the nutritious delicacies of sago grubs.

The tree houses are constructed relatively quickly and provide a good defense against warring tribes, floods and biting insects. The pig is the local currency and a sacred animal, while ritual cannabilism was apparently practiced more in the past. However, once dead, the Korowai believe their souls travel to the underworld along a ‘Major Causeway’ and are welcomed by their ancestors. After a while there they can choose to reincarnate back into a child that is about to be born.

Korowai tree house

Home, sweet home

Constructing a tree house is begun by choosing a sturdy Banyan tree and then removing the crown. Thinner poles provide the framework while the bark of the sago palm is used for the floor and walls, and leaves provide roofing. Similar to most cultures, marriage normally initiates a new house.

For these two tribes, the tree is far more than a provision of shade and beauty, but a home and a source of comfort. Contact has been growing with the outside world, but I imagine there would be some confusion when describing current rates of deforestation and the behaviour of more ‘civilised’ humans.

Vistas of the forest: an old Korowai tree house

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.