On the Symbolism of Trees
The assertion that humans evolved within the forest environment is probably true, especially when considered from a Darwinian perspective – after all is said and done apes and trees do go together, do they not? Although I have heard it said that the forest edge rather than the deeper recesses of the forest itself was our species nursery. Whatever the truth may be, and it is unlikely we will ever know for certain; be it depth or edge, trees have played a central role in our lives from the very beginning of our existence.
The tree provides us with food, warmth, building material, medicines, energy, shelter and much much more, and has done so for countless millennia. Yet, until recent times, we were completely ignorant of how absolutely dependent we are upon trees for our existence. The very air we breathe gives us life. Why, because it is the bearer of oxygen, that precious gas generated by trees without which we would survive no more than a few minutes. At the same time trees not only supply us with copious amounts of food but they also lock up immense quantities of carbon; so, chopping them down without thought for their replacement is not a smart move – but, lemming-like, we do, driven by some deep-rooted need, but for what…?
We now know that the production of oxygen takes place through photosynthesis, which is the conversion of light into food, and without it most life-forms, humankind included, could not exist. In this process carbon dioxide and water are used to produce organic compounds, particularly sugars, using the energy from sunlight. This process takes place predominantly in plants and algae, but also in some species of bacteria; all of which, it is said, release oxygen as a bye-product …. A strange term for a component that is essential to most organic life-forms on this earth - I think I prefer the term 'Manna'!
Whether or not we see photosynthesis as science or divine beneficence, it is now becoming acknowledged as the most important process taking place in our world and it is easy to see why. The ability of plants to use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen forms the basis of all food chains in nature, and one of the key vehicles of this process is the tree, for each individual tree provides a vast area of leaf surface that is full of the molecule chlorophyll, a unique molecule that is able to absorb sunlight and convert it into the chemical energy we call sugar, and the precious gas we call oxygen.
Furthermore, the fresh water we drink and take so much for granted would be a scarce commodity without the presence of woodland, which plays a crucial role in triggering rainfall, and subsequently in storing the fresh water that falls as such. Arguably, the relationship between trees and all carbon-based life-forms is symbiotic, although it may be more true to say that the tree is not so much a partner as a surrogate parent assisting in the nurture of very special children.
In some circles it is acknowledged that Nature’s ultimate objective is the creation of mature woodland; an undertaking requiring thousands of years to realise. It is a view I feel is right even if it is not an absolute fact. In the forest, which plainly is Nature’s workshop, light is converted with quiet efficiency into the many forms and materials that are used by Nature. This is particularly so through the alchemy, and I can imagine no better word to describe it, of photosynthesis where each tree receives light and transforms it into a ‘manna from heaven’ that sustains myriads of life-forms, who are themselves patently, light in transition. It seems, then, only natural that the forest should evolve slowly and gracefully, after all, as creatures of light made in the image of God, the absolute source of light, we humans are also seeking to fulfil the divine potential that resides in light, and our evolution is evidently just as time consuming.
Paradoxically, given that we are indeed creatures of light sustained by light, it difficult to comprehend how the urban environment as we know it could have been designed and created by men and women, creatures formed and shaped in and by the forest – yet it has; and it is even more difficult to understand how such creatures could develop a culture so firmly based upon technologies of destruction to facilitate its experience.
Consider for example the burning of fossil fuels; the petro-chemical engine; the smashing of atoms in atomic power stations; mono-cropping; gmo-farming; factory farming; the creation of chemical toxins that destroy both the soil and the atmosphere, as well as a myriad of species – the list is frighteningly long. It would seem that rather than living in harmony and concord, the relationship between humanity and Nature is one of thesis/antithesis destined for a destructive climax.
What is really extraordinary is our enthusiasm for destroying each other. We (and I include all humans in this), have an irrepressible lust for warfare and have throughout history developed a vast array of weapons for the purpose of killing, maiming and enslaving our fellows, subjecting them to a humiliating and miserable existence. Why does this happen; is it simply our desire to dominate and control our environment and everything in it, or is there something else, something beyond our biology and psychology?
Other creatures compete for resources such as food and water, for territory and the rights and space in which to breed without the need to commit genocide. Yet, if the archaeology is correct, there was never a time when it was otherwise. Clearly there have been ‘golden ages’, periods of peace and prosperity lasting a generation or two, but it does seem that this world has in the main been a place of ‘tooth and Claw’ in which the alpha predators have their way. It is a curious thing that humankind, a creature of light, should be so full of darkness and destruction.
Nevertheless, there may yet be a more positive destiny awaiting us, for if we are not Nature’s children, we are undoubtedly a close relative; being made of the same stuff – Light. Thus one can only pray that this destructive process is a phase in the evolution of an immature humanity, a phase that hopefully will pass; a kind of juvenile delinquency if you will, and perhaps as we mature our understanding will grow, and we will come to appreciate the exquisite economy, prudence and patience of Nature, as did our ancestors, who in their appreciation invested trees not only with respect but with reverence. A respect and reverence that is patently obvious in the mythology and folklore that we have inherited from them, and in which it is clear that the forest, and the trees of the forest figure prominently. And despite the fact that in some instances these ancient myths reach us, after the lapse of ages, in distorted and grotesque forms, they are worthy of preservation, not simply as curiosities of folklore, but as emblems or symbols of our place in this world.