With roots stretching back into our earliest symbolic imaginations, the Tree is a common, universal and archetypal symbol found in many different spiritual traditions symbolizing physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation, sustenance, spiritual growth, fertility, union, collectivism, and our experience of temporality. Trees are the places of birth and death; they are used as sacred shrines and places of spiritual pilgrimage, ritual, ceremony and celebration.
Sacred trees are found in the Shamanic, Hindu, Egyptian, Sumerian, Toltec, Mayan, Norse, Celtic and Christian traditions. Eve ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Life is a the central organizing principle of the Kabalah, and the World-tree is described in The Upaniandshads as “a tree eternally existing, its roots aloft, its branches spreading below,” bringing spiritual nourishment from the heavens above to the earth below.
A natural metaphor for the family, tree branches and seeds provide us with a metaphor for our relationships to the past and the future. Standing in the presence of the ancient trees gives us a connection to life beyond our own lifespan. Tree Rings record the history of seasonal life cycles over hundreds of years, written in the language of tree rings. For me, the most potent image is imagining myself as a leaf, among infinite leaves connected to the source through a maze of branches and limbs to the trunk and root system which symbolizes the universe as a whole. We are one, interconnected to the whole of the universe.
Since Druidry draws upon so many traditions, tree symbolism in Druidry parallels these common metaphors. One can envision a metaphor of Druidry itself as a trunk strengthened by drawing upon a root structure gathering nutrients from tenuous and insubstantial roots extended throughout the untraceable human history and giving birth to a complex organization of membership arranged in different branches. Each time we perform our rituals we strengthen that trunk. What Druidry offers us is a connection to the past through enacting our tradition and a surety that something will be carried forward after our death. From participation in tradition, we gain strength. As individual branches we are easily bent and broken, but bound together through Druidry, we are stronger together.
Of course these more prosaic images of trees are modeled on deciduous trees with large root structures extending beneath the ground in a bulb the size of the canopy and large central tap roots, trunks of substantial girth, and canopies filled with branches and leaves which sprout into life in the spring and fall off in the winter signifying rebirth and the circle of life. This tripartite division neatly reflects the sacred number three so important in Druidry and therefore parallels birth, adulthood, and old age and death, or the more far reaching genealogical model or family tree with ancestors, concurrent relationships, and descendants.
This however has never been the image of a tree that springs from my unconscious during visualizations nor does it signify why trees are such a potent symbolic resource for me. As a side note, when I was a child, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would tell them a tree. Not an astrophysicist nor an astronaut nor a fireman, a tree. So OK I was an odd child, no surprise there. My world did not revolve around social roles, work, and social status. I was a nature child. I lived outside, barefoot and wild, until I had to come inside to eat and sleep. I spent my summers as a wild child completely free camping out in the wilderness with my family.
For me, each species of tree had its own character, and each tree was unique, spoke its own language, was imbued with a unique spirit, was possessed of an array of strengths and weaknesses, and nurtured me in diverse ways. I can name some 40 species of trees that I knew intimately and interacted with as a child and knew on a first name basis. These included numerous fruit and nut trees, although most were conifers and only a few were deciduous trees. Trees were my constant companions as a child because I was a tree climber. You will notice I am using the plural, because in natural setting, trees are rarely alone. As a collective, trees form a forest, and provide shelter for innumerable other organisms, including small children.
Trees for me were home, a refuge, where my imagination was not constrained by walls or rules. I built tree houses and hidden playhouses that were my dominion. I snuck away from my chores and hid in my trees, reading books for hours on end. I was not alone; all manner of wildlife kept me company: cats, dog, birds, lizards, possums, raccoons and mice found me out.
Because of my reading in myth, my trees were populated with Dryads - Frolicsome tree spirits who live in trees. Dryads are a type of protective tree Nymphs who are bound to their own specific tree and look after it. Most Dryads are shy of human contact and stay near the safety of their tree except when Artemis comes when they abandon all fears and join her hunting expeditions (I am also an archer). Not quite immortal, Dryads live as long as their tree, so if you cut down a tree you may hear its spirit screaming. There are many kinds of Dryads, each associated with a different species of tree.
There is a rich literary and mythical tradition involving trees in the Irish mythical cycles. Nine hazel nut trees surrounded the primordial sacred spring at the origin of the Boyne River. As result of eating the nuts of these magical hazel trees, the Salmon that lived in the pool had acquired all the knowledge of the world. The Irish mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill ate the first bite of one and gained all the deep knowledge and wisdom of what are called the Salmon of Knowledge.
An indigenous Irish writing system called Ogham is based on tree knowledge. Each letter represents a tree or shrub that was important for their magical or healing qualities. The writing itself looks like a tree branch being hash marks arranged along a line, read growing from bottom to top. (A list is given in the Appendix).
Many of you have seen the Lord of the Rings movies and some of you might have even read the books. In one part of the story, the trees join in to the battle which seems an odd turn of events to us. But this is based on a classical Celtic epic poem called the Battle of the Trees.(which I quote at length in the appendix).
The word Druid comes from the word for “oak” and Druidry was “oak wisdom.” Druids were ceremonial leaders in Celtic society. They held their ceremonies in the primordial forest in the presence of a sacred oak instead of in cathedrals or temples. When the British forces colonized Ireland, they targeted and cut down these sacred trees and deforested Ireland so the rebels would have nowhere to hide.
In addition, my most spiritual experiences are always in the presence of trees, not inside cathedrals. I worship the variability and diversity of nature, the source of unspeakable beauty. I find spiritual renewal in the ebb and flow of the positive and negative influences that sculpt the landscape in unimagined and constantly changing forms ...this is the true essence of nature. When I sit in meditation beneath a tree, breathing in rhythm with the suspiring leaves, I feel a connectedness to the cosmos as if breathing within the lungs of the planet.
I honor trees because trees are as important as the ocean in forming the planet-wide system known as the rain or water cycle. A typical tree breathes out 250 to 400 or more gallons of water per day through the amazingly large surface area of its leaves. An acre of forest can contain well over 1,000 acres of leaf surface area for photosynthesis as well as moisture transpiration.
A single tree can absorb CO2 at a rate of 48 lb per year (equivalent to a car running 26,000 miles). A single tree releases enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings. Trees act as natural pollution filters by absorbing pollutants. Trees lower temperature by transpiring water and shading surfaces. Trees reduce erosion. Trees recharge groundwater and sustain streamflow. Trees use photosynthesis to convert solar energy into chemical energy as sugars. Trees provide food and wildlife habitats, especially bees, as well as shelter and warmth for human beings.
In my personal pantheon, Evergreens are the most sacred trees on my landscape. The Giant Sequoia, the largest living creatures on the planet. The Bristlecone pines are the oldest known living entities. When I visit the Bristlecone pine, there is always a blustering wind. Relentless. They live in desert like environ of Nevada. They seem otherworldly because they live on the edge of the otherworld. Verging on death, and barely alive in the environment in which they live, yet always living on.
Dawn redwood, also called Metasequoia, is the only deciduous conifer. Heralded as a "living fossil" they date from the Cretaceous period, 145 to 66 million years ago, and lived when there were dinosaurs. Thought to be extinct, the last stand was found in China in 1944. It is like being in the presence of the primordial. Then there are the California Coastal Redwoods, which are along the coast in northern California. They have a similar presence, not quite as intense as the Giant Sequoia, but they are much more numerous.
California scrub oak is ubiquitous in California, and were probably distributed by Native Americans prehistorically because it was a food crop that sustained them. For me, the Californian scrub oak means home. I have travelled all over the world and was always happy to get home. Every time I get to an area that is left to the natural habitat, there are California scrub oaks there, so I feel a sense of security, relief and deep joy.
I am a mystic, which means that I seek a direct experience of the divine through meditation and ritual practices that heighten awareness. My spirituality is deeply connected to trees. I sought out Druidry because it does not suppress free thought. Druids are free thinkers and truth seekers. So in addition to strength through tradition and communality, the tree offers me the infinite variability of nature and the possibility of manifesting new growth. The possibility of new connections coming from old symbols because free thinking is not restrained by dogma.
In my spiritual experiences, the predefined categories of language are broken down and preconceptions about the nature of life are shrugged off to experience our connectedness with the cosmos. On a molecular level we are made of star stuff. And there is no better place for such an experience than sitting under a tree. There is no more sacred space for me than a forest. A tree’s connections to the earth are more tangible than ours, its constancy through time is greater than ours, its contribution to wellbeing is more positive than ours. Finally, trees offer us peace, a respite from the suffering of life. Trees are simply receptive and produce life without toil, and they illustrate being without striving. They symbolize tenacity without struggle or conflict. Thus Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.