Tree Talk

Tree Talk (ceramic) Carolyn Page

Tree Talk (ceramic) Carolyn Page

Many cultures throughout history have worshiped trees and viewed them as a symbol of life. Forests once covered great portions of the world’s land mass and provided natural environments for communion. Concepts of good and evil arose from a tree in Eden. Druids once sanctified the oak groves of Europe. The early Greeks sought oracular responses from the cypress. The first Christmas tree of lights embraced the marriage of human rationality to the animal soul. The worship of trees was not an unusual event until organized religions prospered and waged relentless campaigns against the pagan heart.

I climbed the snowy hill and revisited the largest living tree within walking distance. TheOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA big red oak tree has survived for several hundred years by virtue of its position at the bottom of a deep ravine and its proximity to a property line. I didn’t go there to worship a tree. I saw a living entity too large for the human eye or a camera lens to capture all at once. I’d grasp no more than a segment of the tree’s outline, no more than a slice of its reality. The Iroquois people and other Native American groups gave thanks to the various trees and herbs for their health-giving powers, and that’s what my visit to the oak tree gave, a word of thanks for being there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf trees have a spirit, then the big red oak tree has it. An oxygen provider, a painter of mystery and of beauty through the changing seasons. I stopped at the big oak and I listened. I heard a deer dislodge a small rock or a branch as it descended into the ravine. Crows cawed suddenly, and two barred owls began their eight-part hooting in the distance of the hemlock grove. If trees have a spirit, they have powers that can leap over fallen branches and are able to fly through the forest like a bird.

The Euro-celebrations such as those on May Day and Midsummer have long been relegated to positions of pageantry and show. There no longer seems to be an interest in the cultural equivalents of Diana as “mistress of the greenwood.” There’s no interest in the oracles of Zeus who were listened to among the oaks. Today our sacred services are held in living rooms and stadiums and churches. Today the best trees of our private woodlands all too frequently get an orange “X” painted on the bark and then await the saw. The big red oak tree on the hill beyond my house has worn the orange brand on its bark for 20 years or more, but the landowner’s wife always had the strength to say, “Don’t cut my tree!”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A wish to preserve our special forests, particularly the old growth forests, is a first step toward recognition of an “otherness,” or spirit, in the trees. That recognition can be strengthened, too, by acknowledging that we modern humans still contain the characters of myth and folklore deep within us. There’s an oak tree of Scandinavia, recorded in the  The Kalevala, that can talk. It has said, “My wood is well suited for old Vainamoinen’s boat. It isn’t hollow. It has no knots. Three times this very summer the sun has worked its magic in the heart of me. The moonlight has crowned me, and the cuckoos have given me health by singing in my branches.” Scandinavia seems a world away from these rivertop hills, and yet I imagine a similar voice coming from the big red oak tree of the slopes.

Woodlots are finite in spatial terms, but they have a power to incite imagination and toOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA stir the sense of being connected. When forests bow to pressures of pollution, of lumbering, of insects, and of human recreation and development, a cultural reverence for trees can assist them in their struggle. Trees are more than a resource for our physical well-being. No, a booming world population isn’t about to re-sanctify the special groves remaining on earth. Hungry people may not even care if the last of our jungle regions get the ax, but I like to think there’s still something in a well-fed being that is drawn to trees. I think it’s still possible to pay homage to celebrated trees in our neighborhoods. A special forest is still out there with its wonder, if and when you get the call.

one branch fallen

one branch fallen

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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18 Responses to Tree Talk

  1. thosnut says:

    I love it. I wish more people understood the importance of trees, and good for your neighbor’s wife. Nice story!

    • Thanks for the appreciation! Yeah the loggers tried to pull a fast one on a couple of occasions. They marked the tree to go, despite her instructions to ignore the big oak. She got a hold of them in time, and had their necks wrung.


  2. Ken G says:

    My neighborhood is full of big old oaks, I’m in one of the oldest sections of town. One came down due to a storm. It was the biggest in the neighborhood. A slightly smaller one had to be taken down before it fell on it’s own. The neighbor quit counting the rings at 200.

    In the churches of England, the stonemasons, pagans, carved images of the greenman that can be found if you look. I also heard that when the pilgrims landed, a squirrel could travel from the east coast to Illinois without ever touching the ground.

    Nice write up Walt.

    • Thanks Ken. It’s sad when one of those magnificent oak trees finally gets blown out and all that cambium-wisdom suddenly dissipates. I’d like to check out some of those remaining images of the Green Man, a fascinating character that I’d forgotten all about, but now that you mention him, I recall a great essay on the subject by the novelist John Fowles. I want to go reread it now.


      • Ken G says:

        I learned about the Green Man while studying architecture in another life, but now that you mention it I remember reading Fowles too. Now I have to go look that up. Then of course there’s the song Green Man by XTC.

      • Happy to cross tracks with you, Ken. John Fowles is probably my favorite modern novelist, and he writes an excellent essay, too. As for XTC, I no longer have my tapes of the band, but your mention of the Green Man stirs a totally forgotten memory. Will check out the piece right now.


  3. Excellent commentary. I’ve spent the most peaceful times of my life sitting with my back against an oak or hickory or cypress.

    • Thank you Jim. Yeah those moments, minutes, hours thinking or resting by landmark trees are special. Such a tree can function as a biological magnet for other wildlife, too. Sit there a while, and something interesting often appears. The tree can be a major food source or shelter.


  4. Puget Keith says:

    What a beautiful tree! I have one Douglas Fir that predate white settlement in the 1850s. From time to time I try to grasp what it has seen and tried to think of the native americans that camped nearby. That red oak surely has seen a lot too. A side note to all this is that just tonight I have started reading “Tree in the Trail” to my son. It’s an old children’s book that is about a tree that watches history unfold sitting on the Santa Fe trail. It is along the lines of what we have written about.

    • Keith, Out here, I miss the big old firs still common in parts of the West. We have hemlocks and in a few glacial areas, the balsam. A Tree in the Trail sounds like a cool book I wish I’d known about back when. I wonder if copies are still available in libraries here. The Santa Fe Trail just reeks with history and movement.


      • Puget Keith says:

        Here’s more book info: Tree in the Trail by Holling Clancy Holling (this is really the name, like yours would be Walt Franklin Walt) and published in 1942.

      • Thanks Keith. Sounds like a long shot, but I’ll start looking for it in my school library, then on-line. As you might expect, I’m more interested in what it’s 40s outlook is on culture than I am finding a story to read to kids.


  5. Trees are certainly amazing- even now, if we could fully understand everything that they do, the world would be a much better place.

  6. Kenov says:

    Wonderful Post! And now I need to go find that “Green Man” song by XTC. Don’t think I’ve ever heard it.

    • Thank you and glad that you liked this piece. “Green Man” has a reference about the Greenman winking (?) from the church wall that makes me want to run off and explore rural Great Britian. If you visit on You Tube, watch out for all the intriguing links to pagan and Wiccan sub-genres. I draw the line at the Greenman theme.


      • Kenov says:

        I’ll look up the song right now. I spent way too much time this fall looking for good modern pagan clips to share with students in a class I was teaching. I won’t be doing that again soon, as most of it was pretty bad. So, I’ll be careful to stick to XTC.

      • Let me know if I’m missing anything with this band. A friend sent me XTC tapes years ago, and though I’ve always been a huge fan of progressive music in the modern style, I found them only of marginal interest.


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