Today is Arbor Day, the annual international celebration of trees. Like my distant heathen ancestors, I partake in a bit of tree worship. Because of their immense size, strength, beauty and longevity, trees are an obvious metaphor for the numinous. However there are also more subtle and compelling reasons that trees are the ideal symbol of divinity.
Trees are at the center of a vast web of commensal relationships between living things. They rely on large mutualistic collections of organisms to survive. Trees cannot live without an unseen world of symbiotic organisms in the soil. The towering plants rely on nitrogen fixing bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes to take nutrients from the earth. Likewise trees communicate through fungal networks which link them together in improbable ways we are only now learning about.
Trees utilize bees, flies, monkeys, and birds for pollination…and to disseminate their seeds. They call on different parasitoid wasps for defense through elaborate biochemicals. We should really envision a tree not as a big spiky discreet thing sitting in the lawn, but as a vast flow chart/rolodex of connections with other living organisms.
Of course trees are not unique in being an interconnected node within a vast web of life—that is really the way all life is. It is a grotesque human conceit that humans stand outside and above nature. I have always thought of humanity as a problematic youngest child. We are the favorite (for the moment). We have such gifts…but we are so arrogant, unhappy, and unstable. And we are so so monstrously greedy. I sometimes like to imagine trees as a gentle stable elder brother.
Actually though, mammals are much older than flowering trees. For hundreds of millions of years our pathetic little ancestors cowered beneath the roots of conifers, cycads, ginkgoes, tree-ferns and such. Then, at the end of the Mesozoic, the ascent of mammals happened at the same time that the angiosperms took over the land. Our shrewlike ancestors evolved into arboreal primates as the angiosperms themselves were becoming the forests.
We grew up together! While the great angiosperm forests of the Eocene may not have required much from our squirrel-like grandparents, today’s forests desperately require our good graces so that they are not all converted into parking lots. Plywood, and ugly discount furniture.
Anyway, my thoughts are getting away from me. I only wanted today’s post to be a reminder of Arbor Day and how wonderful and beautiful trees are. Here is a small gallery of lurid yet evocative images of sacred trees! I especially like the pictures of trees together with outer space or the cosmos (like the big portal tree at the top). Happy Arbor Day!