I spent part of October 1992 in Japan, where the Shinto priests invited me to visit the Grand Shrine of Ise City. Shinto, in its broadest sense, refers to indigenous Japanese spiritual culture. When used in the narrow sense, it refers to the rites offered to deities or "kami," primarily those of Heaven and Earth listed in classical Japanese works of the ancient period. The facility used for the performance of this worship is called a "jinju" or shrine.
That Nature and natural phenomena are respected as deities is a result of the Japanese view of Nature as a kind of parent, which nurtures life and provides limitless blessings. In keeping with this view, Shinto shrines all over Japan are surrounded by luxuriant groves of trees. Backed by the Shinto view of untouched, natural scenery as sacred in itself, the forests are an important element of each shrine. In addition, the priests of olden times planted Cryptomeria trees within the Grand Shrine. Today, these trees are more than 500 years old, and each has its own recorded history, beginning the day it was planted.
I tell you about the Cryptomeria trees because they are revered for their written history as much as for themselves as living beings, and for the memories they are thought to pass from one generation to another through the corridors of time. In fact, the Cryptomeria trees are so loved by the people that they picked pieces of bark off them as a remembrance, much as a mother clips and saves a lock of her baby's hair. Over time, the people took so much bark the priests had to place protective, wooden "girdles" around the trunk of each lest the people pick it bare.
In many cultures, trees without pedigrees are, nevertheless, a valued part of life. One example is the ancient piñion pine forest in the vicinity of Taos, New Mexico, in the southwestern United States, which the indigenous Pueblo Indians had long used for both food (its seeds, called piñion nuts) and firewood. In this case, the people of old, who collected piñion nuts from certain trees throughout most of their lives, became acquainted with them as personalities, much as the Japanese have with their honored Cryptomeria trees. Yet, these pines, unlike the Cryptomerias, have no written history, only memories of an earlier culture held in the minds and hearts of a few Pueblo elders.
Scattered throughout various parts of the world, there still exists a "communal tree" in the middle of the square around which village life revolves. It's a quaint, historic meeting place, where neighbors form bonds with one another, children play games, women visit about the affairs of life, and men discuss work and politics. Here, old and young mingle in a way that bridges the generations in the natural flow and ebb of village life. Children are still able to experience an unstructured and noncompetitive setting with their watchful parents close by.
Even in the vast deserts of North Africa, a communal tree gives a human scale to the nomadic Bedouin's meeting places. In the desert of Sinai, for example, a makhad ("the meeting place around the acacia tree") is the traditional Bedouin setting, where, according to their customs of friendship and hospitality, all who pass through the desert are welcomed. In fact, there is a particular acacia tree in the Sinai desert at the oasis garden of Ein-Khudra (an oasis mentioned in the Bible) that has been cultivated continuously by the same Bedouin family for over a thousand years.
These remarkably fertile "oasis gardens" are filled with abundance, which reflects the Bedouin's love of and respect for their desert home. Makhads are a socially recognized commons that help to sustain the nomadic lifestyle—acting as a fixed point around which the nomadic journey revolves.
When Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe on November 4, 1493, thousands of miles from the deserts of North Africa, the indigenous Carib or Kalinago people living there called their home Karukéra, "Island of Beautiful Waters." But their loved island, as the name evoked, was to be despoiled more than a century later, as untold thousands of West African slaves poured through the West Indies in the 17th through the 19th centuries, bringing with them baobab trees, as well as their own spiritual beliefs in tree spirits and the magical powers of trees. Today, two of these trees growing on the island of Barbados are over 250 years old and have trunks that measure 55 feet in circumference, which means it takes fifteen adults holding hands to encircle one of these trees. There is a perilous consequence for anyone who cuts down a baobab in the Caribbean Islands because that person will be haunted by the spirits living in its branches.
When the world was made, say the grandmothers on the U.S. Virgin Islands, the baobab was the last tree to be created. As such, old baobabs are comprised mostly of water, which evaporates when they die. The bark and trunk then turn to dust and blow away. In addition, the Jumbies—the spirits, the undead—love to hide in the baobab. For hundreds of years, the indigenous Carib people, after whom the Caribbean Sea was named, have known that certain trees and species of trees were homes to the spirits.
The kapok, or silk cotton tree, for instance, is known as the "Jumbie tree" to many of the indigenous people and has long been considered a primary spirit tree of the West Indies. Kapok trees were considered a holding place for departed souls, where the living could meet the dead. Certain kapoks known to be spirit trees would have eggs thrown at them in order to free a person's shadow or soul that had been stolen by a Jumbie. It is said that funeral processions of slaves on the Virgin Islands would stop at a kapoka tree to give the spirit of the departed time to search among its branches or roots for the spirits of friends and relatives who were waiting to greet the deceased.
While slaves were pouring through the West Indies, a new nation was being forged on the North American Continent—a land mass named after the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci who explored its coastline before his death in 1512. Yet, over two and a half centuries would pass before that momentous event would be consummated in the Constitution of the United States of America.
This would not be the first constitution, however, to be based on specific checks and balances of power for the good of the people. A forerunner was born centuries earlier in the vast forest of the eastern United States by a man referred to as the Peacemaker who said, "Think not forever of yourselves, O Chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of our families, think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground."
Born on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, the Peacemaker's rarely spoken name was "Deganawidah." A luminous figure, he is said to have traveled in a white canoe of stone, a sign the Creator had sent him. He traveled among the Iroquois Indians at a time when endless wars had nearly reduced the Five Nations to anarchy and despair. While among the Mohawk, he met an Onondaga exile named Hiawatha. Together, the Peacemaker and Hiawatha presented such a lucid vision of a better future that the warring Five Nations were persuaded to join in a "Great Peace" based on a "great binding law."
So it was that in the thirteenth century BCE all 50 chiefs of the first Grand Council assembled on the shore of Lake Onondaga. The Peacemaker then planted the original Tree of Peace, a magnificent eastern white pine, beneath which the Five Nations buried their weapons of war. Four long roots, the "white roots of peace," stretched from the tree in the four sacred directions, and the Peacemaker proclaimed: "If any man or any nation outside of the Five Nations shall show a desire to obey the laws of the Great Peace . . . they may trace the roots to their source . . . and they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree. . . ."
The Tuscarora joined the Iroquois Confederacy in 1722. Thus, the Great Law of Peace, based on strength through union that embodies the Iroquois notions of free expression and representative government with its checks and balances, became "The Fire That Never Dies," the unquenchable tradition of today's Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy.
Both James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were profoundly impressed with the "great binding law" of the Iroquois Confederacy. Could it be that the Constitution of the United States, accepted on the 17th of September 1787, had its beginning in centuries past under the original Tree Of Peace? Could it be that our Constitution, lighted over 800 years ago by "The Fire That Never Dies," is an ancient gift of the forest conveyed to the peoples of the world through the Iroquois Confederacy?
Each tree, whether treasured or unknown, serves as habitat for myriad living things, most of which are invisible to the casual observer because their abode is below ground; they are infinitesimal in size; or they are nocturnal. Others, such as day-loving birds and squirrels, are readily apparent as they share life with a treasured tree. In doing so, they keep us company on our journey through life wherein they communicate with us and we with them in the silent language of an eternal moment that is beyond words and time. We, on the other hand, often feel ourselves to be entrained in time, as though ours is an allotted amount on a conveyor belt forever out of our control and ultimately diminishing.
To me, these stories illustrate that we need one another to be a people, just as old trees need one another to be a forest. While each signifies primeval majesty carried forward through the centuries, only together do they represent an ancient forest. Yet, we do not see the forest when we look at individual trees. If, however, we could see below ground we would find gossamer threads of special fungi stretching billions of miles through the soil, where they act as an extension of the trees' root systems. Here, the fungi form a complex net under the entire forest, connecting all trees one to another in a mutually beneficial relationship, whereby the trees feed the fungi energy from the sun's light and the fungi feed the trees nutriments from the darkness of the soil. Like the ancient trees, we are separate individuals, and like the ancient forest united by its belowground fungi, we are united by our humanity—our need for love, trust, respect, and the unconditional acceptance of who we are as individuals.
Beyond that, trees—especially large, old monarchs—form in our minds a bridge of memories from past ages, through the dramas of today, into the imagined stories of an uncertain future. We, who often fear death because our earthly lives are finite, may look to these ancient trees, the longest living beings on Earth, and inwardly ask them to imbue us with a sense of continuity as we daily face the unknown and unknowable. What would happen to our spiritual ground and emotional well-being if all the remaining old trees were liquidated for short-term profits? Without the stability of their longevity, how would we cope with our dynamic, unpredictable Universe, the uncertainty of life?
Whether it is a centuries-old guardian of a Shinto Shrine, a personal source of food and companionship, a desert meeting place, an abode for spirits on an oceanic island, a symbol of peace through democracy among indigenous peoples, or the constitutional blueprint of a contemporary nation, the treasured trees of the world inform us of our past, inspire us in the present, and carry our legacy into the future. The best way to bestow our gratitude is to protect them so they can serve as many generations as their long lives will allow.
This essay appeared in "Trees for Life, 2010 Engagement Diary" of The Parks, Findhorn Bay, Forres, Scotland.
©chris maser 2010. All rights reserved.