Legend has it that the Buddha himself sat under a Bodhi tree for 49 days before rising as an enlightened man. In Christianity, Adam began his Earthly life when he picked fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. On every continent and at every latitude, trees have helped humans understand the meaning of life and the world that surrounds them.
In the Sahara Desert, the Touaregs revered the mystical Tree of Ténéré. This massive tree was the only desert lifeform for some 300 km before it was mysteriously destroyed almost 50 years ago.
Emperor Charlemagne officially banned tree worshipping in 782 AD because offerings were so popular. Despite this prohibition, forests have retained much of their mysticism today.
Don’t venture too far from the forest
Mythical forest-dwelling monsters like the Gevaudan Beast, centaurs or Baba Yaga have maintained their grasp on our minds. Japanese Kodama, Greek dryads, banana ghosts, korrigans… In every culture, forests have hosted powerful entities.
These examples are representations of the mesmerising power of forests. This power is often represented in women; a symbol of fertility, generosity, and protection. Often mischievous, yet rarely evil, these personifications tend to play tricks on humans to teach them a hard-earned lesson – or to scare children from picking fruits prematurely.
In pre-Colombian societies, Pachamama — “World Mother” in Quechua — is the primary deity. Goddess of fertility, earthquakes, time, mountains and harvests, she is both capricious and generous. She is a crucial part of understanding life in these civilisations.
The world in a nutshell
Trees are an integral part of religions around the world. It is possibly because they are one of the few living things whose lifespan is longer than ours. A tree has seen more than you. And this is what catches our awe. Trees tell a tale of time. They mark seasons and show firsthand the cycle of life, decay and the transformation of things.
Trees are Earth’s keystone species. They are at the centre of three key cycles on Earth: the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle. Without trees, there would be no life.
Isolated cultures have understood this centrality as well. Numerous civilizations use a tree as the basis for their worldview. The tree connects the Earth to the heavens with its branches and to the underworld with its roots. A very religious and fitting metaphor.
In Native American culture, there can be no life without trees.
“The life of the Tree is the life of the people. If the people wander far away from the protective shadow of the Tree, if they forget to seek the nourishment of its fruit, or if they should turn against the Tree and attempt to destroy it, great sorrow will fall upon the people. […] They will forget how to survive in their own land. Their lives will become filled with anger and gloom. Little by little they will poison themselves and all they touch.”
-The Sacred Tree: Reflections on Native American spirituality
So, are trees the real keystone species?
Certainly. Trees are integral to our health and the Earths. They act as an air filter and prevent soil erosion. Trees host complex microhabitats for animals large and small. They prevent flooding and benefit our health.
Humans have applied many different interpretations of the role of trees in the world equilibrium. As we understand more about the role of forests on Earth, science and religion seem to be in agreement that these majestic beings are sacred.
And that has got to be the best news since sliced bread.