Honoring Gaia Through Writing

SACRED SYCAMORE by Nancy Vedder-Shults (originally published in Circle Network News, a Nature Spirituality Quarterly, in Summer 1998)

Last fall while sitting opposite Lake Wingra under my favorite tree, I was struck by her beauty and concerned that she might be sick. It was a glorious Indian summer day -- the sun glowed, the insects hummed, the air was fresh and dry -- and I had decided to take advantage of what might be the last warm day to sit outside while I wrote. The location I chose was not accidental. I had been drawn to this spot along Lake Wingra time and again, because of the ancient tree that graces its shores. She's the oldest sycamore in Dane County or perhaps in the state of Wisconsin. It would take at least three of four of us to encircle her girth with our arms. Her canopy is thirty or forty feet in every direction. But what makes her so striking are the grayish-white branches mottled with circular and oblong spots, marking where her bark used to be.

This same beauty was the reason I was concerned. Last year she dropped a great deal of bark, a gift to the surrounding land, and to me and my coven. We used those pieces of bark to do magic, writing on them what we wanted to leave behind in the coming three months and what we wanted to bring into our lives, then burning the bark to complete the magic. Last fall whenever I walked past this stately old tree, I picked through her profuse, discarded bark for beautiful designs and shapes. But this spring, she was slow to leaf out, and when she finally got her full complement of leaves, they appeared dog-eared and full of holes.

I worried out loud to my nephew about this tree and, having just completed a course on the flora of Wisconsin, he agreed that she might be sick. So for the next few weeks after talking with him, I sent her healing energy from time to time. It's only what was due her, since for many months, I had been recharging myself from her energy. She stands on my almost-daily walk route, on the way to what I've dubbed the "dragon spring" in the northern end of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, north of lake Wingra. Every day, or almost every day, I would stop and hug her, asking her to strengthen my love, receptivity and ability to communicate, those qualities associated with sycamores in the Celtic tradition. And everyday, or almost every day, I had felt myself deepen as my energy flowed with hers, at first into her roots. Then, as I lightened my load of extraneous cares and noisy thoughts, I would rise with her sap to the leaves above, rooted in place but dancing on the winds. When I saw her ailing, how could I be anything but concerned? She had enriched my life, allowed me to breathe deeper, to see broader -- setting my antennae on wide-band reception, as kids do automatically, to view more of the world, see more of its patterns and more of its beauty -- at least for a short time almost every day.

It's odd for people in our culture to think about loving a tree. For most of us in the West, a tree is part of the furnishings; it's in the background, not the foreground. If we think about trees at all, it's in terms of how many board feet of lumber we can extract from them, or in terms of their grain and texture in our furniture, or more ecologically, as woods in general -- places we like to visit for their mountains, lakes, wildlife and flowers. In other words, we usually see the forests, not the individual trees. Trees for us -- even for the most environmentally-minded of us -- are seen from an instrumental perspective; we ask ourselves how they are useful to us. Now I can't say that my favorite sycamore isn't useful to me. When I was writing this article I leaned against her, using her trunk as a support. But she is more to me than a backrest. She is a presence that I honor in my life, a spirit who connects me more firmly with the world around me. And as I was writing these last lines, she startled me by dropping one of her fruits on the ground beside me, a round green ball with a sweetly astringent smell which, when sniffed, brought another of my senses into play. Under her canopy, my senses had all been heightened in their activity -- sight, because I was sitting opposite a lovely lagoon in Lake Wingra; sound, because the crickets and birds were singing all around me; and touch, because there was a constant stream of bugs crawling on my bare legs! But taste and smell had yet to come into play. When Mother Sycamore dropped her fruit in my lap, I was thankful that its smell had connected me even more fully to the world around me.

When we traveled to England last summer, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when I saw tree sprites and fairies in the huge old sycamores in London. The very first day when we walked through Russell Square on our way to the British Museum, I saw a lovely green-faced woman in one of the sycamores there. She had pendulous breasts and a large bulging belly, obviously many months pregnant. Although she never looked our way and I could have convinced myself that this static image was just my overactive imagination, I had a strong feeling that this green-faced apparition was the spirit of that tree. My daughter saw her, too, but neither one of us could find her a few days later as we walked to the British Museum again. I looked at every sycamore in Russell Square that second day, but she was gone, convincing me that she had been a tree sprite after all. I saw other tree fairies while in England, some in oaks, beeches, ashes and maples. But the ones that stood out, the ones that felt real, the ones that had startling or ingenious expressions on their faces, were in sycamore trees. And I think the reason I could see them, the reason they came out to play with me, is because I already loved a sycamore tree here at home.

Before we went to England and Ireland last summer, I already was a "tree-hugger." But my experiences abroad, both positive and negative, have convinced me even more strongly of the importance of trees in my life. In certain parts of England there were beautiful, big old trees -- on estates, on the grounds of former monasteries, in church yards and in gardens. But compared to the U.S., there really are very few forests. The contrast became even more alarming when we arrived in Ireland. Only one-half of one percent (1/2%) of Ireland is forested, so there were days when we barely saw a tree. I didn't realize how much I missed them until we returned to the eastern part of Ireland, the area most influenced by English settlement. As we drove around Navan and Newgrange, I exclaimed over and over again that we were seeing big trees again, old trees, trees planted on British country estates, protected from the English clear-cutting of Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries. There were also more birds and small animals in this part of Ireland. More life in general.

But the contrast was even more striking when we landed in the U.S. It's not as if we were flying out west where there are great tracts of wilderness. We were headed for the Northeast, for New York State, one of the most populated parts of our country. From the air, I was amazed at how many trees I could see. Trees covered all the hills and mountains for miles around, farmers' fields were lined with them, and even as we landed in Albany, I was astonished by the number of trees planted in the tri-city area. We North Americans are lucky to live in countries that are young enough to still contain many wilderness areas. But I'm convinced that we need to pay attention to what is happening to them. Under a supposedly environmentally-friendly administration, American national parks have been opened up for mining and lumbering to an unparalleled degree. Huge tracts in the Northwest have been deforested and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska is under attack.

We "tree-huggers" have a perspective that is needed in the fight to save our forests. We understand on a visceral level the importance of trees. I didn't need to read the recent study about trees and inner-city violence to know that the mere presence of trees is beneficial. I wasn't surprised to find out that at tree-lined projects in Chicago, kids play more creatively, people in general are more sociable and there are dramatically fewer incidents of domestic violence. I know that trees are a spiritual resource in my life, so I can imagine that they are for others as well.

Now this difference has been measured by a group of social scientists. According to the Chicago study, when asked if they had engaged in violence during the previous year, women from treeless projects were almost twice as likely (22%) to say yes than were women from buildings with trees. Similar disparities showed up in other questions. 11 percent of women from the developments surrounded by mud and concrete told the researchers that they had used a knife or gun or threatened to do so, compared with 3 % of the women in tree-lined dwellings.

Alistair McIntosh, head of Graduate Studies at the Center for Human Ecology at the University of Edinburgh, has recently discovered something similar. Several of his students introduced groups of poor inner-city youths and adults to the Scottish Highlands, which they had never seen before. At first these folks were frightened or felt ridiculous, because wilderness was an environment foreign to them. But after two or three days of supportive experiences in the wild, these city dwellers began to change. Some of them became angry, others quite sad, as they realized what they had been missing all of their lives. Direct contact with nature, with wilderness, with trees, is a profound experience of beauty, "almost a spiritual experience," according to McIntosh, of which the urban poor have been deprived. But finding such wilderness areas in Scotland is quite difficult today. McIntosh notes that the Highlands, which today are a rock-strewn landscape barren of trees, were once two-thirds covered with forests. Scotland's woods, like Ireland's, were felled by the British ax in the 17th and 18th centuries for the shipbuilding and construction trades as well as to make way for the sheep that now dot the countryside. These "white vermin" have cropped the landscape so closely that it has destroyed the environment. Glens that were once filled with trees and flowers, some with important medicinal qualities, as well as with the cries of children at play are now empty of both wildlife and people. This was the final means of colonizing the Scots. Their language and poetry were prohibited, the kilt was banned, their social life based on the clan and its chieftains was broken down, but the Celtic soul of the Scottish people was finally laid low by the devastation of their environment. In these "Highland clearances," as they were called, deforestation went hand-in-hand with forcing the Scots off their lands.

I wonder whether the colonizers knew what they were doing to Irish and Scottish culture by leveling their forests in this way. The Celtic ancestors of today's Irishwoman or Scotsman loved trees. Trees were an integral part of the Celtic magical tradition: Hazel sticks were cut for dowsing rods; rowan trees were planted near homes to protect against evil; hawthorn branches were strewn on the fields to insure fertility; oak was revered for its strength and endurance; and sacred oak groves were the "temples" where Celts worshipped. The pre-Roman alphabet of the Celts, known as ogham, was also based on trees, with a one-to-one correspondence of its written symbols with certain species. It should be clear from these examples that the Celtic peoples honored trees as co-creators of their world. Given this close connection with their forests, it is hard to estimate the psychic and spiritual devastation caused by the clear-cutting of Celtic lands. But Ireland's continued lack of trees is even more troubling in light of the new study correlating the presence of trees with a reduction of violence. Could Northern Ireland's ongoing problems be attributable in part to its lack of trees? And what about the Middle East? It has been completely without trees for centuries, if not millennia.

Most of us here in North America are still lucky enough to live on tree-lined avenues in cities and towns surrounded by woods and forests. But our trees are under attack by corporate greed at home and Japanese investors who plan to cut down our forests now that they have denuded their islands of woods. And worse than our situation is what we find in the Amazon basin or on the islands of Indonesia. Hundreds of acres are disappearing there everyday. On a global level we need to ask if the increasing numbers of humans on our planet don't need more rather than less of the beneficial influence of trees. I know I do! What would I do without the smell of the apple blossoms in my backyard in spring or the sweet scent of lilacs on a May evening? I certainly would miss the sounds made by the cottonwoods next to Lake Wingra, rustling on even the faintest breeze...and the invigorating smell of the Adirondack pine woods when I visit Upstate New York in the summer. In fact, evergreens are even more important to my sanity in the dead of winter, providing the few green spots on which my eyes can rest in a dull landscape of browns and whites. I guess it's not just my favorite sycamore which sustains me, but a panoply of trees that enriches my life in ways that I don't notice enough in my day-to-day journey.But it is my favorite sycamore that reminds me -- almost every day -- of the sacred significance of trees. She's a lifeline for me, and that's why I've called my friend at the Department of Natural Resources to make sure that she stays healthy.