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
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
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