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Reaching for the Sky Moon

If you were a tree, what would you be? It is trees, the standing ones, and their families, forests, who have taught me most about the living vitality of the natural world and how I am to “be” in their presence and the presence of all living beings. It is trees who constantly remind me of my place of responsibility in the order of life. As the poetic Irish medicine woman and botanist/medical biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, so beautifully says, “Each leaf of every tree makes up the global forest. This forest is the environment that drives and fulfills the dream of each leaf in a vast rhythmic cycle called life. Nothing is outside. We are all of it in a unity that transcends the whole.” Especially standing at the foot of the Pacific Northwest giants—cedar, fir, hemlock—one knows this to be true.

Do you remember a special tree from your childhood? Beresford-Kroeger astutely observes that children’s drawings usually have trees in them with their family members…and many of us still remember climbing trees, snuggling up among roots or sitting against trees, playing with real or pretend friends under their canopy or picnicking and laying in the grass. At every age, I have always had a tree or stand of trees where I go for solace. My children built tree forts on the river bank park across from our home, deflated when they were consistently dismantled and scattered by grouchy neighbours. The lack of wild areas for children and their free play has led to impoverished childhoods in profound ways, says Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods.

Priscilla Stuckey, in her article Being Known by a Birch Tree, talks about a cut-leaf weeping birch

that was her friend…feeling the crinkly peeling bark as a toddler, jumping in piles or making structures of the leaves, later sent out to rake the leaves, then reading and studying underneath the tree. In her thirties, with a chronic illness, the image of her tree popped into her mind and stayed with her, more vivid than just a memory. A few weeks later, her brother phoned to say that the birch was ill and needed to be cut down. She realized then, that the tree knew her, and had come to say goodbye.

I too have experienced many times of communication from trees, not just their healing presence. I cannot live where there are no trees near. I realize that this ability and need is in my DNA. My grandfather had a tremendous reverence for trees and planted some species from his “Old World” home as well as the native species sent to him by the Canadian government for home and crop windbreaks on the prairies. When I examined my ancestral heritage, sure enough, my pre-Christian ancestors worshipped in sacred groves of trees, particularly oaks. When Thor’s oak, part of the most important tree grove in Europe, was felled in 723 by St. Boniface, our indigenous ways were lost.

In his Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright suggests that humans “fell victims to their own success”, repeatedly driving themselves out of their own homes by despoliation. One of the clearest examples has been through deforestation: from the Eden of the Fertile Crescent, to the Mediterranean, to Easter Island, then to Europe and North America. Regarding Easter Island, Wright says “The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.” He attributes part of the fall of the Greek then Roman Empire (from Plato’s writings) to the loss of trees, which meant loss of soil, retention of water, and habitat of vital species for human survival. This speaks to the pathos of our human condition.

In the Machine Era of the last 500 years, we have thought of trees as an “it”, things with no consciousness, no spirit, no living aspect of any sort other than the so-called mechanical processes of their biology. Going back to early Europe and its primeval forests, according JB MacKinnon in Once and Future World, 50% of the forests were already gone 2000 years ago. By 1900, only 5% of Britain’s woodland was left, recovering recently to 10%. Overall, Europe is a deforested continent, now called a “cultural landscape”. Overall, only 30% of the original forest cover on Earth is left, says Charlotte Gill in Eating Dirt.