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.
Humans have cleared the trees for a wide variety of needs – agriculture, housing, charcoal, transportation, shipbuilding and now papermaking. For centuries, paper has been made out of plant and textile fibres – hemp, flax, cotton, papyrus, rice as well as various kinds of bark. Generally, old clothing, ropes and rags were recycled into paper.
Only since the 19th century, has paper been made out of wood fibre. Developed in 1843, Keller and Fenerte mimicked the process of pulping rags but doing so with sulphites to break down the wood, then bleaching it for whiteness. By the end of the century, almost all printers globally were using wood pulp. Cheap paper, mass produced pens, and steam-driven printing presses, led to a revolution in accessibility of printed matter. While books and paper were a rarity and highly prized in my pioneer family, they are now integral to our modern, literate lives. But at what cost?
The importance of trees has become clearer through the findings of science. As Earth developed, it was the upright woody stems of lycopods that became the backbone of our terrestrial ecosystems. Then, as gymnosperms, they covered entire continents. As Gill suggests, trees were the “evolutionary game changer”. Not only did they transform Earth’s atmosphere by “birthing the air we breathe”, but in harnessing the rays of the sun, each leaf a solar panel, to become primary energy producers through photosynthesis using chlorophyll. Some of the oldest DNA on Earth is in conifers.
We now know that the Amazon forest are the lungs of the world, producing 20% of the oxygen, keeping us alive. We know that each species of tree is responsible for about forty species of insect. Trees act as reservoirs of water feeding rivers, they help create rain, clean the air, and anchor soil. Underneath the soil, the mycorrhizae fungi provide the connective tissue between trees and many other plants, not only sharing nutrition but conduits of communication. As Beresford-Kroeger recounts, we know that nut trees are antifamine trees, providing
protein for many species when other sources fail. Trees enable biodiversity, provide the source for most of our medicines, and are habitat for all the other species that contribute to the life support system on which we depend. From skin tonics to sunscreen to clearing coronary arteries to providing antibiotics and antivirals, and providing spices and foodstuffs, trees hold the keys to so much of what keeps us alive and healthy.
David Haskell suggests you can smell the different aromas of trees, an aerial language, with surprising health benefits. Basswood and linden soothe harried nerves and tranquilize neural pathways of pain. Another part of their communication system, trees use airborne chemicals to warn neighbours of a insect infestation or mammal browsing. In response, neighbours generate other chemicals to discourage harm.
No matter how we look at it, trees are our kin. The continued destruction of this family member is at our own peril.
Since the late 1980s, Japan originated a practice called shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. They have rigorously protected their own forests, importing wood products from elsewhere, often Canada. As a highly urbanized culture, they were motivated to carry out intensive research, finding that different trees release chemicals that are healing in a wide variety of ways. Thus, they developed a technique of bathing in the chemical atmospheres of trees with the following results: generating killer cells for destroying disease, increasing immunity, decreasing risk of heart attack, protecting against obesity and diabetes, generating more energy and better sleep, decreasing inflammation, clearing skin, reducing depression, and soothing sore muscles. These effects can last from a week to a month. You can now be trained as a forest therapy guide, as just one form of nature therapy/ecotherapy, also including garden therapy to ocean therapy.
During this moon, try forest bathing. Find a stand of trees or a forest with minimal human-created noise and distractions. Set an intention for connecting with the forest in a reciprocal healing way.
Walk meditatively, mindfully, flowing through the forest, going no more than 2 kilometers, over 2 to 4 hours. First, drink in the flavour of the forest, soften your mind, do deep breathing in for seven counts and out for 10 counts, releasing the emerging joy and calm. Second, gently use all your senses to ground yourself, working with one sense at a time – smell, sight, touch, hearing and taste. Let the forest touch each of these senses in turn. Walk barefoot, taste leaves, touch bark, smell trees, listen to the air/wind in the leaves, and so forth. Attune your intuition and senses to the forest and other beings. Third, sit with your back to a tree or lay in the forest. Attune to the tree. Let the tree communicate, if it desires. Fourth, end with a herbal tea, preferably from an herb made from local plants.
Beresford-Kroeger has proposed an important bioplan. If every citizen on earth planted one native tree every year for six years, we could fix a significant amount of excess carbon driving climate change and restore Earth’s natural forest cover. Commit to this if you can. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Old-growth cultures, like old-growth forests, have not been exterminated. The land holds their memory and the possibility of regeneration.” We can literally seed healing for our wounded lands and our wounded souls. She says, “Pick up a shovel and join the dance.”