The Ways of Trees

by Beth Weir

“All our wisdom is stored in the trees.” 

― Santosh Kalwar.

           Trees are front and center this year at the Dunn Gardens. Actually, it would be hard to claim the truth of that for just this year but we are focusing on them in 2019 because of a grant offered by 4-Culture. It is allowing Quill, our director of historic preservation and horticulture to monitor our heritage specimens; those planted when the garden was developed over 100 years ago, or otherwise have a singular significance.

            But the general topic of trees is fascinating. It doesn’t take long to realize how deeply they infuse the experiences of our lives, the color of the world we see and the truth of the quote noted above by Kalwar, a Nepalese poet and writer.

            Not unexpectedly, trees show their charms early. When growing up in the 1950s my home was backed by a stand of tall evergreens. The kids who lived in the street, myself included, would play hide and seek and climb the limbs till called for dinner. The light was always filtered, the ground soft, the smell pure Christmas and we felt safe and brave in the folds of the small forest. I’m hardly alone with tree experiences that translate into soft feelings about childhood.

            Veneration of a particular tree is part of all cultures. The Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya (thought to be the Ficus religiosa), under which Buddha reached enlightenment and now worshipped by Buddhists, is one. The Glastonbury Thorn (Crataegus monogyna) in Glastonbury, England, regarded as sacred by some Christians who believe it sprouted from the staff of an early Christian figure, Joseph of Arimathea, is another. That tree is particularly unusual in that it blooms twice per year, the second time around Christmas.

            This veneration exists outside of religious traditions too. In New Zealand, a native kauri (Agathis australis), the biggest one alive, and now known as Tāne Mahuta, is one. It is named after the revered Maori god of the forests who clothed the hills and valleys with plants and birds. The god is frequently referenced in ceremonial events and the naming of an exceptional tree in his honor is a mark of respect.

            In the world of folklore the most famous tree is called Yggdrasil and comes from Norse mythology. Its roots are deep in the earth and its branches high in the sky. It holds up the cosmos: heaven, earth and the underworld and protects us as far as it can. The Parasol Tree Firmiana simplex in China does likewise. It is the perch of the Phoenix that appears in public only when reason prevails in the country. The bird reminds us of our individual responsibility to mankind to live honorable lives. Two are never seen together.

            Both trees of folklore and real ones inspire storytelling, of course, with all the attendant values enshrined in the tales. That begins early. A safe bet is that at some point every child in the US learns about Johnny Appleseed through the many picture books devoted to his story. John Chapman, to use his given name, embodies much about the American story of self-reliance and compassion for those who are striving. A recent and acclaimed novel does the same thing. It is about disparate strangers summoned by their various desires to protect a virgin stand of forest. Richard Powers, author of ‘The Overstory’, uses the device of interlocking stories to unfold the arc of the book. Woven around them are descriptions of the world of the high tree canopy; slowly developing, interconnected, mysterious and magnificent.

            Trees are also works of visual art. My husband and I once owned a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantieum) that felt bigger than Yggdrasil since it swayed from a great height, well above our three-storied home. Because of its mature size that tree was a poor choice for urban planting. Still, theirs is majestic beauty of the snow-on-sun variety that reduces the viewer to awed silence. It is a first among equals. No one ever asked us to top that particular tree to preserve a view.

            Sequoias have a potential lifespan of 3,000 years and such longevity stills people. Sometimes, it is impossible to imagine the life that existed when the tree took root. The title for the oldest living tree belongs to a Norway spruce (Picea abies) that has been living in a mountain in Sweden’s Dalarna Province for almost 10,000 years. (The tree has the affectionate name of Tijkko and its age has been confirmed by carbon dating). Unlike sequoias Tijkko it is not imposing, standing at only 13 feet tall. It looks kind of puny. The spruce’s trunk has a lifespan of only about 600 years but when one dies a root system sends up another. The honor for the world’s continuously standing trees belongs to an aptly named species (Pinus longaeva) or Bristle Cone Pine that are resistant to the malevolent overtures of beetles, insects and fungi because of their resinous wood. The most ancient of the species resides in the White Mountains of California and is dated at 5,000 years old. In a tip to the longest-living person in the Bible it is called Methuselah. (It’s location is not disclosed by the Forest Service for its own protection.)

            Healing is closely associated with trees. Examples abound but a significant case is that of a tree identified by an Augustinian monk, Antonio de Calancha as being useful in fighting ‘fevers and tertains’. The tree the good cleric focused on as a remedy for malaria was the Cinchona, Cinchona spp. (C. officinalis, C. ledgeriana, C. succirubra). He published a report on the efficacy of the cinchona powder derived from the bark of the tree in 1630. Subsequently, trials were performed on the cinchona powder at the behest of Pope Innocent X. They were believed to be the first clinical trials for medical purposes in history.

            Sometimes events and trees become intertwined in the life of a community. When the events are tragic, as in 9/11, trees provide a way to move on. Among the ruins of the attack, a Callery pear tree (Pyrus calleryana) was found charred with only one branch alive. It was rehabilitated at a Bronx nursery and eventually planted in the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza, earning the moniker, ‘The Survivor Tree.’ Since 2013 seedlings derived from the Survivor Tree are sent to cities whose citizens have suffered terrorist attacks. Among the first of the recipients was Boston in 2013 after the marathon bombings. France received a tree in 2016 after the attacks at Nice and Paris and it is located on the grounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Quai d’Orsay.

            Such programs as ‘The Survivor Tree’ and its message of being strong are emotional catalysts for healing and support. The wisdom of a tree means it can provide succor for both individuals and society better than words ever could.

            There are estimated to be about 100,000 trees species across the world and we have our share of trees at Dunn Gardens. We love for people to come and see them. Check out our website for opportunities to visit and do know that members are free to do so on Tuesday and Fridays. Better yet they can bring three guests.

Any tree stories you have would be welcome. 

Also, before you leave the blog, check out the following link.  You won’t be sorry.