It's late autumn, and I'm watching the leaves changing colours as we approach winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The scenery is like a painting, the leaves shades of burnt orange, golden yellow, and ochre red. For the past few years, I have been taking the same walk through a local woodland, nestled within the smoke and smog of the city. I have become familiar with the subtle rhythms of this natural area: the positions of the elder trees and their blooming flowers in high summer and the ripening of their berries in late summer, the thicket where blackberries grow along the towpath, the locations of oak trees, and the wild garlic that blankets the ground in early spring. I am constantly in awe of the way the light filters through the trees, or the way the birds share in their cacophony of birdsong. Over time, I have developed a deep connection with this part of my surroundings, viewing it as a dear friend.
Our roots run deep with trees — throughout history, trees have held significant meaning and symbolism. We can observe these myths and meanings embedded in ancient tales that emphasise the interconnectedness between trees and all living beings on Earth. The myths and meanings associated with trees reflect the profound interconnectedness that exists between nature and ourselves, reminding us of the importance of preserving and cherishing our natural environment.
In cosmologies found across cultures, the Tree of Life represents the Axis Mundi or the centre point of the Cosmic Axis/World Axis. This Axis Mundi unites the three planes: the sky (branches), the earth (trunk), and the underworld (roots). When we consider the ecological intelligence of trees, and how they communicate with one another, from their root systems to their highest branches, it's no wonder that previous cultures saw trees as expressions of the divine on Earth. We can see this in Mayan culture; for the Mayans, who call their Tree of Life, Yaxche, — the ceiba tree most closely resembles this symbol — connects the heavens, world, and underworld. The Yggdrasil, or World Ash, also acts as an Axis Mundi, and in Norse Mythology it is the site where Odin found enlightenment. This Ash tree is the connector of the nine worlds and the vessel of their interdependence — it is the Axis Mundi, the centre of all creation between worlds. Finally, in Hindu mythology, The Tree of Life known as Kalpavriksha, is a symbol of the interconnectedness of all living beings.
When we acknowledge these mythologies and cosmologies, we see the significance of trees throughout time and place; sharing not only in respiration of carbon and oxygen for our existence, but also a source of meaning and community with the more-than-human world.
These Sacred Trees teach us to transition from individualism to a collective consciousness, where the well-being of the entire community is prioritised over the success of a single individual. In Elif Shafak’s, The Island of Missing Trees, we are made aware of the interconnectedness of trees to all beings on Earth and beyond. In this story, we follow the life of a fig tree, and a family’s life it is interwoven with:
“I wish I could have told him that loneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely. Humans think they know with certainty where their being ends and someone else's starts. With their roots tangled and caught up underground, linked to fungi and bacteria, trees harbour no such illusions. For us, everything is interconnected.”
A tree’s ecosystem embodies interdependence; in Robert Macfarlane’s, Underland, he shares the profound moment he learnt about the ‘wood wide web’: “But I could not forget the image of that mysterious buried network, joining single trees to forest communities. It was planted in my mind, and there it took root”. This underground network practices a system of care — when a tree becomes sick, the community of other trees within that area shares their nutrients by transferring it through an underground network of mycorrhizal and hyphae that connect each sapling, allowing them to nurture the sick tree back to health. This interrelationship which has been proven through scientific study, and specifically through the work of Suzanne Simard, a Canadian forest ecologist, highlights the ‘co-operative systems’ in which trees exist. Not simply an individual, but a ‘collaborative intelligence’ where the thriving of the collective is valued over the success of one individual. The way our ancestors saw trees as life-givers, as sacred, was not wrong.
The sacredness of trees still rings true, even in the modern day. This year, we saw the destruction of Britain's most famous tree, the sycamore that stood in the dip at Hadrian's Wall. The Sycamore Gap tree was several hundred years old and voted Tree of the Year in 2016 by the Woodland Trust Awards. Even in a nature-depleted place like the UK, there are still threads of connection to our ecological ancestors.
This interconnectedness between trees, humans, and the other-than-human world can also be explained through Bioregionalism. The environmentalist, Peter Berg, articulated bioregionalism as “the awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans”. Being part of a bioregion entails more than just recognising one's familiarity with the local ecology, it involves a commitment to stewardship. This form of guardianship and kinship, observed in tree networks and other species, should be embraced by us as well. If we preserve the natural world, in all its wildness, beauty, and complexity, then we need to see nature not as ‘other’, but as ‘kin’.
As I lean into the practices of interconnectedness and interdependence with others and the more-than-human world, I am brought back to this feeling of gratitude. When we do away with individualism, we coexist in a web of life that Robin Wall Kimmerer shares in her essay, The Serviceberry:
“Gratitude is so much more than a polite “thank you.” It is the thread that connects us in a deep relationship, simultaneously physical and spiritual, as our bodies are fed and spirits nourished by the sense of belonging, which is the most vital of foods. Gratitude creates a sense of abundance, the knowing that you have what you need. In that climate of sufficiency, our hunger for more abates and we take only what we need, in respect for the generosity of the giver."
Next time you are outside, breathing in the cool morning air, I invite you to consider your ecological kin. They are inextricably woven into the air you breathe and the nourishment you exhale. When you are walking through a woodland area, take the time to not only look above, but also down and marvel at the intricate networks of life that exist beneath our feet, which are rooted in collective thriving.