Re-weaving the web of meaning: a participant's reflection

A participant reflection from the course Tree of Life. Beatrice Stewart asks: how can the wisdom of the Tree of Life help us to navigate the Great Unravelling and re-weave the web of meaning?

Winter has arrived. As the barren English countryside takes on a ghostly beauty, time appears to slow. Nature’s cyclical rhythms of death and rebirth remind us of the impermanence of being. Deciduous trees act as arboreal timekeepers over the changing seasons, yet one species has become out-of-sync. The Ash tree. Each year blackened leaves shed without promise of return, leaving a spectre of once-majestic canopies in their wake. This loss signals the onset of a deadly fungal disease, initially introduced through global trade in timber. Ash dieback, afflicting species across Europe, will claim up to eighty per cent of British Ash and irrevocably change the landscape.

I find myself ruminating on what the Norse would have made of the ill-fated Ash tree. Their cosmology centred around a sacred Ash, Yggdrasil, which structurally embodied the wisdom of the divine. This Axis Mundi, the centre of the universe, mediated the nine interdependent realms of beings. The symmetry between Yggdrasil’s roots and branches symbolises the principle of as above, so below, the balance of cosmic order between the material and spiritual realms. The legend of Ragnarök serves as a poignant tale in this moment of Great Unravelling. It foretold a time when Yggdrasil would tremble, and the world would be ravaged by natural disasters, floods and flames.

This Tree of Life archetype is prominent in many creation stories, philosophically rooting them to real-world observations of local ecologies. As a conduit between the cosmological and natural worlds, it embodies the entanglement of all living beings, both tangible and intangible. It teaches us how the microcosm of our internal reality reflects the macrocosm of external reality, and vice-versa. As Kenneth J. Gergen writes in Relational Being, “all meaning grows from coordinated action, or co-action, and thus, all that we hold to be real, rational, and valuable depends on the well-being of our relationships”.

Relationships lead to emergence, the Aristotelian concept that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Individual trees are complex beings. They exhibit an evolutionary intelligence that enables them to remain rooted in place, oftentimes for centuries. Yet when we encounter the forest ecosystem we witness the magic of emergence at work. Consider the mycelial networks beneath the forest floor. These connect arboreal communities in a manner akin to the synapses in a brain. This “sophisticated cognition” means trees “are more perceptive, intelligent, and in control of their destiny than humans have ever given them credit for”, says Suzanne Simard. Through the “Wood Wide Web” trees communicate and share nutrients, sometimes even with rival species and ‘dead’ tree stumps. As a whole, the forest ecosystem is more resilient to harsh weather and disease. Emerging from these symbiotic entanglements is a mysterious arboreal-fungal consciousness that Paul Stamets calls “nature’s neural network”.

Social systems are also emergent structures. However, developed modes of living are underpinned by economic relations that are the antithesis of the wisdom of the forest. Capitalism has a insatiable appetite for severing relational ties to environment and community. Our arboreal kin are rendered as resources for human use, their existence values replaced for production value.

This logic permeates the human psyche as well. We can see the principle of as above, so below at work in the increasingly common phenomenon of internalised capitalism, the propensity to measure self-worth in terms of productivity. Anders Hayden explains how “you can’t feel value in yourself just for being alive - just for being a human being. You have to be a ‘human doing’ to have any value”. Yet, within the around-the-clock, linear temporalities of capitalism, we can never do enough to realise this worth. Consequently, the “tiny, lonely identity that remains has a voracious need to claim as much as possible of that lost beingness for its own”, writes Charles Eisenstein in Sacred Economics.

We find ourselves in a material realm devoid of deeper meaning, spurring a hunger that no amount of consumption can satiate. Meanwhile, as temperatures rise and natural disasters become naturalised, the status quo drives us headlong into the abyss. The time of Ragnarök feels close at hand. After all, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, so the capitalist realist saying goes. Yet, just as an ecosystem collapses when one species becomes too dominant, civilisation appears to be buckling under the weight of unrelenting economic growth.

Terry Tempest Williams explains how “we are unraveling in inexplicable ways given how tightly and mysteriously the world is woven together. Pull one strand and all the strands are disrupted, threatening the integrity of the overall pattern”. What opportunities does this Great Unravelling bring for re-enchanting collective narratives and reclaiming our identities as ecologically-embedded beings? In order to “reweave the world anew”, we must do so, “not from the places of fear and doubt, but from the intimate spaces of belonging we must retrieve for ourselves. We are Earth unraveling and reforming creation. We are meant to engage not isolate”, writes Tempest Williams.

Whilst contemporary myths lose their appeal, the teachings of the Tree of Life enmesh themselves in my thoughts like the mycelial threads beneath the forest floor. Ancient mythology associated the Ash tree with “positive enchantment and application of will to destiny, which in many cases represents a healing process as the individual comes into contact with the truth of their own identity and the shamanic wound”. As I stand beneath the sullen Ash tree, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of grief. Between us is a shared loss of feeling like a human doing, rather than human being, entangled in a paradigm that conceives of trees in terms of timber rather than kin. What distress signals are being sent along the Wood Wide Web below my feet? What will the landscape look like after those conversations end? As I ponder these questions my rational, materialistic ways of knowing come undone. This dissolution clears space to re-enchant my way of seeing and reminds me I am part of a dialogue beyond the comprehension of the self.

In The Web of Meaning, Jeremy Lent explains how “a full recognition of this interconnectedness brings with it myriad implications as we traverse its weave. Some pathways of the web invite possibilities for great awakening and liberation from the confines of a bounded self. Other pathways open up grievous avenues of shared anguish as we become intimate with the suffering of others and the ongoing devastation of nonhuman life on Earth”. Lent’s meditations are reminiscent of the personal sacrifice Odin made when he hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights. There Odin learnt about the great mystery of the interdependent realms and how they collaborate to co-manifest reality.

The ecological suffering unfolding around us invites us to extend our empathy to our more-than-human kin. Awareness of our entanglement with the-more-than-human world is painful as we bear witness to ecological catastrophe, and have to take accountability for our contribution to it. Equally, empathy-based connections enable us to step outside the isolating reality of internalised capitalism and reclaim our identity as an ecologically-embedded beings. The duality of these paths, Lent reminds us, can “imbue our lives with vibrant meaning as we participate in the wondrous and fearsome cosmic adventure of being a human alive during this time of great destiny”.


 Beatrice Stewart

Beatrice (she/her) is a writer and climate justice activist based in London. Her interests range from ecology, law and technology to decolonial theory.

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