In a Tree: A Brown Study for Earth Day

Trees of life and blessing … a reflection on branchy profundity.

Though worlds of good have come to us from the East, the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) since leaving its native Eastern Russia and Asia has infected and killed 150-200 million Ash trees in the Eastern United States, thereby injuring the livelihood of those who craft hardwood floors and bowling ally lanes and baseball bats. The EAB larva is a creature of indiscriminant taste and upon hatching will bore through any of Ash’s 65 varieties into the tree’s phloem and outer layer of sapwood, a layer which functions as both the tree’s veins and connective tissue.  As the severed tissue curtails the tree’s supply of nutrients and water, the outermost branches (its crown) begin to die. Shortly, small D-shaped exit wounds begin to appear on the tree’s trunk where the mature EAB has made its way into the world.

Outside my current home, a lovely Elm tree has begun misting green with the gentling weather. One of the largest in this settled neighborhood, the well-dressed old thing typically adorns itself in fluttering emerald and looked splendid this winter bangled in ice. However, one large leader branch off the main trunk has clearly died, and the tree’s crown thins with each season. In a few months if this ligneous monument exhibits “flagging” branches, whose leaves brown and wilt (trademark of Dutch Elm Disease) from vascular tissues clogged with fungus, the tree will die.  The death of this aging organism would feel like the toppling of a monument. For over a century the tree has been embodying light and exuding atmosphere, and one need only study its rings to find a living history of drought and plenty, of injury and growth, of human movement and climate. Arborist William Bryant Logan says studying these biological indicators provides an entire “school of history, design, and society.”

Beyond design and history, motifs of a Tree of Life, sacred knowledge, and order entwine most anthropological narratives.   In a recent film, Marvel superhero Thor describes to Jane Foster how her world is actually one of nine in the cosmos, linked by the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which forms the structure of the universe. According to Norse mythology, this tree (Ash, ironically) reaches above the heavens and brings life to the realms at its roots, an axis connecting times and realms above and below. Even if the icon was first celebrated in druidic rites and “pagan” mythology, evergreen trees have become integral in one of the West’s most prominent holy days, boughs of holly and spruce symbolizing eternal life and immortality.

In Hebrew writings, etz chaim or “tree of life,” a common term for the Torah, functions too as a name for synagogues and works of Rabbinic literature. It occurs frequently in Jewish wisdom literature. As King Solomon instructed his sons, Wisdom “is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” Similarly, Siddhartha Buddha is said to have gained spiritual enlightenment while sitting beneath the spreading boughs of a bodhi (fig) tree.    Solomon’s own father David compared the man of righteousness who delights in the law of the Lord to “a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.  In all that he does, he prospers.”

The Duke Senior in Shakespeare’s As You Like It finds much wisdom and joy as a woodsman in the Forest of Arden, though he be in exile.  “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” But what must the Man and Woman, firstborn natives in a nubile and unspoilt country have thought when trees sprang up beneath their bare feet, laden with effortless fruits? What did our sires think of sycamore and banyan and palm, of the sylvan host that would frame the Biblical narrative? They could not know that the arboreal form of the knowledge of good and evil, from which they stole the firstfruits of the only forbidden thing in the universe and partook of its flesh, a tree would bear man from his Garden to a life-giving Ark to a wooden manger, and to a day so important as to become the axis by which we orient time—when a cross held aloft the flesh of an unknown man from Nazareth as the most wonderful, bitter, and life-giving fruit that ever hung on a tree.

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