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Relating to Trees

What is it about trees? Most people, I think, feel a certain fondness toward them. The forest evokes reverence — but even one by one, we feel something. Cool shade ... bloom and fruit ... usefulness as boundary markers ... the beauty of their distinctive form ...the size and age they sometimes attain ... but I think there's more than all that.

It's a subject for poets. Joyce Kilmer's "Trees", which ends "Only God can make a tree," expresses it one way. In "From Below" Denise Levertov talks about looking "up and up: to wonder/about what rises so far above me into the light."

Trees always seem such solid citizens of the world: steady, calm and enduring while we transient human beings bustle about our lives beneath them. So well balanced, with their roots firmly in the ground and their branches reaching for the sky. They stay put, they have a good long lifespan: they feel dependable. The trees native to our locale contribute greatly to our sense of place, they are companions.

The great forests of the world have been called "the lungs of the Earth" because they're so necessary for production of the oxygen our life depends on. Sometimes I wonder if one reason I feel happy under a tree, is oxygen.

Often we humans take for granted these lungs, and other contributions trees make to the ecology of the planet. Some people care so passionately, that to stop reckless logging and clearcutting, they tie themselves to trees in the face of bulldozers. Nevertheless much land has been destroyed from the removal of forests, with topsoil washing away and polluting the water supply; sources of indigenous food and medicine wiped out.

In Thailand, from ancient times people have occasionally ordained trees, to show their love and respect. The trunk is wrapped with the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk; the tree is considered a monk, a special being. More recently, human monks there have used the practice to draw attention to environmental problems, raise people's awareness about our interdependence with nature, and inspire participation in conservation. People like having a way to express in action their feelings about trees.

In our less mystical culture, we plant trees to celebrate Arbor Day (the last Friday in April). Then there's my friend who says when you're feeling insecure, hug a tree. "They're much more grounded than people. But always ask the tree's permission first."

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 23 April 2004

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For more information
  • Amador County girls tie themselves to favorite tree to protest PG&E tree cutting
  • Saffron Savior, by Robert Horn for Time — At Wang Pa Dung, the whole mountain was ordained.
  • Social Activism and Resistance on the Thai Frontier: The Case of Phra Prajak Khuttajitto, by Jim Taylor, in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol. 25, no. 2, Apr.-June 1993. Taylor comments "The ritual of tree ordination in fact has a long-established tradition in the north, where the people believe that the tree spirit, when ordained and wrapped in the sacred yellow monks' cloth, will effectively protect trees from being felled." Taylor cites for this p.154 in "People and Forests of Thailand," by Montree Chantawong, et al., in The Future of People and Forests in Thailand after the Logging Ban , ed. Pinkaew Leungaramsri and Noel Rajesh (Bangkok: Project for Ecological Recovery, 1992).
  • Thai Ecology Monks — "Known informally as environmentalist, or ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa), this small but visible percentage of Thai Buddhist monastics feel compelled to address environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering. Seeing a direct connection between the root causes of suffering (greed, ignorance, and hatred) and environmental destruction, ecology monks consider environmental activism to be well within their purview as Buddhist monastics. Drawing on Buddhist principles and practices, ecology monks have adapted traditional rituals and ceremonies to draw attention to environmental problems, raise awareness about the value of nature, and inspire people to take part in conservation efforts. Ceremonies such as tree ordination rituals (buat ton mai), in which trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status, are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and bolstered by Buddhist practices." On the site of the Forum for Religion and Ecology, at Harvard University.
  • Sacred Forestry: Salvaging Thailand's Forests and Traditions, by David Taylor: "Abbot Khru Pitak Nanthakhun and other monks have also adapted Buddhist rituals to forest activism. Some have encircled the trunks of the largest and most vulnerable trees with yellow monks' robes, essentially ordaining the trees as monks. Whoever cuts the tree in effect kills a monk, a mortal sin." One of the articles in In Context #40: Creating A Future We Can Live With, Spring 1995, Page 6; © copyright 1995, 1997 by Context Institute.
  • Protecting the Forests, by Kulcharee Tansubhapol "The ceremony, said Phra Somkid, is not only a ritual of wrapping a tree with a yellow robe. "It is a ritual to connect people's minds with Nature," he said. The ceremony also symbolises the interdependent relationship between people, the forest and wildlife. "
  • Trees, by Joyce Kilmer