Sacred Spires in Nature
The Aztecs called them Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, star-crossed lovers turned to smoking mountains. Two miles high in the Andes, it is believed that the birthplace of the sun lies, amid the bitingly cold air blowing across azure waters. Nature and spirituality have been tightly entwined ever since the first man opened his eyes. While mankind today erects steel, glass, and concrete edifices to commemorate its own success, nature has stood as evidence that everything has the potential to be sacred.
Located in the White mountains of California in the United States of America, there stands a sacred spire four thousand, eight hundred and forty-one years old. The bristlecone pine, known as Methuselah, is part of the Inyo National Forest. As such, it was thought to be the oldest non-clonal organism on the planet. Then an older bristlecone pine was discovered nearby. Its age is estimated to be over five thousand years old. That means it was germinated in 3051 BCE. Both trees are found on north-facing slopes.
The tetrameles nudiflora is a large deciduous tree found in the southern part of Asia and into northern Australia. The most famous such tree grows in Cambodia, having become a part of the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple, erected and consecrated in 1191 ACE. The large Banyan tree has kept growing despite the abandonment of the temple over the many years of Cambodia’s violent history and political struggles and genocide. Massive tree roots now cover walls which were once adorned with carvings and jewels. The movie “Tomb Raider” selected the location of the sacred trees at Ta Prohm as the setting for some of the film’s scenes. The temple once built because of its beautiful location is now tended by the huge trees which have made it part of their structure.
You might expect a tree at a botanical garden but one yew tree at Kew Botanical Garden in West Sussex qualifies as ancient with one being six hundred and twenty years old. It is said to have been planted in 1391. The yew tree has adapted to its environment with gnarled roots that tightly grasp the uneven ground it calls home. However, this is not England’s oldest yew tree. That distinction goes to a yew tree growing in a churchyard in Llangernyw in Wales. The St. Dygain’s Parish tree was planted sometime during the Bronze Age.
The Zoroastrian Sarv, or Sarv-e Abarqu, is a cypress tree which can be found in Yazd province, Iran. It is estimated to be four thousand years old and considered an Iranian national monument and the oldest living thing in Asia. Because of the creation mythologies of the area, Sarv is considered to have lived through and witnessed the birth of civilization. The Andes Mountains also lay claim to ancient trees. The Alerce or Fitzroya cupressoides is a towering tree and the oldest living specimen is thought to be three thousand, six hundred and forty years old.
Other majestic and ancient trees are considered worship sites around the world. The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria and the sacred forest of Rambakurimwa in Zimbabwe are both places where man and nature intertwine. The Cedars of God in Lebanon are cedars of antiquity and the tree is mentioned one hundred and three times in the Bible. Buddhist monks reverently tend the Bo-Tree in Sri Lanka. It dates back to 245 BCE and is said to be a cutting from Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment in India.
In her book “How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet”, Jean Shinoda Bolen writes: “The tree is a powerful symbol. Trees appear in many creation stories, such as the World Ash or the Garden of Eden. Religions, especially the Druids, have revered trees. Buddha was enlightened sitting under a Bodhi tree. Christmas is celebrated by decorating Christmas trees. There are sacred trees throughout the world. As I went deeper and deeper into the subject of trees, I entered a complex and diverse forest of knowledge, from archeological to mystical. I learned that we wouldn’t be here at all — we, the mammals and humans on this planet — if not for trees.”
Herman Hesse also spoke of the importance of trees and their place in a spiritual world. “For me,” he said, “trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier; nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow. Trees are sanctuaries.
Amid the hills of Flora, Mississippi lies a forest of ancient trees, stone trees. When living, the trees stood well over one hundred feet tall and were most likely over a thousand years old. Within sixty to eighty miles of the Mississippi River, the trees had their own flood story. Whether the Mississippi River or one of the many nearby, one river flooded and ripped apart everything in the river current’s path. AS snow melts from the north caused additional flooding over the years, the remains of the trees sank, New floods covered them up as well as bringing more to join them. The rich silt and sand covered the trees. Decay set in and then they became petrified. The Ice age brought glaciers which moved southward. Gradual warming of the earth resulted in glacier dust being deposited on top of the petrified trees. In time grasses grew up in place of the dust, only to be washed away by soil erosion. Storms created ravines and gullies which unearthed and revealed the stone logs.
Petrified trees are found in every state in the United States and in many countries. The Petrified Forest of Mississippi, however, is the only such forest east of the Mississippi River. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons trees give us comes from the Petrified Forest. We must daily renew our spirits or else we too will become buried by the pressure of the world and the demands of living. We cannot allow our morals and beliefs to become buried by society’s trends or the behavior of the “in crowd”. Neither should we close ourselves off and let our hearts become numb to the rest of the world.
Hesse believed “A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail. A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers; I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.”
We speak of family trees and they are our connection with our past and our present. Our greatest connection, though, is how we live, how we stand, where we stand. The tree grows upward, never looking to go back into the ground but adapting to what challenges in life it encounters. The tree offers us a haven, a retreat in which to remember the sacred miracle of our own being. The strongest part of a tree is not the prettiest. Its roots give it a solid foundation and with its boughs, its limbs, it is constantly reaching upward. In its sacred being, the tree knows one must continually grow.