Take a moment to discover and appreciate one of nature’s greatest entities with a thought-provoking extract from Be More Tree by Alice Peck.
Trees reflect our own lives through their perseverance and seasonal rhythms and each tree has a story to tell, with wisdom and symbols from their roots to their leaves. Read on to discover more about the roots and scroll down to focus your attention on one valuable and inspirational species, the cedar tree.
Wisdom, Lore, and Understanding
No matter what their species, trees have roots—they are their source, their foundation, and their means of sustenance. Roots depend upon three things: oxygen, water, and space to grow. As they seek nourishment to send to their branches, some tree roots travel horizontally, others downward into the soil. The distance for some is so shallow that it can be measured in inches, while others penetrate as deep as two hundred feet.
Like trees, we humans are anchored and nourished by our roots—familial and cultural—and depend upon what’s unseen—myths, symbols, and meaning—to help us make sense of our lives. Trees provide an abundance of examples as they illuminate our conscious and subconscious selves, our histories, and even our archetypes.
Consider the vast, 80,000-year-old colony of quaking aspens called the Pando in Fishlake National Forest in Utah. The 40,000 trees are connected by a single root system. The roots remain constant even as the aspen is constantly sending out fresh growth. Thinking about the Pando’s roots and shoots—the newborn intrinsically entwined with the ancient—can put our world and the interconnection of all beings into perspective in one way. The erudition of the psychologist Carl Jung gives us another. He saw the oak tree as a prototype for the psyche, or self, and its roots as a metaphor for the unconscious. The aspen and the oak are just the beginning.
Exploring the trees in this section of the book helps us to consider how we are rooted in time, like the cedar that connects us to ancient Mesopotamia and yet is as present as the pencil in our hand, like the chestnut trees featured in so many great books and poems, or like the story of cinnamon that contains a history of the modern world. Trees are the source of both beauty and darkness, as the ephemeral cherry blossom and the complexity of the yew show us. Roots are the beginnings of the mysteries of the juniper, the wisdom of the kauri, and the secrets of the laurel and rowan.
When it comes to roots, I’ve learned so much about patience and presence, not just from the ailanthus, mango, and steady oak, but also from the tree in my backyard. The root systems of maples are typically dense and overwhelming, forcing out the growth of other vegetation. Mine is no exception. Being a city tree, its challenges go beyond drought or winter freeze and include pavement obstacles and shadows cast by buildings. Yet, the maple perseveres, and so for me teaches both the wisdom and folly of tenacity.
The Cedar Tree
The cedar tree was the inspiration for one of the oldest recorded works of world literature: the Epic of Gilgamesh , an ancient Mesopotamian poem that dates from the Third Dynasty of Ur, or about 2100 BCE. In it, Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city of Urek, journeys to the Cedar Forest to slay the ogre demi-god Humbaba. The cedar is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad , and it’s said that the Apadana Palace of Persepolis (c.500 BCE) and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem (c.832 BCE) featured its wood. The cedar tree is considered sacred by many religions. The ancient Egyptian god Ra and the legendary Thunderbird revered by Native American Lakotas were said to live among cedars. The cedars of Lebanon, or cedars of God, have been an emblem of Lebanon since ancient times, when their timber was exploited by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians.
This spicy scented wood is also said to be the material from which the Ark of the Covenant was constructed, and perhaps even the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The ancient Egyptians built ships with it, and in the nineteenth century, the Ottomans used it in railroad construction. Durable and rot-resistant, fragrant cedar is sought after today for musical instruments, ships, sacred and funerary religious objects, closets, hope chests, even longbows.
FROM OGRES AND PALACES TO NOTEBOOKS
One of the primary uses for cedar now is in the manufacturing of pencils. It is the ideal wood for this purpose because it doesn’t warp, lose shape, or splinter when sharpened—plus it smells lovely. The eastern red cedar was used for making pencils from the mid-nineteenth century until about 1920. In the early twentieth century, American supplies of red cedar were so depleted that manufacturers even recycled cedar fences and barns to make pencils. They then made the switch to incense cedar, which is more plentiful and sustainable.
Be inspired by all kinds of trees in the beautifully illustrated book Be More Tree by Alice Peck.