How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ode to the Sacred Trees - Deforestation, Prozac and Enlightenment

“The self desires only what is real, thinks nothing but what is true. Here people do what they are told, becoming dependent on their country, or their piece of land, or the desires of another, so their desires are not fulfilled and their works comes to nothing, both in this world and the next. Those who depart from this world without knowing who they are or what they truly desire have no freedom here or hereafter.”

Siddhartha Gautama was said to have meditated under a rose apple tree (Eugenia jamboscensis) as a small child. Under the shelter of the evergreen, fruit-bearing tree, the child who was to become Buddha first intuited a simple truth: the roots of suffering are greed, selfishness and ignorance. Thirty years later, under a different evergreen, fruit-bearing Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), the Buddha became enlightened.

Young Siddhartha was not alone in his moments of connection with trees. In the absence of television, video games and other digital stimulation, children naturally gravitate towards trees. Back in the days when children used to play outside without fear, it was unusual to find a fine specimen of tree without the melodic sound of little voices ringing from somewhere within its canopy. A large tree with an easily-accessible trunk begs to be climbed and loved by children.

My own childhood was blessed by two memorable trees with whom I had personal relationships. The first was an unidentified and what seemed to be gigantic fig tree of some kind that lived in the backyard of a Miami duplex my family rented when I was 6 and 7 years old. We were inexplicably poor, given that my single mother with three children was receiving one of those very high public school teacher’s salaries that we are hearing about in the news these days. Our toys were a deck of cards, maybe a single Barbie and the great outdoors.

The neighborhood was a bit rough. A block over from our house lived a family from Brooklyn with a scrappy child (Debbie) who was younger, smaller and a much better fighter than I was. She was a wicked puller of hair. Fortunately, my tree climbing skills were superior. I suppose that spending her formative years in the concrete jungle had restricted Debbie’s familiarity with the fine art, so whenever Debbie was looking for a brawl, I would seek refuge with my tall friend in the backyard. I would climb high up into the canopy and secure myself in the fork of a branch where I couldn’t be dislodged by the swaying of the wind. Sometimes I would have to wait it out for hours while Debbie took out her frustration on the tree that bore the brunt of her wrath as she beat its trunk with a two by four or other weapon of choice.

My time in the tree was not spent in fear. Once I reached the canopy top, I knew I was safe, and when my head peaked out just above the foliage, I had a vantage point across the flat plain of South Florida as far as the eye could see. From the treetop, I would fantasize about my future life in exotic places far away from the slums of Little Havana.

A year later, after my mother had been employed by the Dade County school system for a few years, we were able to afford a detached home in a marginally better neighborhood. The interior of the new house was modest, but the outside was a treasure trove. The owner of the house was an avid gardener and collector of tropical fruit trees. In the yard were avocado, mango, key lime, guava, grapefruit, loquat and sea grape trees, but my favorite was an old rose apple tree.

The tree had smooth limbs and several intersections formed cradling cups perfectly sized for my childish rump. When I sat in one of the small depressions, it felt like the tree was hugging me. The tree also provided nourishment in the form of a strange but delicious fruit that tasted both of roses and apples. Whenever I was persecuted by my older teenage siblings, I would run away to the tree for solace and refuge. My mother, paraphrasing a popular song of the day used to say I was “take[ing] a trip but never leave[ing] the farm.”

One day I returned home from school to find my rose apple tree being cut down. It seems our land lady, worried about liability and responding to stories from our neighbors about a wild and scruffy child living in the tree, took it upon herself to kill my friend.

As a middle aged adult, I must admit that my climbing skills have deteriorated to a pathetic state, as I discovered on a recent seed collecting expedition, but I still find solace in the company of trees. I have been fortunate to make my adult life far away from the pavement and congestion of cities. Lost within a tangle of woodland or forest, where none of humanity’s scars on the planet are visible, I find deep, absolute peace.

When I first moved to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands 20 years ago, the entire western portion of the island was completely undeveloped. When the stresses and strains of day to day life got to be too overwhelming, I would take the Best Dog in the Whole Wide World, Chad, out to the island’s Northwest Point and walk along the perfect shoreline. Meandering in and out of the shrublands and woodlands for hours and delighting in the friendly blue gray gnatcatchers, scolding me for disturbing them, I revitalized my body and spirit with an elixir of salt-drenched and sun-baked earth.

Then one day, inevitably, the bulldozers came and pushed a road through paradise. A jarring rumble of steel scraping rock overpowered the whistling wind and the twittering of feathered inhabitants. In the wake, broken sentinels lay ruined and slaughtered. I sat down in the rubble and wailed a now familiar all-consuming despair.

During a routine check up I broke down in my doctor’s office when I told him about the road. He said, “That’s not normal. You must be depressed,” and so he provided me with a prescription for Prozac and sent me on my way to presumably better mental health. I tried the Prozac for a while but frankly didn’t like the way it turned me into an emotionless zombie. If crying over trees is some kind of psychological pathology, then I would rather be mentally ill than “healthy.” I think it’s sad we live in a world that people need to medicate themselves against just to cope.

It hasn’t always been this way. Throughout our natural history, humans have enjoyed an expansive symbiotic relationship with trees. Trees provide food, shelter, fuel and beauty. Beyond our anthropocentric view of the world, trees are keystones in the natural world. Their presence anchors ecosystems, cycling nutrients, building topsoil and providing homes and fodder to myriad organisms. The complexity of the connections they weave among themselves and their wider communities is something scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface of. Perhaps for these reasons, and for the airy fairy reason that sensitive people can sense connection to the complex organisms that are trees, sacred appreciation of trees is endemic to almost all cultures and races except ours.

“You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the alter that you make for the Lord your God…things that the Lord your God hates (Deuteronomy 16:21).”

The ancient Canaanites worshipped the Great Mother goddess Asherah and her living embodiment, sacred groves of fig trees. When Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she was likely participating in an ancient ritual of reverence for the supreme goddess of creation. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh demands the destruction of Asherah’s sacred trees, and mankind has been faithful to His dictates ever since.

Two-thirds of the world’s primary forest cover has now been cut down. An area the size of Great Britain is lost every two years. Every day land is clear-cut in America to make way for strip malls, condominiums, oil rigs and roads. Old growth forests are rendered to pulp that ultimately gets thrown on a trash heap or flushed down the toilet. In Latin America, tropical rainforests are razed to grow soybeans and hamburgers. Money, money, money. All is done without a second glance or thought to the individuals bleeding and dying under the machinery blades.

Our culture reduces the living world to “less than” and places humans and human reasoning at the pinnacle and yet for all our human invention we are miserable. Antidepressants are now the most prescribed drugs in America. We are living the American Dream but it seems more like a nightmare. Why? Siddhartha’s childhood rose apple tree breathed the eternal truth to him more than two-thousand years ago. Is it any wonder we suffer? Everything we are programmed by society to strive for is superficial and meaningless, so we swallow our Prozac and pay homage to the misery gods of selfishness, ignorance and greed. All the while peace, happiness and enlightenment lives just outside our clouded windows, stretching lofty branches up to the sun and blowing in the wind.


  1. I believe that it that all this over-medication of the populace is one major reason why we have become so apparently complacent about the destruction, waste, devastation and unbridled rampage of natural and resources that is going on right in our very faces. I enjoyed this post and your very vivid descriptions. I almost felt that I was up in that giant fig tree looking out over the world.

  2. Shafik, I think you are sadly correct. Aldous Huxly was unfortunately a prophet and predicted fairly accurately our 'Brave New World.'

  3. killing Mother, I hereby apologize ahead of time for any "tone" that I might take. I feel the gorge rising in my throat and the anger turning red around my head but it is not directed toward you or your writing, although you give me a jumping off point.

    It's fair to say that Homo sapiens are on the verge of destroying their habitat---an ENTIRE planet. We could go on and on about evolution and how intelligent they are and how far they've come. We can measure the size of their brain in proportion to their body mass compared to other, "less intelligent animals". Heck, just read Wikipedia: to find out just how AWESOME they are!

    But other animals (and humans ARE animals, don't forget)don't even give a thought about climbing trees (I'm sorry, Mother)yet find themselves beset upon by habitat-destroying monsters---US.

    Just think, if other animals (and remember again, humans ARE only animals)wrote the earth's history, what would it be like?

    I can't get into the religious stuff right now. I'm too upset.

  4. I didn't even use curse words, did I? No, maybe it wasn't intelligible to anyone but me but, I did not curse even though I wanted to.


  5. If I didn't get angry I would sit down in the rubble and wail my all-consuming despair too, dear killing Mother. I think I was being angry for that dear girl you described to us. I wish we could go back and fix it for her. Climbing trees is a thing very close to my heart as well.

    All the while peace, happiness and enlightenment lives just outside our clouded windows, stretching lofty branches up to the sun and blowing in the wind.

  6. That was lovely, Killing Mother. My earliest memories are of climbing trees, too...and building little houses among their roots, with twigs, leaves, bark and moss.

    Can I repost and link to this essay on witsend?

  7. Gail, I am glad you enjoyed the post. I think it is sad that tree climbing is becomming a lost art among our digital children...Feel free to repost, and thank you.

  8. tsisageya, sometimes anger is justified...for all our misplaced feelings of supremacy, we only deprive ourselves of a more meaningful existence when we place ourselves above, and therefore beyond, our fellow organisms.

  9. Thanks!! I see little children almost every day and it amazes me how much they instinctively love trees and animals. Pretty soon they will only know them from books and the teevee.

  10. I hope you like the pictures:

  11. Thank you very much Gail. The photographs are stunning, and I am humbled by your presentation.

  12. I'm so glad you liked it. There is a fairly new photographic technique that I think he uses sometimes, where multiple shots at different exposure settings are layered on top of each other to create such intensity. I'm way too old to learn it but it's just gorgeous.

  13. In the Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold has a beautiful long passage where he's sawing through the trunk of a tree that has died and needed to be cut down. As he saws, he takes us through the years that passed while that tree was growing. It's incredibly moving and makes you really FEEL the length of time it took that tree to grow. If we felt that every time a tree came down, perhaps we'd cut down a lot fewer.