Trees in history and religions

This video is called Aesop’s Fable: The Trees and The Axe.

By Michal Boncza in Britain:

The Tree – Meaning And Myth

by Frances Carey (British Museum Press, £25)

Friday 30 November 2012

A new book on the meaning and myth of trees shows just how beneficial to us they are

As Frances Carey reminds us in this excellent book, trees are a constant point of reference in mythology.

When Achilles unleashed the spear that killed Hector outside the walls of Troy he had the double advantage of his legendary dexterity but more importantly a spear crafted from the finest Pelian ash.

The fig is the only tree mentioned in the biblical description of the Garden of Eden and has been cultivated for well over 4,000 years.

The fact that Judas hanged himself from one does not appear to have diminished its appeal.

It was after all a fig tree that provided shelter and nourishment to Romulus and Remus before they got on with the business of establishing Rome.

In the real world, if you’re serious about planting an orchard you could do worse than dip into the third dynasty of Ur 2,100-2,000 BCE manual on the subject or check out the Roman poet Virgil, who wrote extraordinarily detailed didactic poems on it too.

For the Iroquois, fir trees were emblems of peace, embodying longevity, steadfastness and survival in adversity.

Despite that understanding, and the fact that trees predate humans by millions of years, our more recent parallel evolution has not been at all symbiotic and has led us to the brink of actually severing the proverbial branch we are sitting on.

The environmental point of Aesop’s fable about the Trees And The Axe remains unheeded since the day it was written 2,500 years ago.

Elm and now ash trees in Britain are under what appears to be terminal threat and that’s why Carey’s book is so timely. It is written with rare gusto, knowledge and an uncommon eye for an unexpected and instructive anecdote or tale.

She takes us on a voyage of remarkable discovery that releases conflicting emotions of wonderment, despair and no little anger. Trees have inspired poetry, countless metaphor, cartoons, etchings and paintings by the likes of Van Gogh and Dürer and they provided not only the raw material for sculpture, astonishing furniture and ships but equally countless weapons and, of course, coffins.

Francisco Goya, Paul Nash and Christopher Nevinson used tree stumps to depict the unsettling horror and folly of war.

These are mutilated trees, no longer capable of providing protective shade or – a macabre sight – adorned with the sadistically tortured corpses of the vanquished with no prospect of the “olive branch of peace” in sight.

Yet trees’ medicinal properties were well evident to our Western ancestors at least two millennia ago and an amazingly illustrated plant catalogue by a physician called Krateuas dates back to 75BCE Anatolia.

Carey’s spellbinding and richly illustrated mini-narratives demonstrate how trees have been extraordinarily loyal and inspirational companions for humanity.

But in an epilogue she starkly warns of their own slow demise and against our own inexplicable indifference.

That is a consequence of millennia of singularly selfish and exploitative enterprise propelled by an insatiably widespread, if ultimately suicidal, greed.

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