The silent narrative of trees


'Trees' by Chris JohnstonAt 3.00pm on 13 December 2009, the World Council of Churches has called upon Christians around the world to ring their bells, blow their horns or beat their drums 350 times to alert world decision makers, meeting in Copenhagen, of the need to reduce CO2 levels. This 'bell ringing for climate justice' might signify the beginning of a more vocal, moral and even spiritual re-engagement of churches with the silent voice of nature.

As organic entities, trees remind us of the cyclical nature of existence, the seasons, renewal and growth. With their roots deep in the earth, their trunks reaching for the sky, and their branches brushing the heavens, trees are also natural enduring symbols linking physical and spiritual layers of awareness.

Whether as a Tree of Life, Sacred Tree or axis mundi representing a cosmic centre, trees in one form or another have often been recognised as powerful cosmological agents in many of the earth's myths, art, ritual and religious beliefs. From Celtic fertility maypoles to Lakota Indian sundance pillars; from the World Tree Yggdrasil (from which the Norse god Odin hung) to the very crucifix of Jesus Christ, trees have symbolic resonance and power.

Trees and forests can also define the borders of civilised and moral life. In both western and eastern cultures, from Scandinavian trolls and German forest witches to Japanese kami, elemental things live in forests, and wild, dangerous forces can lurk there.

Trees and forests have agency because they can create cognitive and subliminal landscapes in our minds which speak to our imagination and creativity as well as to our emotional and spiritual dimensions. But whether we perceive nature as a savage garden or as utopian Arcadian paradise really depends on what we have been conditioned to understand.

So, while forest dwelling peoples might perceive their forests as rich sources of sustenance and spiritual comfort, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, there is always 'risk' in nature. After all, even Satan's serpent managed to enter the Garden of Eden and threaten the perfection of paradise.

The point here is that in both biblical and other religious and mythological landscapes, trees have agency because their presence makes things happen or enables events to occur.

Many indigenous cultures, from the Shawi of the Peruvian Amazon to the Yarralin people of Australia's Northern Territory, don't differentiate between the natural world and themselves. For these animist societies, trees and other natural phenomena are not silent or mute, but are fully engaged as participants in the cultural and spiritual life of their communities, communicating directly or through a ritual specialist or shaman.

I argue that in 21st century industrial materialist economies such as our own, natural and human interactions have become disconnected and sanitised. Natural resources are exploited and any spiritual, dynamic or emotional empathy with trees and nature is trivialised and commodified. Being 'green' is largely reduced to marketing opportunities for 'green' petrol and unbleached toilet paper rather than leading to substantive responsible action.

If trees have lost some of their anthropomorphic and spiritual significance in the modern world, they have now taken on possibly even greater symbolic power as icons for the environment and the need to address issues of ecology and survival. As nature's emissaries, trees communicate to us existentially and symbolically, through what many hope is our growing appreciation and even fear of what it might mean should they all be lost.

Recently, the World Council of Churches announced an 'Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change' which recognises 'the science of climate change', and that it 'is not merely an economic or technical problem, but ... a moral, spiritual and cultural one'.

Religious institutions are beginning to realise that in order to stay relevant and contribute to a moral dynamic in environmental discourse, they need to become more reconciled with and engaged in issues of the natural world.

For those who hold a spiritual or religious faith, nature can provide authenticity to the spiritual life and to God. There is also a long tradition in the Abrahamic religions of perceiving the evidence of God's work and invisible hand in the natural world around us. So, from a religious point of view, it might be morally contingent upon us to do something proactively about respecting it.

However, it has taken the secularism of modern science and the contemporary environmental movement to re-awaken our consciousness, culpability and responsibility for the natural world in the current crisis. Hopefully, if secular, spiritual and religious forces can together learn to listen to the silent narrative of nature in general, and trees in particular, we might just be redeemed.

Thor BeowulfThor Beowulf is a property developer turned environmental advocate. He is a first year PhD student at the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University, Canberra. His thesis topic examines cross-cultural perceptions of art, aesthetics and nature between Asia and the West. This article was adapted from a paper given at last month's Monash University Religious Communication Conference.

Topic tags: Thor Beowulf, trees, bell ringing for climate justice, copenhagen, Shawi, Peruvian Amazon, Yarralin people



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"Religious institutions are beginning to realise that in order to stay relevant and contribute to a moral dynamic in environmental discourse, they need to become more reconciled with and engaged in issues of the natural world."

Sorry Thor, I think this is very presumptive of you. Every religion I know of teaches of the relationship between human development and care for creation.

I just find the new environmentalist religionists just don't know anything about the heritage that the world's oldest religious traditionalists have passed on to each generation.

But, the point is the marketing of it and the jockeying for power over people, not religion really!

Copenhagen will still leave the poorest nations of the world poor and the richest nations telling them how poor they will be. Who's going to give up their air-conditioner in Australia or the USA so a family in Ethiopia can have electricity to grind the corn? We'll just tell them to go nuclear and buy our uranium and out technology.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 07 December 2009  

As we destroy more and more trees, what hope is there for the creature 'made in the image and likeness of God'

Ray O'Donoghue | 07 December 2009  

The spread of angiosperms (flowering plants) around the world over the last 100 million years has decreased atmospheric carbon dioxide and sequestered it in ever-enriching soils. Pleistocene era bifurcation between glacial and interglacial periods is the consequence of this trend of decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Humans commenced deforestation at the start of the Neolithic period, a few thousand years after the present interglacial period started.

We forestalled the onset of the next glacial period with the end of the so-called Little Ice Age early in the Industrial Revolution, but we didn't do it just by burning fossil fuel; industrial-scale forest clearances along the Ganges, in Europe and North America liberated huge masses of carbon from soils and wood, and limited the carbon-sequestering capacity of forest.

Meanwhile, we continue to return carbon, sequestered in fossil deposits hundreds of millions of years ago, to the climate system.

Reafforestation is an essential part of the recovery from the present crisis. There'll be a Big Vision statement about all this at Copenhagen, with photographs of leaders in suits. There'll be Visionary Ways Forward, and Plans, and Forestry Trading Schemes, Derivatives, and all the rest.

Me, I'd rather have a caravan in the hills.

David Arthur | 07 December 2009  

I do not agree. Climate issues are problems to be solved, by good will and by practical measures, informed by fact and by scientific method, not by gesture politics. It is wrong to turn a practical public policy issue into a quasi-spiritual one. It is also dangerous.

Churches should be wary of joining with Greens and others on the far left for the sake of some fashionable "relevance", when the Green movement is the Church's enemy on all life issues from abortion to euthanasia to drugs. No Church should be so keen for attention or "youth" relevance as to think it should seek Bob Brown's support.

Church needs to preach the Gospel and, if need be, reiterate the need for moderation and frugality, not just in personal consumption but also in matters of sexuality as well. There is a seamless, logical blanket that Church teaching weaves. It does not need support from the the Gaia theology or some sort of Christian hippy movement.

Godfrey Saint | 11 December 2009  

Can religions save the earth - especially from manmade disasters happening right on their noses? Do religions have miracle for this matter? By siding with the green, nothing will change but only by changing the ideology of the governments under the influence of religions and the people toward sustainable practices. Yet, what is the place of religions among the green movements that have been around for 20 years? Would religions follow or lead? As leaders live with the thought of skeptics, more than what the science has to say, I can't see religious influences leaning toward green.

AZURE | 06 January 2010  

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