I have been drawn to a visual exploration of trees since my early days as an artist. In recent years the call of the tree has been even louder and more persistent. I believe that on some level I am hearing the pain of our dying forests and their cry for help. It is my desire that by honoring their strength and their beauty on canvas and paper that in some small way this contributes to a growing awareness of our interdependence with trees.
Since the beginning of recorded history our ancestors have understood the importance of trees. The Tree of Life is a universal symbol found in cultures and explored by artists worldwide. This symbol expresses the understanding that trees connect the spirit world and the physical world as their branches reach up to the heavens while their roots spread out within the Earth.
Around the world, different cultures have considered specific trees to be sacred in specific ways. To the Celts the birch tree, as one of the first trees to grow on bare soil, was seen as a tree of beginnings, renewal and regeneration.
The olive tree whose fruit and oil plays a central role in Greek food and healing was sacred to the Greek goddess, Athena. The olive branch is a symbol of abundance, glory and peace.
Some trees are sacred to many cultures. For instance the oak tree was sacred to the Greek god, Zeus. Celtic Druids performed rituals and ceremonies in groves of sacred oak trees.
The willow tree is associated with death and rebirth. It was sacred to the Egyptian God, Osiris. It sheltered his body after he was killed. As a tree of rebirth, it was also sacred to the Celtic White Lady, goddess of death. In Buddhism, a willow branch is one of the chief attributes of Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Christian churches in northwestern Europe and the Ukraine often used willow branches in place of palms in the ceremonies on Palm Sunday.
As is happening in so many areas today, modern science is discovering the scientific truth of the ancient wisdoms. We now know that trees are the lungs of our world. In an endless, interconnected cycle, human beings breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which the trees then breathe in and complete the cycle by breathing out oxygen.
The story of trees begins two to three billion years ago as a slimy layer of vegetation began growing on the barren rocks of the earth. Photosynthesis began and small stalks grew. Slowly over millions and millions of years these stalks became ferns. About 350 million years ago the Earth was covered with a forest of giant tree ferns. These giant tree ferns removed carbon from poisonous gases and released oxygen, making the air breathable. With cleaner air, more sunlight reached the Earth causing more life to grow.
Trees had and continue to have a key role in creating and maintaining healthy soil. Their roots break up and aerate rock and hard clay and hold down the soil. Falling leaves enrich the soil with organic matter. Today we have to contend with dangerous chemicals and pollutants that enter the soil. Trees can store harmful pollutants and actually change the pollutant into less harmful forms. Trees filter sewage and farm chemicals, and reduce the effects of animal wastes.
Trees create watersheds in a variety of ways. Tree leaves release water vapor, drip water into the ground below and provide shade thus preventing evaporation. After a large rainfall, the trees’ root system helps prevent flooding and mudslides.
Even more amazing is the connection between trees, bacteria and rainfall. Bacterial colonies living on tree leaves are carried up to the clouds by high winds. In the clouds ice crystals form around these bacteria, which get heavier and then fall, seeding the clouds and causing rain to fall on the forest. This rain, full of rich nutrients, washes off the minerals left on the leaves by evaporation and falls down to the ground, nourishing the little plants under the trees and soaking the soil. From here the nutrients and water will be pulled through the roots and up to the whole tree in a never-ending cycle of reciprocity.
With the increasing output of carbon dioxide by our industrialized world, the necessity of healthy forests is imperative. But sadly we have been losing millions and millions of trees over the past few decades. In 2012, almost 100 million acres of tree forests were lost in Siberia. In the United States, 8 million acres were lost.
In recent years beetle infestations, caused by warming winter weather have caused mass tree deaths in American forests. The Mountain Pine Beetle has killed hundreds of millions of trees from New Mexico to the Yukon Territory. In Colorado alone, an estimated 7.4 million trees died between 1999 and 2009. Tree deaths have doubled in the last few decades even in what appear to be healthy, well-established coniferous forests, with no evidence of epidemic infestations. Unfortunately, this escalating death rate is not being matched with a corresponding birthrate of new trees.
Forests act as huge carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon dioxide. According to the research group, The Global Carbon Project, trees, oceans and other plant life, removed approximately 54% of all carbon dioxide created by human activities globally during the period 2000-2007. But this helps stop the bad affects of burning fossil fuels only until the tress die because trees release their stored carbon as they decompose. Some scientists believe that mass tree deaths from global warming could contribute to yet more climate change. As dying trees release their stored carbon, this contributes to the warming climate, which in turn contributes to more tree deaths. This ongoing worsening cycle could hasten climate change from the predicted timescale accepted by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Science has taught us that without trees and all the ways in which healthy forests contribute to our world, the earth’s atmosphere would be inhospitable to human life. If human activity has contributed to the plight of our forests, then human ingenuity can find the solutions to the problems we face. All it takes is the political will coupled with a rebirth of the consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life. As the ancients knew, the tree gives us life in so many ways. The Tree of Life is a powerful and truthful symbol.