Trees are considered sacred in many cultures. Tree worship, in one form or another, has been practiced, almost universally, by ancient peoples in every corner of the globe.
It is no wonder that trees have captured the human imagination since the beginning of time. Their strength, deeply rooted in the Earth, is an inspiration. Their trunk and branches are a wonder of nature because they stand sturdy and impenetrable most of the time, yet they can flex and sway with the wind when needed.
The whisper of a breeze in their leaves, or the sight of ants marching in a straight line up or down their trunks, remind us of the magic of nature that trees embody. They live for hundreds or even thousands of years, and so we revere them as keepers of past secrets and sentinels of the future.
Watching their cycles of growth–shedding of leaves, and re-flowering in the spring–people have long perceived trees as powerful symbols of life, death, and renewal. Since the beginning of time, humans have had a sense that trees are sentient beings, just like us; that they can feel pain, that they bleed when they are hurt. Trees even look like us. People have a trunk; trees have arms. And so we innately feel a deep connection to them.
Many people say they can feel a tree’s vibrational energy when placing their hand upon its bark. With their deep roots, trees carry significant grounding energy. We naturally feel peace and serenity when walking in the shade of trees or on a forest trail.
Trees Help Us Every Day
A recent study shows that trees remove so much pollution from the air that they “prevented 850 human deaths and 670,000 cases of acute respiratory symptoms in 2010 alone.” When an insect called the Emerald Ash Borer killed off a significant number of trees in the American Midwest in the 1990s and 2000s, rates of human death from cardiovascular and respiratory illness increased.
More difficult to quantify is the psychological effect that trees have on people. People who spend time outdoors, or even those who have access to windows looking out at trees, have been shown to have better health than those who do not.
The Universal Tree of Life: Both Ancient and Modern
The concept of a Tree of Life, often symbolizing the connections between all life forms, is found in many religions and philosophies, dating back as early as ancient Egypt. The Egyptian tree of life symbolized creation and represented the chain of events that brought everything into existence.
Fast forward to modern science. The tree has become the quintessential symbol of biological evolution, as its ever-branching image poignantly depicts the unmistakable interconnections between all living species on the Earth.
The Tree Leaf and Eternal Life
Consider this beautiful commentary from Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting on a tree leaf:
I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’ “…That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf because it is not afraid–it knew nothing can be born and nothing can die.
Cultural Beliefs about Trees
Trees are considered sacred in virtually every place where humans have settled. There are many profound beliefs surrounding trees that people have held for millennia. Here are some interesting and touching examples:
For the Sng’oi people of Malaysia, a person and a tree can belong with each other, and this relationship is maintained for life. Certain trees and certain people belong together. When a person belongs with a tree, they also belong with its offspring: any trees that grow from the seeds of the first tree, no matter how far the seeds may scatter. The Sng’oi people call upon their intuition to know which child trees have sprung from which parent trees.
The World Tree is said to dwell in three worlds: Its roots reach down to the underworld, its trunk sits on the Earth, and its branches extend up to the heavens. Many cultures share a belief that this tree is the Axis Mundi or World Axis which supports or holds up the cosmos. For the Mayan peoples, the Axis Mundi was a massive Ceiba (in other cultures, it is called Kapok) tree that stands at the center of the world. The Mayan beliefs reflect that human souls first came into being as the sacred white flowers on the branches of the Ceiba tree. Souls of the dead Mayan ancestors rose from the roots of the Axis Mundi, up through its branches and into the celestial realms.
In Germanic regions, it was believed that mankind was created from tree trunks, echoing the perception that people and trees have much in common.
In Sweden, some trees were considered ‘wardens’ and could guard a home from bad luck. The warden was usually a very old tree growing on the lot near the home. The family living there had such great respect for the tree that they would often adopt a surname related to the name of the tree.
A well-known sacred tree in Norse mythology was Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree that was said to link and shelter the nine worlds that were believed to exist.
In Irish and English folklore, fairies would be found wherever Ash, Oak, and Hawthorne trees grew together. Hawthorn trees were regarded as a powerful symbol of protection, and were often planted near houses to ward off lightning, as well as evil spirits. On the dawn of Beltane, it was believed that women who bathed in the dew from a Hawthorne blossom would become beautiful, and men who washed their hands in the dew would become skilled craftsmen.
Buddhists have a deep reverence for the Bodhi tree–a type of fig tree with heart-shaped leaves–beneath which the Buddha is said to have meditated for 49 days; trying to reconcile his mind to the fact that there was suffering in the world. On the 49th day, he stood and thanked the tree for providing shade for him, and in that instant he attained enlightenment. Today, in the same location where the Buddha is believed to have sat, there grows a descendant of that same Bodhi tree. Buddhist myths say that the tree will live there until the world is destroyed, and the place where it grows will be the last place to be destroyed; and when the world is reborn, that site will be the first place to appear.
The villagers of Piplantri, in Rajasthan, India, celebrate the birth of each little girl by planting 111 trees in her honor. The entire village works together to plant and care for the trees. This tradition not only ensures that the environment will be able to support the increasing population of the village, but it has also brought harmony, and a drop in crime, to the village.
In Malaysia, people maintain a very intimate relationship with trees. “There is a practice of tree planting around houses to the extent that the walls and wooden structures are allowed to give way to the roots of creeping plants, purposely sown at the bases of these structures.” The graveyards in Malaysia are covered so thickly with trees that the entire grounds are cool and sheltered from the tropical sun. The trees are allowed to take root into the graves and it is said that the trees whisper prayers to the creator, asking for forgiveness of past transgressions of those buried there.
These are just a few of the many ways trees have been honoured throughout time. In today’s age, let’s not forget the significance of trees, their history and how they are essential for human life.
I am a wood carver of spoons. My medium, wood,is an everlasting joy to work and be a companion with.
All wood is beautiful and many are aromatic, so my workshop is a constant heaven of various scents.
YES!I do talk to tree’s and i do hug them. They never let you down and are always there for you in a moment of crisis. God gave us the best of friend’s when he created the tree. Ralph Hentall.(Spoon carver).
Thank you for this beautiful article. I am going through a reconnection with nature and especially with trees and this resonates deeply.
I believe trees to be sacred and keepers of the land. They amaze us with their height,their beauty,flowers and beautiful color in the fall. They provide food for our forest friends.Thank you for the beautiful article.
I love and admire trees and need them like essential soul nutrients. They are magnificent and mysterious and inspire deep contemplation. Sometimes on walks, wherever I am, it’s as if a tree I hadn’t noticed before calls out to me. It’s hard to describe, an inaudible click and my head turns, sometimes even quite a torque, and there’s a magnificent being suddenly filling my field of vision. It’s a joyous recognition and I chuckle and marvel at its beauty and mentally say hi back. Last year I noticed an organization called Tree Sisters whose mission is to plant trees in multiple parts of the globe. I’ve fought for (in my small way) and supported Redwoods when I was young and they were being ruthlessly harvested. I wanted to live near them but couldn’t, and still can’t, bear to see logging trucks pass like a trailer hauling noble corpses. I know we need wood, timber, lumber, and sustainable interaction with woods and forests, and I enjoy things made of wood, too, but it’s unbearable for me to witness. Taking any tree should be a sacred act, full of mindful gratitude and requesting permission and acknowledging the known and unknown consequences of the act. When I see a brave man like the one in this film standing up to pillagers, willing to fight and stake his life for a fragile ecosystem I am beyond moved and thankful for him and for the photographer who documented his life’s work.
I love trees. I talk to them, and thank the Goddess for each and every one of them. But I especially feel a reverence for very old trees. The giants of the earth, holding the sacred secrets of all life and the history of everything that has happened in their area of the world. When I see where someone has cut down a tree because it wasn’t where they wanted one, I weep for it’s life destroyed. And I say a prayer for it’s soul, and also for the uneducated persons who killed it. The two things that we cannot live without are water and trees. Think about it. And give thanks.
Trees are the elders on the planet – phenomenal teachers and wisdom.
Fabulous article – truthful and real.
Wonderful article – thank you!
I have always had an affinity with trees and this was a lovely article. My grandson is growing an oak to go on my plot in a woodland burial and i have left the Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting on a tree leaf: to be read then
Thank you for this great article. I read a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees” and I would highly recommend it to anyone, I learned so much from it. Thank you!
Trees are very healing and being around them just feels good. They boost our immune system by giving us oxygen, so vital for health.
Great article. Thanks. There’s a proverb – I heard it was Chinese, but – who knows? It goes, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” I love that. I have some friends in Uganda and Kenya who are deeply into tree planting, and I made a video in their honor – it’s a song I wrote, lots of pictures. I’ll be delighted if you check it out, and if you like it, share it! https://vimeo.com/320377698.
Great article, and thanks. I have
This is truly an Uplifting story; the research on trees is very exciting that through the various levels of root systems that they communicate not only with their own species but other trees..they are truly intelligent and sentient beings, and once again the savage in not nature but humanity
I too hug trees and have felt their souls. Beautiful tribute to trees, sustained of life!
A tree removal company in Southeast Alaska just removed about 4 trees on a street I pass by most days. It made me incredibly sad thinking about what the trees gifted the neighborhood and feathered and furred critters. I could almost hear the others in the small grove shedding tears of loss.
Brilliant article for the soul
Love this. Many thanks.
I’d like to add that the Jewish holiday called Tu b’shevat, is a celebration of the new year of trees. Different types of trees and the fruits and nuts they bear are celebrated. A Jewish sage, Reb Nachman of Bratislav also said that killing a tree before it’s time is like killing a soul.
I’ve enjoyed immensely reading about the connection we have with Trees! I’m a Tree Lover myself, I Love all Trees! In tact I I need them in my life, I can’t live anywhere that aren’t any Trees around because a deep sadness invades my entire being!! When I was a child I would climb them bare footed and I would stay up on them to feel and smell them, I felt a was part of them! And as an adult I showed my grandchildren to Love my Trees as I do, I took them to climb with me, and when is time for me to part my children know I want them to plant Trees instead of cutting flowers, I want to lay to rest at a place where Trees are the only thing around!!! I thank You for sharing!!