Your Stories Need More Trees! by Shauna Roberts
Can you tell an oak from a maple? Can you recognize the scent of cedar? Our great-grandparents would have answered “of course.” Today, though, many Americans are detached from the natural world; this alienation permeates some novels.
This post focuses on the bond between humans and trees. I hope readers, when worldbuilding, will remember that most societies connect to the Earth in a complex network of relationships.
In most cultures, trees have played a central role in religion and sometimes are sacred. Perhaps this reverence for trees derives ultimately from our ancestral arboreal life. Although hominids moved to the ground more than 3.5 million years ago, modern humans still have nightmares of falling, and most societies stay close, physically and psychologically, to trees.
Traditionally, trees have provided food (fruits, nuts, seeds), shelter, shade, ingredients for medicines, and fuel for fires. Trees can be landmarks, shrines, pilgrimage destinations, trail markers, and boundary markers. Large trees serve as meeting places.
Unless you’ve seen an old-growth forest, it’s hard to imagine the trees our ancestors knew—tall as a ten-story building, or wider than a four-car garage. Old-growth forests contained many habitats and so teemed with life. Trees seemed immortal, with the same trees appearing in stories passed on for generations. No wonder that everywhere, trees awed people.
Some ideas about trees occur worldwide. Most common may be the concept of the “world tree.” This tree (sometimes equated with the tree of life), whose roots pierce the underworld and whose branches extend into heaven, connects gods and people and sustains both. The world tree is both natural (a real tree) and supernatural; in myths, a person who touched it could regenerate or be reborn.
Three examples of the world tree: 1) According to the Bible, Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, died, and came back to life three days later. 2) In Norse mythology, the world tree was a holy ash tree named Yggdrasil. The gods held their meetings under it. A 13th-century poem tells how the god Odin, seeking wisdom, sacrificed himself on the world tree and wounded himself with a spear. He hung there without eating or drinking for nine days and afterward received a runic alphabet. 3) Many pre-Christian European cultures had winter traditions that included evergreen trees. Some of these customs continue, usually in altered form; the best-known is the modern Christmas tree.
Another universal concept is the “sacred grove,” a group of trees with religious significance. Sacred groves have many uses, such as storage of religious relics, communion with the dead, teaching of moral codes and social values, and a place for initiation ceremonies. People may leave sacrifices and gifts for the trees or believe that spirits reside in them.
Some examples: 1) Outside ancient Athens stood the Akademia, a grove of sacred olive trees dedicated to Athena. Starting in Plato’s time, students gathered here to learn philosophy. 2) In pre-Roman Celtic lands, Druids carried out religious rituals to the goddess Nemetona in sacred groves. 3) Japan has many ancient sacred groves, and Shinto shrines are often built in them. Sacred groves, some with UNESCO World Heritage Site status, also exist in Nigeria, Nepal, Okinawa, India, Ghana, and Thailand.
A third worldwide practice is seeing resemblances between people and trees. Both have a trunk and appendages and have a covering (skin or bark). Tree branches move. Trees tell stories; cut one down, and its rings reveal its age and history.
It’s only a step from noting similarities to giving trees personal names and personality traits. In folklore, trees are identified with fertility, growth, healing, courage, endurance, immortality, regeneration, miracles, refuge, wisdom, and protection.
Examples of trees as protectors: 1) In some cultures, people believe souls are stored in trees. Sometimes these souls await newborns. Other times, the souls belong to the dead. 2) Several Greek myths tell of a god turning someone into a tree. Most often, a young woman or nymph (a nature spirit) is turned into a tree to protect her.
Many cultures worshipped trees or their spirits. When Christian missionaries arrived in Europe, they found the practice of venerating trees and water widespread. Christians spent centuries trying to eradicate these practices and related beliefs. They razed trees and demonized spirits. Even so, the typical Medieval peasant believed forests were sacred and many supernatural creatures lived in them—not only elves, trolls, dragons, and fairies but also tarasques, kobolds, hulders, woodwoses, and “ghost hunters” participating in the “Wild Hunt.”
This short post gives only a small taste of the many roles trees play in human cultures. I hope readers will be inspired to use natural phenomenon to deepen the settings, religions, histories, and characters of their futuristic, fantastic, and paranormal worlds. Adding a tree is a good start!
Shauna Roberts writes science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and romance. Her most recent novel is Claimed by the Enemy, the story of a lonely princess and a reluctant soldier in ancient Mesopotamia.