Your Stories Need More Trees! by Shauna Roberts

Posted on Mar 23, 2015 by   16 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized · Writing

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.

Shauna Roberts

Shauna Roberts

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.

The council tree of the Hollywood (Florida) Seminole Indian Reservation. This oak is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and published on Wikimedia by Pietro.

The council tree of the Hollywood (Florida) Seminole Indian Reservation. This oak is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and published on Wikimedia by Pietro.

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.

St. Boniface (8th century C.E.) after cutting down an oak sacred to the German god Donar (known elsewhere as Thor). When the people who had worshipped the oak saw that the gods did not punish St. Boniface, many converted to Christianity. The Christian church used cutting down sacred trees as part of its effort to Christianize Europe. Image created by Carl Gottlieb Peschel (1798–1879). Public domain.

St. Boniface (8th century C.E.) after cutting down an oak sacred to the German god Donar (known elsewhere as Thor). When the people who had worshipped the oak saw that the gods did not punish St. Boniface, many converted to Christianity. The Christian church used cutting down sacred trees as part of its effort to Christianize Europe. Image created by Carl Gottlieb Peschel (1798–1879). Public domain.

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!

About Shauna

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.

16 Responses to "Your Stories Need More Trees! by Shauna Roberts"

  1. Comment by Shauna Roberts
    March 23, 2015 10:18 am

    Thank you for inviting me to visit the FF&P blog today.

  2. Comment by C. J. Burright
    March 23, 2015 11:59 am

    Thanks for the fabulous post, Shauna! I happen to be an Oregon tree-hugger…and I can’t think of one story I’ve written that didn’t include trees. 🙂

    • Comment by Shauna Roberts
      March 24, 2015 1:16 pm

      Sounds great, C.J. Glad to know you’re promoting trees.

  3. Comment by Stefanie Worth
    March 24, 2015 12:32 am

    Thought-provoking post, Shauna! Thanks so much for stopping by to blog with us today!

  4. Comment by Veronica Scott
    March 24, 2015 2:21 pm

    Enjoyed the post. Just so happens I’m writing a scifi romance that has a lot of trees in it! But unearthly trees…

    • Comment by Shauna Roberts
      March 25, 2015 6:16 pm

      Sounds very cool. Do the characters fly or live in trees?


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