By Jason Brown
Imagine the most common of trees, the Christmas (or solstice) tree, decorated with globes, lights and a star on top. Allow that tree to grow in your mind so that it fills the sky.
The bright star at the very top of the tree merges with the North Star, Polaris.
Now imagine that the gold and silver globes become the sun, the phases of the moon, and the other planets moving through the sky, appearing to pivot around the North Star.
Imagine that the twinkling lights are billions and billions of stars.
The world tree, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, all center our minds, order our universe and give familiar symbols to our myths.
They become, as the Christmas tree is, a microcosm of the macrocosm.
The Norse placed the ash tree at the center of their cosmology. Its sprawling roots descended into the underworld; its trunk and branches passed through the mortal realm, ascending to heaven.
The Maya represented the cosmos as a great Ceiba tree, which also descended to the underworld and ascended through thirteen levels of heaven, each level with its own god. The sun and moon made their way along the Ceiba’s trunk, and the spirits of the dead moved along its rough bark.
The naturalist and pantheist John Muir used to climb to the top of large pine trees during rain storms. About trees and the universe he mused:
We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and [humans]; but it never occurred to me until th[at] stormy day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.
In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling. Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, animals, and humans.
We evolved with trees.
Perhaps they lowered our primate ancestors down from their bows and nudged us toward the savanna.
But trees never left us; they continued to provide us with food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine, and stories.
They began to appear in our dreams.
They began to populate our stories.
It was here, in a forest, that Yahweh planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food (Genesis 2:8–9).
It was here that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants grew.
It was here that Inanna, goddess of Babylon, nourished the Huluppu tree on the banks of the Euphrates River.
It was here that Kaang, creator god of the Batswana Bushmen, created the first mighty tree; which led the first animals and people out from the underworld through its roots and branches.
It was here that the Sacred Tree gave light to the Iroquois’s island in the sky—before the sun was made, and before the earth was formed on the back of a great turtle.
It was here that the Mayan Tree of Life lifted the sky out from the primordial sea, surrounded by four more trees that held the sky in place and marked the cardinal directions.
It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to the human consciousness.
It was here that Abraham wrestled with angels and beheld visions of Yahweh.
It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.
It was here that Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha, seated beneath the Bodhi tree.
It was here that Moses fasted, prayed, and received God’s Law.
It was here that Muhammad sought refuge in mountain caves and spoke the words of the holy Koran.
It was here that the Sikh Guru Nanak experienced the One True God.
It was here that Nephi of the Book of Mormon communed with angels and beheld the glorious fruit of the Tree of Life.
It was also here, in the presence of the divine feminine, that the boy Joseph Smith saw in vision the Father and the Son.
And it was here that John Muir rambled in ecstasy for days.
It was here, in a forest like this, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods or recommends.
It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was first worshipped.
It was here that Isis of Egypt was worshipped as the mighty Sycamore on the banks of the Nile.
It was here that the Druids passed on their knowledge, worshipped the gods, and sacrificed human flesh.
It was also here, in the forest, that, after civilization blossomed, we looked for inspiration. Temples of stone with their pillars, columns, and cathedral arches all resembled the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God. But these temples of stone limited God to one place, one people, one faith. It was here that we fell from universal grace.
It was here that Adam and Eve fell.
It was here that civilization expanded.
It was here that we logged, burned, mined, clear-cut, developed.
It was here that the old stories were forgotten and new ones were written; stories in which creation was no longer sacred, enchanted, animate, or subjective.
In an age of climate change, extinction, and corporate tyranny, it is here, to the forest, that we must return.
Not only as skiers, hikers, campers, birders, hunters, and foresters, but as devotees.
Because it is here that we see the universe in microcosm; where we get our bearings.
It is here that creation awes.
It is here that we experience the divine.
It is here that we can bring our questions.
It is here that we can experience mystical solitude.
It is here that we are now.
To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it. Go to a mountain grove and take off your shoes. Once you are comfortable and alone, close your eyes. Begin by focusing on feeling—as a tree might—the sun, the wind, the earth beneath your toes.
If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.
Imagine drinking the sun in as food.
Focus on your breath by letting the clean air pass through your nostrils and fill your lungs.
Feel your lungs slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.
Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.
Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.
In and out.
Imagine that oxygen, produced in the leaves of these very trees gently being pushed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through this space, and entering our lungs.
As you breathe out, imagine the CO2 wafting in the air and entering the stomata of the leaves, powering the cycle of photosynthesis.
In and out.
The air becomes us, becomes them.
It is a sacrament; we take it upon us, into us, and they upon themselves.
As the trees breathe out, we breathe in.
We are their lungs and they are ours.
In and out.
This is not a supernatural idea; it is an ecological reality.
May we dwell in this reality!
Thomas Merton once said:
We are already one.
But we imagine that we are not.
And what we have to recover is our original unity.
What we have to be is what we are.
I offer you this prayer: Forest! May we sustain you as you sustain us!
Think of this prayer, whisper this prayer, or shout this prayer when you are grateful for what a place has given you: a forest, a body of water, a desert, a garden.
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