Viewpoint: Trees Around Us and Within Us


By John Algeo

Archetypes are persistently re-created. One of the most enduring of archetypes is that of the tree. Why human beings should resonate so strongly to the image of a tree is mysterious. Evolutionary biologists might propose that it is because, in our phylogenetic past, we were tree-dwellers and so have a hankering for our arboreal first homes. Fundamental literalists might suppose that it is because we have inherited, along with original sin from the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, an unsated desire for the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Apart from any explanation why, the fact is that we are attracted to the image of the tree. Consider a few of them. The Edenic Trees of Knowledge and of Life had offshoots in the Kabbalistic tree of Life and in the Tree of the Cross on which Christ was crucified, which Medieval legends held to be made from wood of the Tree of Life. The Buddha reached enlightenment by sitting under the Bo Tree of Wisdom. Odin became the god of wisdom by hanging on a tree, perhaps Yggdrasil, the world ash tree that unites heaven, earth, and hell. The druids, Celtic wizards whose name means "tree," worked their magic in oak groves. The Bhagavad Gita has a tree that grows upside down, with its roots in heaven and its branches in the world. In Tibet a marvelous kumbum tree grows with mystical symbols from the mystery language Senzar on its leaves and bark.

In addition to mythological ones, there are other trees throughout our culture, our bodies, and our environment. We have family trees as diagrams relating us and our kinfolk. Philologists construct language trees to show how tongues like Latin, Sanskrit, and English are related historically. Logicians, electrical engineers, and computer scientists all draw trees to depict connections. Our vascular and nerve systems are treelike in their forms, and so are river systems. Although the gallows tree is no longer a familiar sight, it echoes in our racial memory. There is something fundamental and ultimate about trees and tree shapes.

And, of course, there are also Christmas trees. Today we are likely to imagine that Christmas trees have always been associated with the holiday as part of the "Old English" celebration of the Yuletide. But in fact, they are relatively recent in America and even more so in England. The Christmas tree developed in Germany as a blend of pagan and Christian symbols and was brought to America in the seventeenth century by German settlers. The Christmas tree did not become common in England until two hundred years later, when it was introduced there by Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert.

This Christmas-season issue of the Quest has appropriately two articles about trees. In "The Tree in the Hoop," Chris Hoffman compares the universal symbol of the tree with that of the hoop or circle as complementary expressions of wholeness. In "A Tree Out There," John P. O'Grady explores the intensely personal aspect of the mythological tree: we each have a special tree somewhere, and we have to find it.

At this time of year, most homes have a Christmas tree in them. Trees are all around us. Trees are inside us, in our bodies and in our minds. We ourselves are the tree of Christ, re-created, not just annually, but from moment to moment, perpetually.