A Tree, an Axe, and a Way of Seeing

Photograph by Denis HaackIn my part of the country — up north, we live in Minnesota — it’s good to be the one who volunteers to stretch out on the floor to tighten the screws that hold the Christmas tree in its stand. This isn’t because volunteering is virtuous, though Christmas as a season may make you guess that. It’s because the tree, even a relatively small fir like we have this year, does something quite unexpected. Though its branches may not be closely aligned and its needles spread so plenty of space is enveloped under its modest canopy, somehow the tree captures the cold from outdoors. Once indoors the tree slowly releases the cold, setting up its own air currents that flow gently down and outwards into the room. I usually take my time adjusting the screws, surprised at how much chill the tree is able to hold. The tiny currents, bearing the fresh smell of fir, remind me that the tree is not where it should be. Like the Savior it signifies, it entered my world in the sacrifice of its life. The whispered breezes feel like the first gift, given freely before the tree is decorated, an offering from its world to mine.

I think such events — poetic metaphors without words — are not to be taken lightly, nor are trees, if J. R. R. Tolkien would have anything to do about it. In his grand tales of Middle Earth, the trees are not easily moved by trivialities and passing fancies. Over long decades they have gained a deep wisdom that the more flighty creatures of the woods fail to acquire. Ah, but that is just a fairy tale — fiction, some will say, as if good fiction is less true for being make-believe. Tolkien is not asking us to believe trees walk into war with hobbits in their branches like they do in The Return of the King. He is asking us to believe that there is wisdom not easily achieved but only won over long years of deeply lived experience and mature reflection. This wisdom enables humankind to endure when winds of change try to uproot us, and when others less solidly established are distracted and distorted by what is only new and will soon pass away. And he is asking us to believe that the creation itself — trees in particular — partake in this wisdom, with whispered hints of transcendence in ways far too mysterious for us to know.

What something signifies, it turns out, can be more significant than the thing itself. 

The ancient Hebrew poets seem to side with Tolkien’s vision of reality. When the Lord is finally revealed as king, David says, “all the trees of the forest will sing for joy” (Psalm 96:12). And the prophet Isaiah adds that “all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12).

Singing and clapping are hardly activities that come to mind when I see a tree. I am a modern man whose mind has been shaped by our enlightened age. I look at a tree and know a system of roots stretches out underground, though in some species they can be aerial. I know something about photosynthesis, the cambium and phloem layers, taproots and root hairs, the difference between conifer and deciduous, the role of chlorophyll, and how clear-cutting can result in increased rates of erosion. I have an app on my cell phone that lets me identify species of trees previously unknown to me. I have an undergraduate degree in science and read Science News. I have an annual membership in the University of Minnesota Arboretum.

This may be presumptuous, but I suspect that even though I am not a botanist, I may know more about the biology of trees than either David or Isaiah did and may even give Tolkien a run for his money. Yet, when I think about it, my modern, technically accurate view seems not really enlightened but reductionist, as if I have gained an assortment of facts but lost a vision of reality that brings trees into the same story of life that our pilgrimage through space and time intersects. In a tree I see an object, not a creature. And I see it in a context of time and space, three dimensions set firmly in a universe of matter and energy, rather than in a cosmos open to eternity, inhabited by cherubim and devils, charged with meaning, touching transcendence, and sustained moment by moment by God the Almighty “who is,” as David Bentley Hart says in The Experience of God, “the infinite wellspring of all that is” (p. 30).

I live in a disenchanted world. Before Christianity, the pagan worldview saw trees and rocks — all of nature, really — as enchanted. Sprites, nymphs and spirits lived in things, fairies and demons haunted the shadows, and so daily life involved an endless round of rituals and chants that were required to appease them. Human work and action — whether hunting or tilling the soil or cutting down a tree — disturbed such beings, and if disturbed they could wreck havoc. Trouble was, you could never be certain they were appeased, they could be horribly capricious, and no one could ever be sure their prayer or proscribed rite was performed with sufficient sincerity. If living in an enchanted world sounds enchanting, you’ve watched too many Disney movies.

It was an enchanted world that a man named Winfrid found when he left the monastery in England to live among the pagan tribes in what is now Germany. The abbot had died, and Winfrid had been asked to take his place, but he declined and headed to Germany instead. Taking the message of Christ to the Germanic pagans was not an easy task, though. A previous missionary, Willibrord, had been there for two decades without a church being established. Winfrid worked with Willibrord for a year, and then returned to Rome. There he was renamed Boniface, and ordained missionary-bishop to Germania. He never returned to his homeland again.

The Germanic pagans saw no need to convert, since their gods were powerful and though Christians claimed the God of Scripture was the true God, that claim had never been proved to their satisfaction. They had many sacred places where sacrifices were offered and rituals were performed, and so life went on as it had. One impressive sacred place was about 99 miles north of modern Frankfurt and was known as the Donar Oak. It was an ancient oak tree, gnarled and mighty as only oaks can grow to be. Most importantly, it was Thor’s Oak — or Jove’s, depending on the language you spoke. A mighty and lasting symbol of the god’s power and importance, it was a living reminder that the world of things was ruled by greater forces that though invisible, were powerful and not to be trifled with.

Boniface did not intend to trifle with Donar’s Oak — he intended to chop the damn thing down. Word spread of his foolish decision, and pagans gathered to watch the Englishman’s demise. No one was certain how the god would defend himself, but the contest promised to be entertaining. After all, the oak had stood since time immemorial.

Here the story merges into legend, and we can’t be certain of the details. Oaks are not easily felled, and old oaks can have trunks with circumferences in excess of 35 feet. Some versions of the story include a windstorm the night after the first day of chopping. But however it happened, the Donar Oak was felled and word spread that not only did a greater God — a redeemer — exist, but that the creation was His and under His reign. The world was broken, so danger was real, but no longer did people have to fear the capriciousness of the gods, the presence of unpredictable beings in trees and rocks and animals, nor live in fear that their acts of appeasement were insufficient to deserve goodness.

This was part of the first disenchantment that spread across Europe and the West, and it was good.

Still, the world was open to the transcendent, not closed in on itself like the world of advanced modernity where we live today. The divine was real, the Holy Ghost moved like the wind, angels resisted demons in heavenly places, and grace was not just an idea but a word of power to be reckoned with, changing lives, cultures, and history. Even if we believe in an open rather than a closed cosmos, even if we believe in God and such, living in an age of disbelief like we do subtly affects our believing. For us being people of faith is merely one choice among many, and a choice so many good friends find not merely implausible but incredible.

Which makes me think that try as I might, I do not see a tree quite the same way Boniface did, living as he did before this second disenchantment.

It is not surprising that trees find a place in the folklore of so many cultures. In Japanese culture, the sakaki (Cleyera japonica) is sacred, holding a place of honor in the Shinto creation myth. A pagan Greek myth has Daphne transformed into a tree to escape from Apollo who was chasing her. The ancient Egyptians believed the gods sat on a sycamore. Trees bracket the Christian biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, appearing in the beginning and the final fulfillment, in Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. In the fall, our first parents ate of the fruit of a tree, so it is only appropriate that the events of redemption pick up the theme. Songwriter Fernando Ortega puts it like this in “Sing to Jesus”:

Come and see

Look on this mystery

Lord of the universe

Nailed to a tree

I am of German stock, and I am glad to be freed from the paganism of my forebears. It is unpleasant having to constantly wonder if some god will lash out because he is miffed at something and I just happen to be in the way. I do not wish to fear offending some sprite that happens to dwell in some tree that I need to move or use for the good of my family. I am glad to be a Christian, and I am glad to know the world is the Lord’s and that He is good. Because it is His, I must treat it with tender care but also know He is pleased with the work of my hands, as I pursue it under His reign.

I have, in other words, no desire to go back in history. But I do yearn to see trees with greater clarity. I want to see them as my fellow creatures, called into existence by God, with a dignity and significance all their own. I want to realize that at the creation they were made to be trees, for God’s glory, and they have done so — it is my race of creatures that refuses to abide by God’s word. I want to know more about chlorophyll and cambium layers and see in them glimpses of glory that shine with hints of a transcendent power beyond my knowing.

I don’t think I’m asking for much. All I’m asking is to see trees as they really are.

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