There was a willow in the backyard of the house where I lived with my parents and baby sister until just before my fourth birthday when we moved to a brand new neighbourhood about a mile away. In the demanding way I had back then, I made sure everyone knew the willow was my tree. It was enormous and could easily support the children who climbed it, with my mother’s permission (but not with mine). I was very upset about moving away from my tree and to shut me up my mother promised to take me back to the old house to visit it. Of course, she thought I would forget about it.
I’m not the kind of person who easily forgets, obviously, as I’m writing about an episode that occurred decades ago, but is still fresh in my soul. My nagging finally paid off and, one day, my parents took me to the old house to visit my tree. The new owners had cut it down, claiming it was diseased. There was nothing left but a stump. It was my first experience of death and I didn’t handle it well. Even though our new house was across the street from a wooded ravine and adjacent to conservation lands, no tree ever replaced my willow.
The mysterious processes connected with the life and growth of trees from the tiny seedlings developing in the course of centuries into the hoary giants of the forests, led primitive man to people these trees with all kinds of supernatural beings, and even…to endow them with separate souls of their own, and this belief, with various modifications, was found in all countries. (The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, Alexander Porteous).
Let’s go back to a time before fairy tales, before mythology, to the dawn of humankind as we know it. Imagine you are crossing a vast plain with your kinship group. You are small in number and in stature. You sniff the air. Your sister grunts twice to remind you to keep low in the grass, but you long to straighten your spine and stretch your back muscles, to feel them tingle as the blood flows through them and into the base of your skull. It feels good so you straighten a little more until your head is high, but not as high as the tallest grasses. And then you spot it. Not a lion this time, but something that you and your kin are always on the lookout for—a baobab, a lone sentry in the vast plain. Your mother sees it too, and now the kin group moves steadily towards it. You haven’t lived in the trees for a long time, but a great tree is a welcome friend and mother, and will one day be a priestess, too. You have no words to express your love for great trees. You hope this one can be scaled, has food to share in abundance, and will hold you in its arms for a while.
If some of us have forgotten how important trees once were when we were in our so-called primitive condition, there are a handful of tree fairy tales and fables to remind us and to keep us connected.
Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir Tree” is one, and in this tragic story we experience the point of view of a young evergreen that longs to be a Christmas tree without understanding the depth of the sacrifice to be made when its wish is granted. “The Juniper Tree” (Brothers Grimm) and “The Rose Tree” (English tale) are tales of a similar type. The role of the titular tree is ambiguous, but is used to shelter the bones of a murdered child and may have a role to play in the dead child’s resurrection in the form of a bird. All of the above are European tales and are familiar to a western audience. But the most intriguing tree tales, in my opinion, come from other lands.
One in particular is a Japanese tale sometimes called “The Willow Wife,” “Green Willow,” or “The Story of Aoyagi.” These have their differences, but the central idea is this: A man marries a beautiful woman and lives happily and peacefully with her until her untimely death. She is, in actuality, a willow tree (her soul and the willow’s soul are one) and is dying as her trunk is axed in another location. She confesses her true identity to her husband before passing. The delicious mystery of how this tree/human identification works is something that seems as if it must be approached obliquely. It is paradoxical. It will not be fully explained or completely understood. Yet the notion endures and great writers have tried to capture its essence.
Some of my kin look just like trees now, and need something great to rouse them; and they speak only in whispers. But some of my trees are limb-lithe, and many can talk to me.”(Treebeard in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)
For more wondrous tree tales, including Rafe Martin’s version of “Green Willow,” and the African story “The Woman Who Was Turned Into a Tree,” I urge you to visit spiritoftrees.org.