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 Christmas tree is a microcosm of the macrocosm.
The Norse pagans 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 heavenly.
The Maya imaged 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.
The Tree of Life
In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling.
Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, trees, animals.
The seeds of humans germinated in the trees.
Our mammalian and primate ancestors made their homes in their bows.
Eventually, our curiosity compelled us down from the safety of their branches and out onto the savanna.
Yet, the trees never left us;
They continued to provision us with gifts on our long walks.
They gave food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine and stories.
They appeared in our dreams.
It was here, in a forest, that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants would grow.
It was here that Yahweh, Semitic sky god, came to earth and planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food.
It was here that Inanna, Babylonian goddess of beauty and love, 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 and 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, before Sky Woman fell through a hole in the island in the sky, 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 hold the sky in place and mark the cardinal directions.
It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to human consciousness.
It was here that Jacob wrestled with angels and beheld visions.
It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.
It was here, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.
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 Guru Nanak experienced the Oneness of 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 here, in a forest, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods.
It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was worshipped.
It was here, as Sycamore fig, that Isis of Egypt was lavished praise.
It was here, in grove of sacred oak, that the Druids passed on their knowledge, and sacrificed human flesh to the gods.
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 were all made to resemble the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God.
And yet, it would seem that these temples of stone confined God to one place, one people, one faith.
It was here that we fell from grace.
It was here that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of a misunderstood tree.
It was here that civilization bloomed.
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, subjective.
In an age of climate chaos and heart breaking extinction, 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 dwell in mystical solitude.
It is here that we are now—The global forest.
To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it.
I invite you to go to a mountain grove or a city park and take off your shoes.
When 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 and on your skin.
If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.
Imagine drinking in the caramel rays of the sun as nourishment.
Focus on your breath by letting the air pass through your nostrils and fill the arboreal-patterned branches in your lungs.
Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.
Feel them slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.
Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.
In and out.
As you breathe in, imagine that the oxygen, conceived in the leaves of trees, is gently birthed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through space, and entering your lungs.
As you breathe out, imagine that the CO2, re-born in your lungs, is gently wafting through the air and entering the receptive stomata of the leaves.
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 we breathe in, the trees breathe out.
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!
The mystic monk and (one time monastery forester) Thomas Merton 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.
What we are is not all that different from trees.
And so I offer you this prayer for your walks and sits among the trees.
Forest, Trees. May we sustain you as you sustain us.