05/06/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Tending to the Tree of Life in Spring

Spring festivities have long been held in honor of trees and their mistresses, the virgin vegetation goddesses. Mid spring was celebrated as Floralia by the Romans, Walpurgisnacht by the Teutons and Beltane by the Celts, romantic devotions for Flora, Walpurga and Maia, for whom this month is named.

The tree, with its roots buried deep in the earth and its branches reaching upward toward heaven, spread wide to embrace all of eternity, is a prime symbol of life in many cultures. Trees are worshipped as beneficent spirits of bounty. Trees, after all, shade and feed us. Supply and sustain us. Serve us in endless ways. Trees breathe life into our lungs, the source of endless inspiration.

Charles Darwin explains his theory of natural selection in The Origin of the Species by way of an exquisitely composed allegory based on the Tree of Life:

As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and over-top on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation, I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

You can't see the forest for the trees in world mythology: The Egyptian Tree of Life. The Persian Tree Opposed to Harm. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The Navaho Tree. The Iroquois Tree of Peace. The Cedar Tree of the Ghost Dance. The Witch Tree of the Ojibway. The Yoruban Universal Tree of Life. The Taoist Paradise Tree. The Bodhi Tree of the Buddha. The Celtic Tree of Paradise. The Germanic World Tree, the Heaven-Pillar. The Croatian Tree of Knowledge. The Greek Sacred Pine of Attis. The Tree of Liberty of the French Revolution. The Oaxacan Tule Tree. The Kabbalah Tree. The Cedar of Lebanon. The Christmas Tree.

Possessing the potent powers of fertility, growth, resilience and longevity, the tree is widely seen as the progenitor of the world Family Tree. The Tree of Life. The Maasai people claim their descent from an original parent tree. For the Slavs, The World Tree is the symbol of all relationship, and as such, is held as the central philosophical image in that culture. The Maya of Central America understand themselves to be part of a great celestial ceiba tree. This silk-cotton tree, which stands for all life, is the pole at the center of the earth and serves to hold up the heavens. The Koran refers to the cosmos as a tree.

Yggdrasil, the World Ash, is the tree goddess of the Scandinavian underworld who overreaches the human abode, touching the sky with her branches. Her roots reach to the very center of the earth where they wind around the sacred wells, which impart wisdom. The Hebrew goddess Asherah was associated with a sacred tree. The Greek goddess Athena was represented by an eternally-flourishing olive tree. Aphrodite was associated with the myrtle tree. Helen, of Troy fame, was worshipped as a tree on the Greek island of Rhodes into the 19th century AD. The Buddha was born under a tree at Lumbini, attained enlightenment under a tree at Gaya, and entered nirvana under a tree at Kusinagara.

The Zapotec Tree of Life is a 2,000-year-old tree, 131 feet tall and one hundred and 38 feet in girth, which grows in Santa Maria del Tule in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. This majestic, stately being, which is large enough to offer shade to 500 adults, survived Columbus and survived the conquistadors and survived the Mexican Revolution, but is now suffering the consequences of air pollution and a near-depleted ground water table. The health and prognosis of the Great Tree of Life now hangs in precarious balance. What a sadly perfect mirror metaphor for the uncertain future wellbeing of life on our planet.

The tree supports and centers our relationship with the earth and reminds us of our own connection to the sacred life source. In the tall and stately tree we can see a projection of our own best selves. We aspire to stand strong like the tree. Proud and erect, our foundation planted firmly in solid rock, we weather the storms that swirl around us. Our stance is solid yet supple. Flexible, our outward, upward reach extends, bends always toward the light. We, too, manufacture our sustenance from the sun. And so do we, just like the tree, nourish and provide and shelter and heal those who depend upon us. We share the very breath of life with the tree, an ongoing exchange of air. If the tree sickens and dies, so do we.

We are the tree. We are the Family Tree of Humanity. May we grow together to be the Universal Tree of Peace.

"Arbol de la esperanza
mantante firme."

"Tree of hope
keep firm."

-- Frida Kahlo

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