The World Is a Larch
Photo by Dylann Hendricks/Unsplash
Nature, World + People

The World Is a Larch

The Narrative Symbolism of Trees
Michał Książek
time 7 minutes

Ancient trees have great narrative potential. The shaded space beneath their branches has always been a place where things happen. So many things, in fact, that trees could be accused of provoking events, of stimulating the sluggish bulk of time into action.

Trees are the dominant feature of our landscape. For mammals, birds and insects they take on the status of local hubs. Perhaps what they are for space, they are also for time. They signify the beginning, the halfway point and the end. They have the potential to become a universal and timeless place of activity.

After all, various cosmogonies, and the beginnings of great religions and cultures, are fused with trees. Rites, processions and customs. Important historical events: feasts, trials, executions. The beginnings of science, European philosophy, and its most important school – Peripatetic – developed beneath the branches, in the shade of plane trees. For example, Aristotelian hylomorphism: the understanding of being as matter and form, which led to today’s psychophysical concept of the unity of man comprising body and soul.

I would very much like a plant to be the archetype of hylomorphism. Maybe even a tree. In Ancient Greek, the word hyle means ‘matter’, but also ‘forest’.


Breaking news! This is the first of your five free articles this month. You can get unlimited access to all our articles and audio content with our digital subscription.


Plot and metaphor

The first pair of gods gave the Egyptians the acacia tree. The most famous fruit was plucked from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Buddha experienced enlightenment by meditating under a fig tree. Jesus prayed and taught under an olive tree and died on the ‘tree of the cross’. According to the Siberian Nivkh people, the first humans emerged from a tree. The Asmat people of New Guinea hold a similar belief. In the Norse mythology, the primogenitors of humans were called Ash and Elm.

It is no surprise, then, that in many cosmologies the ash, oak and pine are the axis of the world (Latin: axis mundi), or a metaphor for the world. This is the case, for example, for many peoples of Siberia and Asia, in Norse (Yggdrasill) and Old Russian (Irminsul) mythologies, as well as those known from pre-Columbian America (the Wacah Chan tree for the Maya). Some researchers believe that the axis mundi can be found in all cultures of the world, from the Slavs to the Aztecs. The Yakuts – at least some, like the Buryats, Evens and Evenks – still believe that the universe is a larch tree that contains our world: orto doydu. According to Yakut shamans, we live in the crown of a stately larch called Ál Lúk Mas.

But the premise of the tree as a super-beginning, a capacious scene of action, an initiator of stories, comes not only from the momentous events of Genesis and origin myths. The tree is connected with everyday life, both historical and literary – Longinus Podbipięta fought and died under an oak, Laura and Filon met beneath a sycamore, and Chopin’s concerts took place below willow and spruce trees. Dandelion sang to the Witcher under the Bleobheris oak. Adam Mickiewicz wrote of the stately oak Baublis (the author was concerned about the destruction of the Białowieża Forest). Pliny the Elder referred to a multi-leaf plane tree from Lycia whose empty trunk could house a banquet for 18 people.

So we can be quite certain that when we encounter an ancient tree, we find ourselves in a place where a lot has happened. The shaded spaces beneath trees are historically dense zones, centres of many recollections and stories. They are data banks hidden in the landscape that guard local memory and identity. They are safe as long as the tree is alive.

Reflective value

Grand deciduous and coniferous specimens seem to initiate in Homo sapiens increasingly rare behaviours of reflection and delight. Perhaps because they are a perfect metaphor for both time and the measure of time. We can sense time in the dichotomy of the branches, the euphony of rustling leaves, and the semantics of insect hieroglyphs. There must be something else hidden beneath the thick armour of bark besides springtails and beetles. Mysterious hollows and ancient trunks evoke a feeling between fear and curiosity that is hard to label: a sort of leafy terror. “It must be a hundred years old,” people often say when visiting ancient trees. ‘A hundred years’ is the basic measure of time by which we try to define the intuitions, surprises and delights evoked by a senior elm. A century. Three generations. That’s all it takes to understand the elm.

Contact with ‘great-trees’ (a word coined by Stefan Żeromski) and an awareness of the temporal continuum encourage reflection in the form of catharsis. We are faced, after all, with one of the oldest allegories of beauty. I don’t know if any other phenomenon of nature better reflects its cathartic function. Will we encounter a stronger sensory experience in a forest or a meadow? People’s behaviour suddenly changes: they stop in their tracks, then start compulsively taking photos – or, less often, drawing and taking notes. They circle around the tree a few times, expressing their admiration. This circling is the source of many rites and processions. Attempts to measure the circumference of the trunk by grasping and embracing it look more like pagan euphoria than cold analysis; it is more about emotions than acquiring knowledge.

Even the vandalism of graffiti cut into bark seems to betray a deep awareness of the transience of our life as opposed to the longevity of the great-tree. There is a certain thoughtfulness in these initials and pierced hearts, the need to preserve lived experience, expressing opposition to impermanence. The tree itself seems to be a natural protector against oblivion and loss. This aesthetic conglomerate of time, space and matter. It is no coincidence that we plant ‘memory trees’ (where trees have been cut down, they are made of metal), and these are the plants we place beside crosses and graves to strengthen the historical and topographic structure of a place. For the same reasons, trees used to function as border posts: the beginning of a road and a point for measuring distance. A gathering place.

It is these ancient great-trees that make a landscape reflective. A landscape that, by evoking admiration and astonishment, prompts us to think, to recapitulate our views, even change our behaviour. The landscape is also influenced by cemeteries, old architecture, roadside crosses and lone rocks. Its antinomy is the production landscape – that is, a landscape heavily transformed by man, seemingly neutral, but in fact destructive. It influences aesthetic choices that may turn out to be ethical choices. I’m thinking of the vast plantations of pines cut by harvesters, which for some reason are called forests; of cornfields; of housing developments with no history (as if they’d come into existence yesterday), or the mindless felling of roadside trees. Here is an anonymous landscape of fools imposed on us by politicians and local government officials.

Dendrogram of the world

Often, what we understand takes the form of a tree. Nothing illustrates and organizes knowledge quite as well as an expansive crown, trunk and roots. Well, maybe a circle or a triangle. However, the tree diagram (dendrogram) offers the best presentation of collected data, and the joyful epiphany of understanding at the same time. It is a universal matrix with which you can put in order your stream of consciousness.

What we remember, the things that have happened to us, also contribute to its form. Links between events, blood ties, the pursuit of cause and effect. Are we surprised that the felling of a tree which always rustled outside someone’s house evokes opposition from those in whose memory the tree is etched? Does the annihilation of a living, personal dendrogram not disturb the innermost images of memory that are necessary to build identity? It can’t happen without pain.

A dendrogram is “a tree-shaped diagram showing the relationships between selected items based on an established criterion.” We find it in evolution where we have a phylogenetic tree, and in research into family history, which we present in the form of a family tree. Binary and ternary trees are used in computer science. In chemistry, we may come across Diana’s Tree (also called the Philosopher’s Tree), and in mathematics we have the probability tree (stochastic tree). In fact, all basic operations, such as addition and multiplication, can be shown in tree form.

The names of the letters of the Ogham alphabet, developed in the early Middle Ages for the use of Celtic languages, are the names of trees. The Celtic letters comprise horizontal and diagonal dashes placed on a vertical axis, like branches on a tree trunk. For example, the letter B is beith, ‘birch’. The letter F is fern, ‘alder’. D is draid, ‘oak’. Thanks to the tree-letters, the landscape is transformed into an alphabet, maybe even a text.

Trees not only teach us to think and write, but they also illustrate the Precambrian non-Euclidean symmetries hidden in nature. They embody an age-old aesthetic and graphic principle. We see their duality-based shape in our own human bodies, but also in mosses, liverworts, crustaceans and fish. In the organisms of birds and mammals, in the structure of their nervous and blood systems, in the anatomy of brains and the shape of dendrites. In the morphology of hands and river basins. What is more cognitive than a tree! The multitude of explanatory applications and inspirations transcends flowers, seeds and fruits. The tree – the best architectural solution. A symbol understood all over the world, including the animal world.

Was it not trees that helped us understand the meaning of duration and allegiance to a place? Many languages speak of attachment in terms of putting down roots. In English: ‘take root’, in German: ‘sich einwurzeln’, and in Russian: ‘zapustit korni’. There is a saying in Polish that literally translates as ‘old trees are not replanted’, used to explain one’s reasons for staying somewhere. The concept of a ‘rotten root’ can be used to explain the primary cause of a problem.

Perhaps we will understand as much as we can learn about the trees and the complex ecosystems they form. We will remember as much as the age of the oldest trees. And very often, in various fields, we can reach no further in our memories than the trees themselves. The hasty chopping of single specimens or entire ancient boulevards is not only a cultural loss, but also a kind of self-harm. It is like the burning of books or the extinction of a language. We forget, we know less, we become more stupid. We become shadow-seeking fools.

Also read:

Grab a Spade and Get Digging!
Illustration from "Grand voyages" by Théodore de Bry, 1596, The New York Public Library/Rawpixel (public domain)
Nature, World + People

Grab a Spade and Get Digging!

An Interview with Witold Szwedkowski
Marta Anna Zabłocka

Witold Szwedkowski, poet and Urban Guerrilla Gardening activist, talks about backyard policy, the spade as a tool of rebellion, and the subversive potential of the pumpkin.

Let’s start with a mindful walk. Think about what you see – how many trees do you pass, what are they, do you know them? The guerrilla needs to survey their area of operation. They must estimate the strength of the enemy – the enemy being the excessive use of concrete. They must sound out the weak points and attack there, firing off seedlings, plunging in a shovel. The guerrilla does not lash out at officials, drivers, or those who are disgruntled at the sight of falling leaves. The guerrilla is against the overuse of concrete – vast stretches of granite, oceans of asphalt and rivers of bitumen. These are the things that leave cities lacking in greenery. And we fight lack of greenery guerrilla-style.

Continue reading