The Symbolism of Trees

Published February 18, 2021 by Wendy Smith

In Ireland, where I currently live, the 1st of February is traditionally the first day of spring. Although the days are still short and the weather cold, I saw in the last few days snowdrops blooming in abundance. This year the struggle of getting through the winter has been compounded by the oppression of the pandemic and these first signs of the greening of the earth made me hope that 'better days' would not be too long in coming.

As I started looking around me, my mind went to the trees which will come into blossom in the next few weeks. I remembered how, when I worked in a multi-cultural, multi-faith school in London, one of my students, who knew my love of trees, wrote out for me, in both Hebrew and English, the Jewish blessing for the first sighting of trees in blossom. Twenty-five years on, I still carry that piece of paper with me and I look forward to the day soon when I can once again recite those words. My Hebrew is not yet good enough for me to do a translation but the English version which she gave me is: 'Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, whose world lacks nothing needful and who has fashioned goodly creatures and lovely trees that enchant the heart'.

Early on this February morning I was reading, as part of Christian Morning Prayer Psalm 148, the verses where the psalmist proclaims: 'Praise the Lord from the earth, sea-creatures and all oceans, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy winds that obey his word; all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars'. As I pondered these words, I recalled how a primary school, close to where I live, gives to each pupil, as she or he transfers to secondary school, a sapling to plant. Of course, the child gets the immediate delight of seeing the sapling grow and is made aware of the ecological importance of trees for the health of the planet, on which human and animal health ultimately depends. I also thought about two other aspects of the symbolism of trees: firstly, how they can represent noble human actions. The trees lining the Avenue of The Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem honour those who had the courage to speak up for, to protect and to risk their lives for the victims of the horrific genocide which took place under the Nazi regime. Those trees, a symbol of the renewal of life, stand as a reminder of the horrors of past history and the need for all people of goodwill to stand up against prejudice, discrimination and persecution which continues in many forms today.

An author whom I have found very nurturing in these days of lock downs and restrictions is the hard-to-categorise Robert Macfarlane. Reading his book 'Underland' recently reminded me of a second way in which analogies can be drawn between trees and the best aspects of humanity. He explores the concept of the 'wood-wide web', the way in which it has been discovered that trees communicate with one another, nurture one another and even warn one another of threats and dangers through powerful, enduring networks. That picture of the cooperation, collaboration and support is reflected in the Irish proverb, which contains an image of the welcoming shelter afforded by trees: 'Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann a daoine' ('Humans live in the shelter of one another').

Wendy Smith has recently taken Woolf Institute online courses, Religion is… and Jewish-Christian Relations in Literature.

Back to Blog