New Internationalist

When The Green Woods Laugh

Issue 184

new internationalist
issue 184 - June 1988

Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, as was the oak on which it grew.
Mike Wells / Camera Press

When the green
woods laugh
'With nine sorts of faculty God has gifted me. I am fruit of fruits
gathered from nine sorts of tree.' The words of this ancient Celtic poem
remind us of our material and spiritual link with the woodlands.
We forget that link at our peril, as Debbie Taylor explains.

Will you laugh when you read this? Sneer a sceptical sneer or smile with the materialist's superior mirth; shake comradely chuckles that unite, for once, both the communist and capitalist among you in disdain for the spirit who is your common enemy?

I could call her the White Goddess and risk more gales of hilarity. Or write of Gaia, Diana, Cardea, inviting a spite you would never dare aim at Jehovah or Yahweh, or at Jesus his heavenly son.

Dare I lead you, unbeliever, into the forest at full moon: to encircle, then approach, a straight tree with reverence; to sit cross-legged with me at its base, your back pressed against a trunk that had already grown taller than a house on the eve your great-grandmother was conceived? Can you hear the night's noises? The white owl calling; the she-fox screaming sexual frenzy; little scuttlings in fallen leaves; the deep breathing of the forest. Smell the damp moss, crushed bluebell leaves, the gold and silver fungi that gorge on the dead wood of the forest floor.

Why are you laughing? These are our roots. This is where we can touch our ancestors - if we choose. And the ancestors of aboriginal Australians, Americans and Africans; of Sri Lankans, Polynesians, Sumatrans; of Indians, Rumanians, Ghanaians. Here is meaning, union, communion. If you tried it, you might call it happiness. So simple, and it's yours for the taking.

Yet some seek it in explosive psychedelic drugs, risking psychic annihilation for one blinding flash of an experience like this. Others try to imbibe it by gulping some regurgitated theory from a religious or political sect. Many more dull themselves with commoner depressants - with alcohol, television, food - because their real lives are so empty of meaning.

For them the seasons pass almost unnoticed - marked only by displays of clothing in shop windows and the hours of daylight remaining after the day's work is done. They kick off daffodil heads, carelessly, in parks; taunt puppies; drop litter on the beach. Never see the puff-chested pigeon, strutting high on a ledge above the traffic, crooning frantic love to his mate; nor trace, with wondering fingers, the multicoloured whorls of a plane tree's peeling bark by the entrance to the smut-besmudged subway.

Humanity, the dominant. Humanity, the successful. Humanity, oh most advanced of all animals, standing in glorious isolation high above every other being on the planet. Why do you believe you are worth more than a storm-battered rock on the deserted Andean coast? That the tomato deserves to be eaten, the trout hooked, the fir-tree hacked down and roses plucked for your enjoyment?

Such arrogance was anathema to our ancestors - and to our animist and polytheist siblings of the South. Their gods do not set them apart from the deer and the dormouse, the holly and the hawthorn tree. Their gods do not deny a soul to the crayfish nor single out humans, alone of all animals, for the blessing and curse of everlasting life. Their gods did not sentence the earth in some mythical Garden of Eden, and deliver it into the hands of their prodigal offspring, permitting unprecedented pillage.

No, their gods are the holly and the hawthorn, the Andean rock, the sea eagle soaring on the wind. These people's hearts are more humble than yours. In North India they thank the coconut palm goddess: for the gift of her sweet flesh and milk, for the fibre they use to weave matting, knowing they can provide the coconut with nothing. A true goddess, the palm has no need of them: she lives on the air and the earth. But they need her bounty for their survival and, mindful of their debt and dependence, they revere her very shadow on the ground.

In ancient times, in Germany, whoever harmed a sacred tree was punished with the very same wounds: an arm for a branch; a swathe of skin for bark peeled from a trunk. 'These trees are to us the breath of life, the water we drink and the food that we eat,' cried Amrita Devi to the Emperor's soldiers in India. 'These trees are our brothers and sisters. Take us first,' she cried again, as their axes took her breath away and hacked to death over 300 of her fellow villagers.

In ancient times the Austrian peasant begged pardon of the dryad or tree spirit before cutting a single twig. Celebes people today plead with the whispering tree-ghost to go quietly to another home, offering a lure of best betel before raising an axe to its trunk. And Basoga people in Africa bring gifts of goat-meat or chicken by way of contrition, then press their lips to the first wound of the axe and suck sap to forge a sibling-link with its departing dryad.

In Missouri native people mourn the cottonwood's spirit as it is washed away by the flood-water that uprooted its towering home. And in China they hear shrieks of pain as the cold blade bites into each trunk's white flesh.

In ancient times, in the Celtic lands, the word for 'letter' was 'tree' and the very alphabet was made of tree names: beginning with the sign of the birch tree, whose tender green leaves are the first to emerge in the springtime. Birch was followed by rowan, whose whip was the only thing that would control a bewitched horse; then willow, wood of the wild wise women called witches; and hawthorn, whose scent of woman's sex made it sacred to Turks and abhorrent to the patriarchal priests.

How the patriarchs hated the orgiastic woodlands, their scents and sounds, their febrile fertility. But though Puritan blades hacked down the Glastonbury hawthorn, they dared not banish the spirit of Diana completely. Knowing they could not wrench her from the pagan hearts of their converts, they tried to tame her instead: calling her Virgin Mother, or Queen of the May, stealing her choicest symbols and occupying her places of worship.

In an old church in Ashampstead (named, as six in ten British places are named, in honour of the primeval woodlands) there are gargoyles with faces wreathed in leaves. Outside, itself wreathed in the stone of the church walls, is the stump of a long-dead yew tree that was worshipped once on this site and on the hallowed ground of all ancient churches. In the graveyard there are more aeons-old yew trees, planted for the spirits of our ancestors who were buried with oak leaves and mistletoe, centuries before any church foundations were laid.

Like forest ashrams of Aranya in India, these were the sites of Diana's green chapels - Druidic groves in dappled clearings, in woodlands that once clothed all Europe. Just two centuries ago a squirrel could travel the length of Britain, bounding from branch to branch, from the drizzle-shrouded Channel coast to the icy crags of Moray Firth, without putting a red paw on the ground.

Now it is all felled, all field, all freeway. And when we carry a fir into our home at Christmas, and deck it with sweets, lights and baubles, we have forgotten the spirit we are honouring, forgotten Cotys, Cardea, Diana. Now trees are planted for profit, not posterity. And our debt to the forests is forsaken. Who now honours the Buddha's command for each person to plant and to nurture five good strong trees in each lifetime? Or heeds the Indian wisdom that to beget ten virtuous sons earns the same sanctity as planting a single tree - because the sons are begotten in selfishness, whereas the tree is planted for all of humanity?

Humanity, the powerful. Humanity, the dominant. Don't you realize that you have risen so high because you are standing on their shoulders - on the shoulders of the deer and the dormouse, the holly and the hawthorn tree? And when you are long gone - because you have despoiled your inheritance, have lost sight of your roots and failed to honour your debt to your beginnings - the trees will push their way through the ruins of your empire. And the forest will reclaim its defiled and defoliated domains; squirrels will bound once again through lofty branches; the white owl, will float soundlessly across the new clearings; and the green woods will have the last laugh.

Debbie Taylor was an NI co-editor and is now a freelance writer.

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