Paul Andersen: Sacred trees root us to the Earth

Paul Anderson
Fair Game

The Aspen Times last week ran a picture of Jerome Osentowski, noted Basalt permaculturist, nestled in the limbs of an ancient juniper — one of his sacred trees. The accompanying article detailed the devastation of the Lake Christine Fire.

Jerome described how his sacred tree is now a charred symbol of the destructive force of fire, how the tree appears to have exploded from the inside. His sacred tree is burnt to a cinder, and so has vanished the soul of a being that once cast shade over the Earth.

Most of us have had relations with trees. As kids we climbed them, picked their fruit, enjoyed the rush of wind in the leaves and sought their shade on hot summer days. In winter we see them stark and bare or festively adorned beneath mantles of snow.

I feel Osentowski’s loss because I have sacred trees in the Seven Castles, not far from where the fire scorched every living thing. As my family and I were on pre-evac for two weeks, I thought not only of our home, but of what we call our “mother tree.”

Like Jerome’s sacred tree, the mother tree is a juniper of enormous proportions. Three massive trunks spread from a central stem on a high, rocky ridge half an hour hike from our home.

When we gain this precipitous ridge top, we pass this 1,000-year-old tree and greet it with reverence. Here stands a venerable forebear that grew centuries before any white men came to this valley, long before Columbus sailed, long before industrial life began to blur our relations with trees and nature.

The Druids knew better than to abandon this relationship. They gathered in sacred groves to commune with something most of us would define today as quaintly esoteric. In groves they discovered a sense of humility from contact with ancient beings that rooted them to the sacred earth, the source of all life.

“Intelligent Trees,” a documentary describing how trees communicate, originates from the book, “The Hidden Life of Trees.” Both make convincing cases for trees beyond their obvious utility:

“Trees are so much more than rows of wood waiting to be turned into furniture, buildings or firewood. They are more than organisms producing oxygen or cleaning the air for us. They are individual beings that have feelings, know friendship, have a common language and look after each other.”

There is nothing new about deep appreciation for trees. Humans who are sensitized to the natural world have felt this kinship throughout our evolution. The notion that we came from trees as primates links us firmly to the safety and security of high branches. “Shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing” is now a medical prescription for deriving health and comfort from trees.

Touch a tree and feel its skin. Study a tree and explore its structure. Sniff a tree and smell its aroma. Eat the fruit of a tree and taste its substance. Trees are wonders of nature that have souls, essence, vital force — call it what you will — the same spiritual force that animates all life, including us humans.

As a tree cutter in my youth, felling diseased elm trees in the suburbs of Chicago, I recall throttling the growling chainsaw to make the back cut on a century-old leviathan. Soon came the deep cracking of fibrous wood, the tipping, slow and inexorable, then the mighty crash as the massive tree smashed to the ground.

I switched off the saw and watched and listened as water gurgled from the severed stump, the lifeblood of the tree, flowing stream-like over the cut edge, pouring onto the splayed roots. I put my hand in the flow and felt it cool. I tasted it sweet and pure. The blood of a tree. Here was communion.

“One lesson from affiliating a tree,” wrote Walt Whitman, “perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of what is …”

Trees have been sacred to me ever since, and I aspire to plant more than I have cut. The act of planting is an act of faith in the future of life. Live on, sacred trees!

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at