“Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.”
- Martin O’Malley
Let us all bring out our gardening tools and plant a sapling this National Tree Day on 29th July, 2018. Celebrated on the last Sunday of July, the day was started in Australia by the non-profit Planet Ark, in 1996. It has become the largest nature care and tree-planting event in Australia since then with over 3.8 million people having planted 24 million trees in the last 22 years.
Trees are the lungs of planet Earth. They give us food, fuel, shade, and fresh air to breathe, remove harmful gases from the atmosphere, act as a natural temperature control, improve water quality, reduce soil-erosion, regulate rainfall, increase biodiversity, and are a natural habitat for wildlife.
National Tree Day is a way to make people aware of and appreciate all that trees do for us. Aimed at making people come out together to plant trees, reconnect with nature, and do something positive for the local environment, this event has contributed significantly to biodiversity maintenance and urban canopy development in the country over the years. What’s more, there is also a spin-off event designed just for children, called National Schools Tree Day. It is celebrated on the last Friday of July every year and this year it falls on the 27th of July. To date, around 200,000 school kids have taken part in the celebration, teaching kids about the importance of trees for our environment and help them develop a love for nature.
You can either celebrate this day by planting a tree in your own garden or if you are one of the more outdoorsy, love-to-meet-new-people type of person, there are plenty of tree planting events being organised by local-area councils across the country. Pick a site most accessible to you and join hundreds of others in making our planet greener. And remember, while it is tempting to plant a fancy, exotic tree that makes you stand out of the crowd, its best you stick to a native species instead: they are best adapted to grow in the local climatic conditions, are the most suitable food source and habitat for native animals, and would never behave as a pest species that becomes more a part of the problem than the solution.
Biodiversity loss, in the form of deforestation and mass extinctions, of both plants and animals, continues to be a major threat facing our planet, and restoring native flora is one most important step towards reversing this trend. In simple words, if we want our children to be able to enjoy natural areas - forests, mountains, rivers, bushland, oceans – and be able to share this planet with other animals, the single most important thing we can do for them is to plant as many trees as we can.
Trees are not just the backbone of the wild world, but also form an integral part of the life of the civilised race - the humans - since times immemorial. Every religion, faith, and civilisation, be it old or new, has had strong cultural associations with trees, sometimes as a sacred life-form, sometimes as part of rituals, sometimes as tools, sometimes as food, sometimes as mythological creatures, and sometimes even as an emotional connect to their long-lost land and people. Here are some roles trees have been playing in the cultural lives of peoples of the world:
1) Sacred trees and tree-worship: There are several trees that hold deep religious significance in different cultures and are considered sacred. One of the most famous of these is the peepal tree, a fig species, which is revered in three prominent religions that originated in the Indian sub-continent: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Buddhists believe that Gautama Buddha attained nirvana (enlightenment) under this tree, Hindus regard it as the dwelling place for the three gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesha, and Jain saints consider it sacred and pray under it.
Banyan tree, another fig species, also forms an important part of several Asian and Pacific religions and myths. It is the national tree of India, and is also considered sacred in Hindu religion: it can be found next to most temples and is worshipped by the devotees, women tie red threads around it to pray for the long life of their husbands, it is also considered a symbol of eternal life due to its seemingly endless canopy. In the Philippines, the banyan tree is believed to house spirits and demons. It is thought that provoking the spirits in a banyan tree, by even as much as pointing a finger at the tree, can bring great harm, illness, misfortune, and even death.
In the Bible, it is the leaves of the common fig tree which Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness with. The fig tree was also considered sacred in ancient Cyprus where it was a symbol of fertility.
The oak tree features prominently in many Celtic cultural myths. During the Roman rule in Britain a goddess of the oak tree, known as Daron, was widely worshipped. Oak, ash and thorn trees together form a magical trilogy in fairy tales. The alder tree was considered sacred in Ireland, mainly because when cut the wood turns from white to red. It was punishable to fell an alder in old times, and it is still avoided.
The madrone tree is considered sacred by the Native Americans and they, therefore, never use its wood for fire. Although its berries are used to make cider, and bark and leaves to treat colds and make a dye.
The small, thorny Walleechu tree of Argentina is considered the altar of the great god Walleechu. Worshipers pour liquor into a hole at the tree’s base and blow cigar smoke towards its branches to get blessed with prosperity.
The sausage tree of Kenya, with its hefty sausage-shaped fruit, is believed to house female-fertility spirits and the communities that consider it sacred forbid its felling.
Also, while symbolic “marriages” between humans and trees are conducted in India, Sioux Indians in North America and some African tribes for various reasons from warding off evil to bringing prosperity, young women from some nomad tribes in Iran get the image of a tree tattooed on their abdomens to encourage conception.
2) Trees and social gatherings: Trees have traditionally been used as a place for social gatherings, marriages, community celebrations, and public meetings across the globe. In Vanuatu, the clearings under banyan trees are used as traditional meeting places and people gather under the tree during festivals and special occasions.
The Gold Coast bombax holds a huge significance in Cote d’Ivoire, with elders sitting under its shade to sort community disputes and take judicial decisions. In Madagascar, the upside-down giant baobab trees are not only the country’s most iconic feature but also act as the focal point for all village affairs, from celebrating childbirth to mourning deaths, and community gatherings.
In Israel and the Middle-East, olive groves act as the place of choice for quarrel settling and sorting disputes between villagers. They also form an important part of the rituals of curing, initiation, marriage, birth and death.
In North America, some Native American tribes burn Lawson Cypress to invite spirits into ceremonial areas before commencing a meeting.
3) Culturally important foods: Fruits and other produce from trees form an important part of the culinary culture in almost all countries and regions across the world. Who doesn’t know about Canada’s love affair with maple syrup and how the smell of sweet roasted chestnuts announces the onset of the Christmas season in most European countries? Or how a Mediterranean meal is incomplete without a lavish serving of the olives!
In Southern and Western Africa and Madagascar, the marula tree with its famous sweet, yellow fruit that is used to produce Amarula, the second-best-selling cream liqueur in the world. During summer, it provides another famous food: brightly coloured mopane worms, which are an important protein source for millions of Africans.
Another tree with high culinary and cultural significance in Africa is the kola tree, which comes from the same family as cacao. The tree is native to the tropical forests of West Africa and its nuts are used in religious rites and ceremonies, consumed as a sexual stimulant, gifted to guests to welcome them, and used as a symbol of friendship to end an argument. The Igbo people of Nigeria begin all discussions, prayers, and ceremonies with the breaking of kola nuts and the meetings hold no significance in absence of this ritual. Kola nut is also used to make a kind of ginger-ale which is very popular during the fasting month of Ramadan.
An edible sac of flowers pollinated by a special wasp, the honeyed goodness called the fig is one of the oldest fruits consumed by humans and has a long journey in history from Mesopotamia to becoming a word-wide favourite. It spread with the Greeks and the Romans and forms an important part of different delectable cuisines in the whole Mediterranean region now.
Down under, the bunya pine and Aboriginal Australians form a strong cultural connection. The Bunya Mountains in Queensland used to host massive gatherings, where some Aboriginal groups would travel from hundreds of kilometres away to feast on the delicious and nutritious seeds in the Bunya cone. It held so much cultural significance that even traditional hostilities would be dropped at this time to let people access the pine nuts, which are the perfect example of Australian bush tucker.
4) Indigenous arts and traditions: Trees and forests have always been an integral part of the lives of native people and tribes through the world. Not only did the forest satisfied their need for food, and shelter but also acted as the source of beauty, aesthetics, and traditional knowledge in their culture. There are several examples of indigenous people using trees and tree produce in arts and crafts and even as tools of everyday use. People of the Mbuti tribe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo decorate cloth made from tree barks with abstract designs that expresses the moods of the surroundings forest and the sounds and shapes of their natural world. The cloth is prepared by men and painted by the women. This cloth is used as a ritual dress for celebrations and rites of passage, like marriages, puberty initiations, and funerals.
The Aboriginal people of Australia and Native Americans have the tradition of bending trees into odd forms. In the forests of Watti Country in Victoria there are several trees, most of them ancient river red gums, with their branches bent in the shape of rings. Similarly, across the forests in the US one can find trees bent at strange angles into odd, distinctive shapes. These ringed trees of Australia and trail trees of the US were actually permanent guide posts made by the natives to designate paths through the forest and guided travellers towards food, water, and shelter during their journey.
Another distinct Aboriginal modification of trees in Australia can be seen in the form of scarred trees. These are the trees from which large strips of bark had been stripped. This bark was used for traditional purposes like making canoes or containers, shields, shelters, initiation sites, and tomb stones for the deceased. These are mostly box and red gum trees and often occur along major rivers, lakes and at sacred sites across Australia. The tradition goes thousands of years back and there is effort to protect such trees as Aboriginal heritage considering that most such trees have already been destroyed in fires and during land clearings.
6) Emblems and icons: Some trees take up iconic status due to their unique nature and become an emblem of the country, culture, region, or the philosophy they are associated with. The most significant example would be the dove and olive leaf used as a symbol of peace across the world. The symbol originates from the story of Noah. It is said that after the flood the dove brought an olive leaf to Noah to show him that the flood has subsided and peace has been restored on earth. Since then, olive leaves came to symbolize the hope for peace.
Another wide-spread motif in almost all myths and folktales around the world is the tree of life. It is probably the most ancient and universal myth. Most religions and cultures speak of such a tree, which gives life to gods or humans and is connected to the centre of the earth.
Some trees have gained such status in real life, too. For example the monkey puzzle tree. The national tree of Chile and a flagship species for several National Parks in the country, the tree is endangered because of logging and fires. But its iconic status has now mobilised efforts to save it from going extinct.
Similarly, the dragon blood tree found on the Indian Ocean island of Socotra, has gained iconic status due to its extremely strange shape and blood-like resin. The tree is a vulnerable species now but due to its huge popularity action to protect it is gaining momentum now.
The Baobab tree, with its unique upside-down shape and giant size has become an icon for the island of Madagascar, and the conservation effort associated with protecting the extremely unique and mostly endangered wildlife of this island nation that sits right next to Africa.
And these are only just a few examples out of the thousands of interesting and one-of-a-kind trees found across the globe. They not only provide us life but also enrich it with their beauty and grace. As deforestation and climate change becomes more and more of a threat to these natural museums of life, it is all the more important for us to conserve and take care of our forests and trees.
Our blue planet exists because of its green cover. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s plant a tree.