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Update: An Arbor Day Tribute to the Sacred Trees of Our Lives

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Update: April 21 In celebration of Earth Day, Monday April 22, the Stanislaus National Forest is giving away tree saplings. They are available for pick-up at the Summit Ranger District or the Supervisor’s Office from 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. The trees are Sugar Pine, Ponderosa Pine, and Cedar tree saplings ready to be planted. The Summit Ranger district is located at #1 Pinecrest Lake Road, Pinecrest CA, 95364 and the Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor’s Office is at 19777 Greenley Road in Sonora.

Original story: Certain trees have held a special place in the hearts of humans all over the world and through the ages, for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes the reverence was inspired by the fact that many trees are life-giving, providing food and shelter.  But beyond their practical uses and beauty, some trees have been seen not only as powerful symbols of life and death, but also, as having spiritual or supernatural powers.

In many cultures and religions, there is some version of the symbolic “Tree of Life.”  With its roots reaching deep into the earth and its branches reaching skyward, it often symbolized the connections between the heavens, earth and the underworld.  In Jewish mythology there is a tree of life or “tree of souls” in the Garden of Eden, which blossoms and creates new souls.  In Christianity there is also a tree of life, but it is overshadowed by its neighbor in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Trees have symbolized fertility to many cultures.  An example is the maypole dance, which evolved from ancient ribbon dances around a living tree as part of spring rites to ensure fertility.  While scholars believe this ritual originated with the pagan May Day festival known as “Beltane” in the UK and Ireland, and “Walpurgis” in Germanic European countries, there were similar ribbon dances in pre-Columbian Latin America.

Throughout history, people have looked to certain trees for healing, protection and even granting wishes, because they believe benevolent spirits live in them.  The notion of “wishing trees” can be seen worldwide to this day, as hopefuls hang rags, wreaths, ribbons and other offerings on tree branches.

Examples of specific sacred trees and species of trees abound.  There is an ancient fig tree, called the “Bohdi” tree, which lives in front of a temple in India.  The Buddhists there revere it because it is said that Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under it.  In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the departed find eternal peace in a landscape inhabited by sycamore trees.  The Celts practiced rituals in what they considered sacred oak groves.  Central California Native Americans from the coastal Ohlone to the foothills Miwok also cherished oaks, understandably, because they provided the acorns that made up a large portion of their diet.  In Malcolm Margolin’s The Ohlone Way, he describes the joyous dancing and celebrations at night in the acorn groves at harvest time: “The people chanted and danced—not merely for a distant god or goddess—but rather for the oak trees themselves…”

Today, especially in the “developed” world, few people believe in the powers ascribed to trees in ancient times.  And yet, in honor of Arbor Day (April 26), it would make sense to stop and consider how trees are, or should be, sacred to us:  they give us food, shelter, homes for the birds and bees we love, a sense of awe, childhood memories, a gathering place for celebration and remembrance, and in a very real sense, the air we breathe.

 Rachel Oppedahl is a University of California Cooperative Extension  Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.

UCCE Master Gardeners of Tuolumne and Calaveras Counties can answer home gardening questions. Call 209-533-5912 or go to: http://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=7269 to fill out our easy-to-use problem questionnaire. Check out our website at: http://cecentralsierra.ucanr.edu/Master_Gardeners/ You can also find us on Facebook.

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