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Some years ago, a French tree-whisperer and shaman in the tradition of his native Brittany told me my “totem tree” was the ash.
I was taken aback—there was no way he could have known about the ash in the garden of my childhood home in Suffolk, England, my favorite tree companion.
I was constantly climbing it and loved to wedge myself against its trunk, sitting in the lower branches, just high enough to feel a slight thrill but still secure in my arboreal eyrie. I remember also turning to my tree for solace and hugging its reassuring bulk when sadness overcame me.
Around this time, on my grandparents’ lawn in Cambridge, I stumbled across a horse chestnut that had begun to sprout. I planted it in our garden and rejoiced to see it grow with each cycle of the seasons, from a seedling to a young sapling, already taller than I was when we moved away.
I have always loved trees.
I perceive them as benevolent beings, and as a boy, I saw in them sentinels (or guardians of the natural world) and silent witnesses to the antics of humanity. I must have intuited this, for in most indigenous cultures worldwide, trees are a part of ancestral lore and play various roles in people’s everyday lives.
I was wrong, however, about their silence.
Research has shown that trees are, in fact, garrulous beings and communicate a great deal amongst each other in their own way. They also take care of their own, sharing nutrients with the young or sick and sending out signals to warn of approaching dangers. These phenomena, and many others, have been described in books such as The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, or tales such as the powerful and enchanting Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Richard Powers, The Overstory.
By the pura, or Hindu temple, near my current home in Bali, stands a magnificent alstonia scholaris. The pohon pule, as it is called in Bahasa, is a well-loved and revered tree here, an evergreen that can grow to up to 40 meters in height.
One of its common names in English is “the Devil’s tree.”
It is a mystery what kind of pact with the devil this tree could have made.
It is a healing tree and a giving one, but beings with healing powers have long been eyed with suspicion, or worse, by those not initiated into the secrets of their art.
In the dark ages, many a legitimate healer must have ended their life accused of witchcraft. For those who understand the sacred arts of curing sickness, and therefore hold a measure of the power of life and death over those who seek them out, would be frightening characters indeed for minds easily swayed by superstition or who harbor skewed beliefs.
Never mind that the pule is not a medicine man but a medicine tree.
Wherever pule are found in clusters or groves, there is bound to be groundwater. Better still, there is likely to be a spring or two or a pond or lake for humans and other living creatures around them. Their bark has multiple medicinal uses, both internally for stomach ailments or externally as an antibacterial and medicine for skin wounds, infections, and other surface afflictions.
In Bali, the pule wood is used to make barong: the masks of these large, costumed figures representing mythical beings who come out of hiding for celebrations and religious festivals. They also appear in traditional dance performances, forces of good pitted against evil witches. Though fierce in appearance—wide-eyed, toothy, and wild in their movements—barong symbolizes health and good fortune.
In Bali, a person who is generous to a fault, who would give the shirt off their own back, is said to be like the pule tree because the pule willingly (we must suppose) offers pieces of its skin, if necessary, at its own expense, so that other beings may be made well. I find the status of this tree a role model for selflessness—truly humbling. So comfortable in our anthropocentric certainties, we rarely look to the plant kingdom for lessons, far less to our tree cousins, as mentors.
Interestingly, another name for the pule is the “blackboard tree.” A blackboard is a tool for learning—slower learning, perhaps, than in the current digital age—but all things with true value can only be acquired over time.
Maybe it is time we choose to listen and observe our tree brethren more and see what virtues they inspire in us, not least of which should be a healthy slowness and tremendous patience. Perhaps, also, just as the Balinese do, we might lay an offering at their feet, in recognition of the gifts they grant us, or in gratitude for their simple presence among us.