I love being in the forest. The commanding presence of the trees feels comforting and secure. Clearly, I’m not the only one to feel this way, since forests are often used in stories and folklore as places of hiding (for heroes and villains), as shielding barriers, and as valuable resources. Each type of tree has been ascribed attributes and described as if they are benevolent entities or sources of power in many pagan traditions. After sifting out the mysticism, here are some of the things I learned about how Europeans historically viewed and used different species of trees.
Alder – the alder tree is found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, usually in wet areas. This may have led people to discover that the oily wood is quite water resistant. In fact, many of the foundations in Venice, Italy, are made from alder wood.
Ash – the wood of the ash tree is straight-grained, sturdy, and somewhat flexible. Through history, ash has been a wood of choice for spear handles, which needed to be straight and strong. It can also be found in the structure of old looms for weaving cloth or split and bent as supports for baskets. Today, it is a popular choice for baseball bats, guitars, and stair treads.
Birch – birch trees are very good at establishing themselves in bare patches of ground, often founding new forests. There are so many historic uses for birch! The bark was used to write on and to line the hulls of canoes, the inner bark contains compounds able to treat different diseases, much of the tree is edible, and the sap, which can be made into syrup, was a source of sugar in northern climates.
Elm – elms are particularly resistant to cracking and splitting. It is considered a very stable, supportive wood. The inner bark is often cut into strips and used as cane to weave the seats and backs of chairs.
Pine – considered a “sweet” tree, pine was often used for its aromatic properties. The scent is used to help clear clogged lungs. And if you don’t mind the strong taste, the needles are a good source of vitamin C.
Poplar – poplar trees often grow in damp areas, giving shade to marshy ground. The wood is strong and was used to make shields. Because of this, it is seen as a very protective and comforting tree.
Willow – willow is widely considered to be a very flexible tree. Weeping varieties even have branches that droop, giving them a sad appearance that represents mourning in literature. One of the important features of willow is that the flowers appear very early in the spring, even before the leaves, giving bees a good source of food early in the year.
Yew – though most of the yew tree is poisonous, the flesh of the berries can be used medicinally. In fact, there is even a treatment for cancer derived from yew berries. The wood is very strong and flexible, making it a popular choice for bows, both for hunting and for battle.
You may be wondering what sparked this sudden interest in the qualities of trees. Well, on Sunday I arrived at my church to see that they had changed the decorations on the platform to a wintery scene. The back of the stage was lined with leafless birch trees. Lights shone up from the bases of the trees to paint them with colour. Contrasted against the black wall behind them, the trees radiated eerie beauty. But my eyes were constantly drawn to one particular tree. It stood in the very center and contrasted with the white and coloured bark of the birches. It was a cross. Though it doesn’t grow leaves or send roots deep into the soil, the Bible often refers to the cross as a tree.
I Peter 2:24 “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds.”
Galatians 3:13 “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.”
Acts 5: 30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging Him on a tree.”
So as I looked at the cross in the middle of those birch trees, I thought of it as a tree rooted in my heart. It is a strong foundation, like an alder. It is sturdy like ash. It is nourishing like birch. It is resistant like elm. It is sweet like pine. It is protective like poplar. It is a symbol of sorrow like willow. It is healing like yew. The cross is the most special tree of all.