Defined as the veneration or worship of trees, dendrolatry is a topic I've given a lot of thought to, in part having written a book called Trees and the Human Spirit. After all, how can you study trees and not come to worship them?
My grandson and I once concluded that trees were about “the most perfect thing” we could think of. Ryland—about five at the time—was getting frustrated with a drawing he was working on. He told me he wanted it to be perfect but didn’t know how to do that. This led to some discussion about what it meant to be perfect, and I asked Ryland if he could think of anything that was. He first suggested his dog, but then he remembered that Bindi sometimes chewed things and barked at other dogs. He then suggested trees. Ryland knew that trees provided shade and a place for birds to build their nests. He also described them as beautiful.
We had just convinced ourselves that trees were almost perfect when his mother Carol, a zoo veterinarian, came home from work. She told us that something sad had happened that day: One of the older camels, who liked lying in the shade of a cottonwood tree, was killed from a falling limb. Of course, Ryland and I were a bit shaken. We were sad about the camel and also suddenly in doubt about our dendrolatry.
Does Veneration Require Perfection?
I’ve since given a lot of thought to what I experience as dendrolatry. How can we worship trees—or hold them in such high esteem—when falling limbs can kill other living things and cause serious property damage? I still consider them to be almost perfect—trees provide shade, beauty, oxygen, protection, and food. But in addition to the danger of falling branches (or entire trees), they drop debris in unwanted places and their roots can damage roadways and the foundation of our homes. Mature trees are pretty tough things. I once ran into a tree with my bike. The tree didn’t get hurt, but I did. We’re really at the mercy of trees.
Perhaps the real problem relates to our notion of perfection and our need to place judgment on the way things are and the way they work.
Trees have within themselves the essence of what it means to be a tree. We might call this “treeness.” In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers introduces the idea of trees talking to humans. Says the tree, “Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more.”
[Read: “Listening to Trees.”]
Criticizing trees for not living up to our idea of “perfection” suggests that trees should be something other than what they are. But we don’t get it. We fail to see trees in their wholeness. As Powers suggests, trees go about being themselves “beyond the need for any killing clarity.”
When I look closely at trees, I sense a joyful satisfaction in being exactly what they are and doing what they do. They don’t carry the burden of trying to measure up to our idea of perfection. They simply—and gloriously—are what they are. What could be more perfect than that?
Dendrolatry & Divine Nature
My dendrolatry includes the fact that treeness is beyond human control. Humans didn’t invent trees or draw the blueprint for trees. On their own trees are generous, strong, and resilient. We can learn a lot by becoming more familiar with trees, more in tune with what they are, and more appreciative of the role they play in the larger community of life.
[Read: “How Forest Bathing Can Improve Your Health Story.”]
How we view trees matters. We can look at trees through a scientific lens, a poetic stance, a religious perspective, or as an economic resource. We might even look to trees as companions. Choosing just one of the possible ways of viewing trees will certainly limit our understanding and appreciation. Trees do more than nurture our physical bodies; they nurture our spirits and our souls as well. Their treeness teaches us about the beauty of branching out into many directions, about being appreciative of aspects of life that are beyond our control. As I look closely at trees and spend some time focusing on their treeness, I come to a better understanding of what the 13th-century poet Rumi once said: “the leaf of every tree brings a message from the unseen world.”
If we’re going to engage in dendrolatry, we should worship trees not for the good they do for us (while ignoring the dangers) but simply for their existence—for what they are and how they live.
Now look up, and discover the wisdom of the trees with a grounding tree meditation script and audio.