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Trees: The Heartbeat of Longing

Blessing of the Gardens of Festival Hill
The International Festival-Institute
Round Top, Texas
March 25, 2006
Lucia Ferrara Bettler

One of the things we love about the gardens of Festival Hill is not only the more formal and enclosed gardens and beds, but the wilder, more casual gardens; the stands of trees. Trees offer shelter and shade. They are a haven and a presence. Trees are ancient witnesses to life on Earth.

There is nothing more important to our existence than trees, for they are connected to the very air we share. Conspire comes from a Latin word which means to breathe together. We and trees conspire, sharing our spirits. Like us, they are rooted to the earth in a very physical way, and yet connected to the heavens. There is a tribe of Indians in the Amazon who believe that the roots of trees are connected to the stars. The mysticism of trees is shared by other cultures as well. There was once a World Tree which gave birth to all of Creation. The totem pole of the Pacific Northwest is cut from a giant tree. The Menorah of Judaism is patterned after tree branches. And the sacrificial cross of Christ is yet another sacred tree. Indeed, trees are the foundation of our world. Wood and stone build our homes and churches, our temples and mosques. In the sanctuary of my dining room, I wrote this speech on an aged pine table, my bare feet touching an oak floor.

Trees are our sacred connections to the Mother Earth, to spiritual and ancient energies. They speak to the deepest part of our souls-they are the heartbeat of our longing for all of Earth's wisdom. This is why we pick up pine cones, acorns and small branches, and carry them home with us, like seashells from the shore, to be placed on the windowsill or on a hidden altar. Carolyn Dahl, a fiber artist who specializes in botanical printing on silk, is always picking up leaves. She writes in her book, Natural Impressions, "A leaf's history and life's markings are part of its beauty."

Trees stand still, rooted, yet they dance with the inner rhythm of change. In Tolkein's Middle Earth, they even spoke and moved around. Is this the stuff of fairy tales? I am not sure. I just know that once on a morning walk, a Tallow tree told me in no uncertain terms that although people consider them to be a trash tree, "we are love giving of itself."

What child does not love to sit in the arms of a favorite tree, sheltered and safe, yet given a sense of freedom--freedom to be above daily worries and concerns, up where the birds live and soar? Every child has probably drawn a tree--bare or leafed out--its branches reaching up, perhaps roots growing down into the earth. I always added a hole with a squirrel's head peeking out.

I also always wanted to live in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood and Maid Marion and to wear a cloak of Lincoln green. Little did I know that this outlaw was connected to the Green Man who adorns the Gothic churches of Europe. Here and there you'll find foliate heads with leaves dripping out of an open mouth or with eyes peeking out like some mischievous Pan in a canopy of oak leaves. You might see him on a garden wall, this testament to the triumph of life over death. The Green Man invites us to join him in the on-going dance of the Seasons, celebrating the strength of green-ness and transformation.

Trees have indeed transformed our landscapes and our communities. In our gardens and orchards grow these generous providers of our fruits and nuts. In all the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, the trees that bore figs, olives, or dates were always revered and sought after. What would a gumbo be without leaves from the Bay Laurel and filet from the Sassafras tree? How could we get through the winter without the beans of the Mexican Cacoa tree for hot chocolate? And can you imagine pumpkin pie without cinnamon from Ceylon and allspice from Jamaica?

In the herb world, there are many healing and medicinal trees. White Willow for headaches, Slippery Elm for coughs, and Witch Hazel as an astringent. There are trees that give us resins for perfume and well-being: Botswellia in Yemen yields her frankincense; Commiphora gives us myrrh. The essential oils from trees work on our lungs and on our breathing, such as Eucalyptus, Spruce and Fir. The Birch tree yields its oil for sore muscles; and the flowers of Elder heal our fevers and her berries help us recover from the flu. In England, the Elder tree is revered and said to house the spirit of the elder Mother. No workman will touch an Elder tree. The Tea Tree of Australia eases the bite of the Gulf Coast mosquito, while the Hawthorne and Linden heal our hearts.

Last April I visited the Botanical Garden in Padua, Italy, one of the oldest in Europe. There I saw many trees planted along with the medicinal herbs and flowers. One was a very old Ginkgo tree. Gingko is a tonic for the blood and helps us remember everything we have ever forgotten.

The Native Americans believe that leaning against a tree for a while heals sickness and fatigue. One of my favorite comic strip characters, Rose, loves to lean against a tree that she calls her let-things-be tree. Some trees invite us to be strong, solid and true, others to bend and be flexible.

In the third book of the Star Wars Trilogy, Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia is lost in the forests of Endor when she is "struck by her own smallness next to giant trees 10,000 years old." Temples to the life force she champions, the trees reach out to the rest of the universe. She feels a part of them across time and space, connected by the vibrant vital Force. Later, when asking the small Ewoks, to fight against the Evil Empire, she simply says, "Do it because of the trees." They understood.

In 2004, a Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai, won the Noble Peace Prize for her environmental and social justice work. Nearly three decades ago, she began mobilizing Kenyan women to plant trees as a way to preserve the environment and improve the quality of life for all people. When asked why she did this, she said "for the love of the Earth and for the children."

Writer Marjorie Rawlings said, "I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to." I am sure we would all agree. Let these gardens of Festival Hill, both planted and wild, be the "small place of enchantment" that we turn to. "For what is paradise but a garden? An orchard of trees and herbs full of pleasure and nothing there but delights."