A Quaternity of Trees

A Quaternity of Trees

During the aftermath of two recent storms, the usual reports of hundreds of thousands of households losing electrical power were amended with stories of felled trees. Reports of majestic, old trees that were totally uprooted in numerous townships are becoming commonplace. These are followed by narratives of mourning by those who lived near, passed-by, and can’t recall a time when the now destroyed tree was not a part of the landscape, both physical and psychological. These eulogized majestic and stately old trees are but a mere fraction of the countless numbers of trees which have been destroyed or maimed by powerful storms and tornado strength winds. The western suburbs of Chicago were hit by such a storm last summer, and the streets of many locales were lined with the debris of broken tree limbs. My brother in describing the aftermath of the storm’s damage to the trees of his neighborhood referred to the devastation as a “war zone.” During that same storm, on the street adjacent to my home, three huge trees were destroyed, one of which fell on a car and blocked off car traffic for the next two days.  Perhaps the blockage of routine functioning and the flow of traffic is an apt metaphor for this era of climate change and global warming.

A preliminary reflection on the intimate relationship between trees and humans begins with acknowledging that trees have fulfilled a utilitarian purpose. Humanity depends upon trees. Historically, trees have provided wood for the fires which heat our dwellings and cook our food. The frames of our homes, the floors upon which we walk, the cabinets which store, the window frames which bring in light and air, the paper on which we write, the books which we read,  and many of the musical instruments on which we play, are all gifts of trees.  Although wood is being replaced with synthetic compounds, vinyls, and plastics, trees have sustained us since the dawn of humankind and the discovery of fire.

A depth psychological approach to our relationship with trees moves beyond their utilitarian function and engages the imaginal, archetypal, and mythic. In this context, the place of trees is not limited to streets, parks, and forests, but includes the interior landscape of dreams, reveries, fantasies, and fairy tales. Carl Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) states that “trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life” (pp. 67-68). What was incomprehensible at this stage of Jung’s life becomes apparent in his famous Liverpool dream where he sees an island engulfed in sunlight. “On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a shower of reddish blossoms” (p. 198). The tree is at the very center of the dream and becomes the foundation for Jung’s understanding “that the self is the principle and archetype of orientation and meaning, Therein lies its healing function” (p. 199).

My personal ecopsychological narrative is an ongoing account of my intrapsychic relationship with trees.  For this essay, I will focus upon four psychologically significant life encounters with trees. A quaternity of trees begins with my relationship with a catalpa tree, my arbor mater,  in the backyard of my childhood home. This will be followed by reflections upon a spiritually numinous walk-about through Muir Woods when I was idealistic young clergyman in the late 1980s. The third quaternity is devoted to the trees of  Chernobyl and my powerful, and surprising, encounter with them during my fieldwork in 2010. The final quaternity will pay homage to the learning tree which I recently sat under during an excursion to the Ojai Foundation.



Arbor Mater

Growing up in my childhood home on the west side of Chicago during the mid-1950s through the late 1960s that the presence of a singular, majestic, gnarly, old, and 30 plus foot tall catalpa tree was imprinted into my psyche. When I reminisce about this stately tree, I recall sitting under it, talking to it, running around it in circles. I also remember being amazed by its distinct characteristics. Catalpa trees are uncommon in Chicago and in the Midwest. Their heart-shaped leaves, popcorn like flowers, and seed pods which are similar to vanilla bean pods are a child’s success story for school projects of that era which involved collecting leaves and bringing them to class. This particular catalpa, a northern catalpa (catalpa speciosa) can grow to be 120 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. Its leaves are 6-12 inches long and 4-8 inches wide. Its genus name catalpa is the Cherokee word for wood (www.pub.naz.edu:9000, 2011).  Also known as the Indian bean tree or Cigar tree because of its seed pods, it should be of no surprise that my backyard tree was a regular source of “cigars” which we children would put into our mouths and mimic smoking them. In terms of its spiritual significance and cultural symbolism, the catalpa is one of four primary trees of the gods in China (Coder, 1996).

In attempting to comprehend my soulful relationship with this tree, I find that David Abram (2010) presents a refreshing and insightful framework into the development of human awareness which begins at infancy. As opposed to the notion that consciousness is an interior trait which emerges from the child and is attributed to other persons and projected upon the psychic landscape, awareness co-arises with the experience of things and others.

So the clustered trees, the bricks in the floor, and the sunlight are not first encountered as inert or insentient presences into which, later, the child projects her own consciousness. Rather, the inwardly felt sentience of the child is a correlate of the outwardly felt wakefulness of the sky and the steadfast support of the ground, and the willfulness of the caressing wind; it is a concomitant of the animate surroundings (p. 38)

An infant and young child’s deep affinity for all objects is foundational in the development of consciousness. Only later does a child learn to divide the world into objects which are animate or inanimate and to tacitly accept hierarchies of greater or lesser.

The catalpa tree of my childhood was as significant a component of my development as were my parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, Bozo the clown, Micky Mouse, Christmas trees, grammar school nuns, churches with candles and incense, potato chips, and chocolate chip cookies.  This short list of persons and things were those realities which caught my attention when I was young. They were an intimate part of an ever expanding phenomenal field which after having been held in my awareness, would then “dissolve back into an overabundant world” (Abram, 2010, p. 50). Although I would be hard pressed to categorize the catalpa tree as a transitional object or phenomenon in my life (Winnicott, 1971), the countless summers of playing under the tree, running my hands along its bark, collecting its leaves, and “smoking its cigars” suggests that in my relationship with trees, this particular one stands out as the mother tree, an arbor mater.

In his explication of the mother archetype, Jung mentions that in mythology trees, give birth, and that in Nordic myth “God created man by breathing life into a substance called tre (tree, wood)”  (Jung, 1956/1990, p. 246 [CW 5, para. 367]).  Not only is there a natural association of trees with protection and nurturing, the feminine and maternal significance of trees is noted in the births of Adam, and Prince Siddhartha.  In alchemical texts, Jung makes note of a passage which alludes to Adam being born of the “earth of the tree of life,” and of Maya’s birth of the future Buddha under a holy tree. There are numerous texts and myths which allude to the tree as feminine lumen, and illustrations which depict the tree trunk as a woman’s body, as motherly angels, or crowned with a naked woman holding a torch in each hand (Jung, 1967/1983, pp. 317-319 [CW 13, para. 418-420]).

By sitting and playing under my arbor mater, the catalpa tree of my childhood, a soulful relationship was generated which gave birth to an awareness of the beauty of trees and to a consciousness which remains respectful of nature itself. It has been many years since we moved from that house. In 2008, as I began clinical training at a prisoner aftercare site, I realized that the facility was very close to my old home. On numerous occasions I drove by the house simply to greet my old friend the catalpa tree. Those moments granted me an opportunity to inquire on how my old friend was doing and to acknowledge my gratitude for years of nurturance and play within its protective and soulful presence.

Muir Woods

In the late 1980s, a time when I was an idealistic, extroverted clergyman who was ready to take on the world. I organized a clergy retreat at a monastery in Redwood Valley near Ukiah, California. The week-long retreat consisted of silence, some fasting, long liturgical services, and spiritual talks. As part of our retreat, we visited Muirs Woods.  It was during what I will designate as a walk-about through this magnificent ancient forest of redwoods that I experienced what I would call the numinous. At that time I would have designated this to be a spiritual experience, as a feeling of oneness-with-the-world-of-forest. It was a soulful encounter of the deepest proportions. A spiritual retreat which began in Redwood Valley ended with an experience of soul as I walked through a cosmic forest and a cathedral of redwood trees and the unique ecosystem of which they are a part.

The coastal redwoods of California (sequoia sempervirens), the giant sequoia (sequoiadendron giganteum), and China’s dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides) are all descendants of conifers which existed during the era of dinosaurs some 144 million years ago. At that time they grew extensively and could be found all over North America, Asia, and Europe. Due to an ever-changing environment, the redwoods retreated and many species became extinct (www.savetheredwoods.org).  The tallest coastal redwood at Muir Woods is 258 feet, although further up the coast the tallest tree is 379 feet. The average age of the trees at this national park is 600-800 years old, with the oldest being at least 1200 years of age. The unique habitat of the coastal redwood forest at Muir Woods, known as an old-growth forest, is the home of plants and animals which have become reliant on one another. For example, the creeks which meander through the territory are the last streams in California which still stock native salmon (www.nps.gov/muwo).

Reflecting upon that walk-about through Muir Woods, I have come to realize that my engagement with the redwoods and the landscape of the forest was deeply sensual and soulful. The sheer sensations of smell, touch, sight, and sound provided me with an intrapsychic experience that affirmed the archetypal place of psyche within nature.  In writing about archetypal motifs,  Betsy Perluss (2007) reminds us that although such patterns are reflected in “myths, fairy tales, legends, and dreams, most of these motifs can be traced to the shapes and patterns found in the natural landscape” (p.202).  Within the vast range of archetypal motifs grounded in the natural landscape, the redwood trees and their forest habitat also “symbolize the union of soul and earth, and from this union is the birth of a world that is living and sensual, full of character and meaning” (p.203).  On that day, during my intrapsychic exchange with the landscape, the forest became a cosmic forest and the redwood a cosmic tree.

In shamanic cosmology, the World Tree symbolizes the continued regeneration of the universe, the inexhaustible spring of life, and is the central point for the reception of the sacred. Connecting the three cosmic regions of earth, heaven, and the underworld, the Cosmic Tree is also regarded as a source of fertility, fecundity, creation, initiation, and immortality. In shamanic initiatory dreams, the adept experiences being carried to the Cosmic Tree on whose top is the Lord of the World, who at times is represented in the form of an eagle. The magical flight of the shaman is to the center of the world, to the Cosmic/World Tree. Although there seems to be an almost inexhaustible wealth of variety on the theme of shamanic initiation and flight, the presence of the archetypal center of the world as a tree remains consistent throughout indigenous cultural myths (Eliade, 1964).

The amplification of the redwood tree as cosmic tree and its importance in shamanic initiation is personally significant. My day within this ancient forest of redwoods was a soulful walk-about not only in a forest, but a forest with streams and valleys. As Hillman (1976) argues it is within the valleys, the vales, where spirit encounters soul. Since valleys, streams, and wooded areas are the place where nymphs reside, long-term visions and heroic thinking becomes veiled.  Indeed, when one walks through the woods there is no long-distance sight, but rather a felt sense of being in the “thick of things” and the misty fogginess of life.  For any spirit-filled and idea enslaved person a walk through the forest helps in gaining an abiding sense that connection with a deity can only be accomplished when one has his/her feet on the earth and is able to stand in the presence of nature.



The Trees of Chernobyl

On the day that I traveled to Chernobyl, the region of the greatest nuclear disaster in the history of humankind, I encountered a lush forest that simply amazed the senses. Green dominated the landscape, and the scent of pine trees wafted through the air. Mary Mycio (2005) in her book Wormwood Forest alludes to her surprise that “contrary to the myths and imagery Chernobyl’s land had become a unique, new ecosystem. Defying the gloomiest predictions, it had come back to life as Europe’s largest nature sanctuary, teeming with wildlife” (p.2).  The very name of this geographical region which includes Belarus is Polissia, which means woodlands in Slavonic. Historically, in the twelfth century 80 percent of this region was forested, and was claimed by the princes of Kyiv as an area for hunting wild boar. By the nineteenth century, a burgeoning lumber industry destroyed large areas of this primeval forest.  With the exodus of humans, the forest and wildlife have begun to reclaim territory, but one that is now radioactive.

The archetypal ecologist Michael Perlman (1994), reminds us that trees tell us about ourselves and our history. The forested areas of the Chernobyl region are no exception, since they witnessed pogroms, religious persecutions, the Bolshevik revolution, bands of partisans, two world wars, deforestation, and now radioactive contamination. These are trees of beauty, majesty, power, sadness, pain, and war. They have witnessed the influx of humans, and their exodus.  What seems ironic is that the departure of humans may give the trees an opportunity to once again be claimed by nature, and to be a part of a new wilderness (Snyder, 1990).

During the cleanup efforts entire villages were buried, and now a mound of earth with the trefoil sign on top of it designates its place. The entire city of Pripyat, which housed the workers of the nuclear power plant complex, with its fifteen story apartment complexes, schools, theaters, and cultural centers was just too large to bury.  The buildings and plazas of this town of over 30,000 residents are now covered in brush and trees. Roofs and balconies are crumbling as the root systems and elements eat away at the concrete and asphalt. Once touted as the symbol of Soviet accomplishment, it is now a nuclear wasteland which the ecosystem continues to absorb. The residents were evacuated leaving behind furniture, pots and pans, toys, and personal mementos.  After close to a quarter century, visitors to this abandoned town take pictures of the remains of human activity that ended the day the exodus began.  My intuition tells me that within the near future it will just be too difficult to even drive on the town’s roads since they will be entirely covered with vegetation.

A statue of Prometheus stood in the main square of Pripyat. This Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave this source of energy to humanity became the central myth of a town of engineers and scientists who believed in boundless progress and techonological might. It is interesting to note that this statue was moved to a memorial site not too far from the reactor.  Even Prometheus needed to be evacuated!  As I trace my journey, I entered into the Chernobyl region through a forest, and encountered a Titan whose shadow side symbolizes ego-inflation, theft of that which belongs to the gods, and the hubris of this world’s disregard for nature.

In contrast to the adoption of Prometheus as an abiding myth for endless Soviet progress, fairy tales tell another story of what should happen when respects the forest and walks through it. The tale of Vasalisa the Wise, for example, tells us a story of a young, naive girl being sent on an errand into the forest where she encounters a witch who flies in a cauldron known as Baba Yaga. The story begins with a prevailing sense that the naive feminine will journey through an arboreal thickness and darkness to the dwelling place of the archetypal hag to be eaten alive; to be overwhelmed by wickedness and ugliness. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992) unpacks the archetypal wisdom of this fairy tale, and teaches us that the encounter between Vasalisa and Baba Yaga is tranformative, and that the fire wood which Vasalisa has gathered from Baba Yaga is symbolic of the energy needed to incorporate the archetype of the Wild Old Woman into her own life, an archetype with importance not only for women, but also for men.

Within the context of Chernobyl’s ever-changing ecosystem and the growing sense that the wild forest will prevail, the Baba Yaga tale has replaced the hubristic narrative of Promethean Soviet social engineering. Today as I take another glance at my fieldwork, the archetypal symbolism of the naive feminine going into the dark forest to meet the wise hag is redemptive.  After all, when one looks into the face of Baba Yaga, the features of bark, gnarly and aged wood are written all over it. The face of Baba Yaga is imprinted with the archetype of the forest and of trees.

Sitting Under the Learning Tree at the Ojai Foundation

During a recent class excursion to the Ojai Foundation, our cohort and professor sat under an aged California live oak tree (quercus agrifolia) known as the Learning Tree. This species of oak is a unique tree indigenous to coastal California, and is also a central point for rituals and gatherings by the first peoples of these lands (www.pechanga-nsn.gov). As I listened to the introductory lecture for the day’s activities, I felt the presence of this mighty arbor behind my back. I kept running my fingers through the rich loamy earth beneath me realizing that generations upon generations of this tree’s leaves broke down to create this rich loamy soil. I would have gladly scooped some up to take it  home to enrich the soil in my vegetable garden.

During the natural life cycle of this mighty tree, and every tree for that matter, the cycles of generativity and decay, dormancy and rebirth, light and darkness, day and night, sunshine and moonlight are constant. Within this perennial constancy birds come and go, rodents roam about, butterflies, moths, myriads of bugs fly, alight, march, battle, and crawl upon the bark, roots, and leaves of this tree in a symphony of cacophonous sounds. The Learning Tree is an archetype of the natural wisdom of anima mundi itself.

Joanna Macy (2009) argues that there is evidence that a shift has been taking place from a conventional sense of self which is grounded in self-interest, the need for approval, and self-preservation to an ecological self which acknowledges that our identity is “coextensive with other beings and the life of our planet” (p. 238). Evidence for such a change is the growing numbers of activists who have undertaken interventions in defense of protecting animal and plant life from extinction. She mentions, for example, the tree-huggers of northern India who protect woodlands from deforestation by interposing their own bodies. Many of these activists have even begun to personally identify themselves with trees, the rainforest, and animal species. This “greening of the self’ is a concept which she defines as mystical and pragmatic, transcendent and spiritual. Not only do such spiritual practices encourage others to grow in their awareness of the sacredness of all forms of life on the planet, but it also challenges the conventional ego-self to shed society’s normative selfishness and narcissism.

Carl Jung, in his chapter entitled “The Philosophical Tree” in Alchemical Studies (1967), outlines the most common associations to the symbol of the tree and its many meanings and mentions that they are:

Growth, life, unfolding of form in a physical and spiritual sense, development, growth from below upwards and from above downwards, the maternal aspect (protection, shade, shelter, nourishing fruits, source of life, solidity, permanence, firm-rootedness, but also being “rooted to the spot”), old age, personality, and finally death and rebirth. (p. 272 [CW 13, para. 350])

But, the archetype of the tree is hardly limited to these common associations, and extends to alchemical symbolism which he had researched for many years.  Of the many and varied alchemical images of the tree which Jung reviews, what stands out is the notion that the tree is an archetype of the Self and a symbol of the alchemical opus. Without a doubt some of the imagery is associated with Christ and his crucifixion on a tree, other images show the tree within the alchemical retort, and others as the prima material of the alchemical process. Jung concludes that his purpose in writing on alchemical interpretations of the archetype of the tree is to make a poetic comparison and to provide an analogy for the development of the psyche.

As I reflect upon sitting under the Learning Tree, the thoughts of Joana Macy, and Jung’s writings in his chapter “The Philosophical Tree,” I have realized that the great grace to behold in the embrace of this stately California live oak is that trees pull us into the intrapsychic reality of the planetary interconnectedness. This allows for the shedding of the heroic-ego which opens an archetypal portal to soul of the world. Reminiscent of Prince Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree, all of us gathered together on that day he touched the earth and felt the connection with the entire cosmos. We too were availed an experience of awakening, of Buddha consciousness.


As I was writing this paper, another intense storm with 70 mph winds hit Chicago.  The news media outlets reported that over 600,000 households were without power, and that many trees were destroyed by the hurricane force winds. Mention was made of a 150 year old Sycamore that stood in one township and of a beautiful silver Maple that was downed in another suburb. While driving around the next day, I could confirm that many trees were maimed, broken, and destroyed.  This strange pattern of intense weather continues to effect not only the metropolitan area of Chicago, but also many other parts of the country.

The intention of this essay was to present of quaternity of soulful moments of my life that were the result of a particular tree or forest of trees. I began as a child sitting under a catalpa, and ended as an adult sitting under a California live oak. Within the “peaks and vales” of my life are the redwoods of Muir Woods and the forest of a Chernobyl nuclear wasteland.

Quaternities are archetypal symbols of completion and wholeness, mandalas which arise from Psyche. Jung explains further that mandalas are “yantras in the Indian sense, instruments of meditation, concentration, and self-immersion for the purpose of realizing inner experience… they serve to produce an inner order… the idea of a safe refuge” (1959/1990, p. 383-384 [CW 9, part 1, para. 710]).  In a world of deforestation, unregulated logging, and the devastation of trees due to intense weather, this literary quaternity allowed for an inner experience on the intrapsychic relationships of human and trees, self-immersion, and a brief sense of safe refuge.









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Catalpa tree (Catalpa Speciosa) Retrieved from http://www-pub.naz.edu:9000~treewalk/catalpa/catalpa.htm

Coder, K. D. (November, 1996). Cultural aspects of trees: Traditions and myths.            Retrieved from http://warnell.forestry.uga.edu/service/library/for96-047/index.html

Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic techniqus of ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen Paperbacks.

Hillman, J. (1991). Peaks and vales. In J. Hillman (Ed.), Puer papers (pp. 54-74). Dallas, TX: Spring Publication.

Jung, C. G. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections.  New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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Jung, C. G. (1967). The philosophical tree. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The collected works of C. G. Jung  (Vol. 13, pp. 251-351). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1959). Concerning mandala symbolism. In R.F.C. Hull (Trans.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 9, Part 1, pp. 355-384). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Macy, J. (2009). The greening of the Self. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist (Eds.), Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind. (pp. 238-245). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Mycio, M. (2005). Wormwood forest: A natural history of Chernobyl. Washington, DC: John Henry Press.

Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. (2011). The great oak. Retrieved from http://www.pechanga-nsn.gov/page?pageId=12

Perlman, M. (1994). The power of trees: The reforesting of the soul. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications.

Perluss, E. (2007). Touching earth: Finding spirit: A passage into the symbolic landscape. Spring Journal, 76, Part 2, 201-222.

Pinkola Estes, C. (1992). Women who run with wolves. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Save the Redwoods League. (2011). About redwoods. Retrieved from http://www.savetheredwoods.org/education/redwoods.html

Snyder, G. (1990). The practice of the wild. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.

U.S. Department of the Interior. (2011) Muir Woods National Monument: Trees and shrubs. Retrieved from http://www.npr.gov/muwo/naturescience/treesandshrubs.html

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality, New York, NY: Basic Books.





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