Among the Trees

Sunday Service: Among the Trees

June 11th, 2017 - 10:30 AM                   Rev. Fiona Heath

Ancient cosmologies tell of a magnificent World-Tree that grows at the centre of the universe.  

From the crown to the roots, the world tree encompasses all realms of existence.
The trunk holds humankind, the branches reach high into the domain of the Gods, holding up the heavens and the stars.  
The roots stretch down into the depths of the earth to wisdom, to the underworld.

In shamanic and indigenous cultures around the world, the tree of life appears in some form.

 5,000 years ago, in Babylon in the Middle East, the tree of life had white crystal roots that touched the deep abyss, and the Goddess of the heavens lived in the branches.

In Norse culture, thousands of years later, the tree is known as Yggdrasil. This giant ash tree has roots dipping into the stream of wisdom and the well of destiny.  Further up the tree is Asgard, home of the Gods.

For the Mayans of Guatemala, the World Tree is the story of creation.  
At the beginning of time, a great tree stood at the center of the empty Cosmos.  The tree bore on its branches a multitude of fruits, one for each thing known to humankind: animals, plants, clouds, stones, lightening, even the stars.

The fruits ripened and grew heavy.  One by one they fell to the ground and scattered their seeds.  
The seeds took root and grew, into the animals and the plants, even the stars, creating the earth as we know it.

Babylon, Scandinavia, and Central America.
These and many more cultures told stories of the great tree at the heart of the cosmos.

The World Tree reveals an interconnectedness between nature, humans and the divine.

The lives of people, the natural world and the Gods are intertwined, sharing overlapping dimensions of existence.  All are in relationship, talking with one another.

The tree binds us together.  (Myths from

Perhaps these stories arose from some kind of genetic memory of the connection between people and forests.

As a relatively young species, we’ve spent less time on the ground than the millions of years our primate ancestors spent among the branches.

Perhaps as early civilizations developed, that ancestral connection between people and forests was evoked in these stories.  People understood just how deeply dependent they were on trees.

But then came the Axial Age, the period from 800 to 300BC, when civilizations around the globe shifted dramatically.  The old ways crumbled, and new systems emerged.  In Greece, Palestine, Persia, India, and China civilizations developed political systems and religions that still shape the globe today.

Buddha in India, Plato from Greece, the Persian Zarathrustra, Confucious in China, Jeremiah in Palestine offered new ways of thinking and understanding.
Each created the foundations of a transformative religious or philosophical world view.  (Paul Kingsnorth, the Axis and the Sycamore, Orion Magazine)

In the Hebrew tradition, the tree of life became the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Egged on by the snake, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out from the garden of eternal life.

This is a possibly accurate understanding of the shift in the human-nature relationship occurring in these centuries.

From interconnection to disconnection.   

And the Abrahamic Faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are religions which arose in dry, hot open places.  

Their God did not exist in the trees, but in the sky.  The world is corrupt and sinful, so it is better to focus on God in heaven.

Without the intimate connection between the Gods, nature and humankind, people were left free to dominate the earth.  
Where European, Christian culture went, deforestation was not far behind.

Right here, this piece of land, was once thick white pine forest.

Then along came European settlers.
Cutting down trees, clearing acres for private agriculture was the way forward.

It’s all more complicated than that, with agriculture and population growth and other forces playing a role.

But the way we live now has roots in stories told in desert cultures about the separation of people from the planet.  These were valuable needed stories in their time, but it’s time to reimagine the narrative.


Some thinkers argue we are living into a new Axial Age, another period of heightened technological and cultural change that will transform the way humankind lives.

It certainly feels like many of the ways we understand the world are now outdated.  Living for comfort and profit is turning out to have consequences like climate change and species extinction and countries going bankrupt.

It doesn’t seem like such a great bargain any longer.

It’s time - not just to ask practical questions about how to fix broken systems, but to ask what might be called the religious questions.

What has meaning?  What matters? What is greater than humankind?  How should we be in relationship with one another and other creatures?  (Kingsnorth, ibid)
These are the questions we explore as people of the chalice.

These questions are more important now than ever as we try to find new stories about how humans connect to the world, new stories that might better help us navigate to the future we – as Unitarian Universalists -  want – a future where our interdependence calls us to love and justice.

These questions matter because we help create the world we experience.
We create the concepts which influence our behaviour.  

Evolving from those old Axial age stories of disconnection, the age of Enlightenment saw nature as a great machine to be manipulated. By the twentieth century nature was a seemingly endless cache of resources, there for the taking.  

In 1799, English poet William Blake wrote,
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy
is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.  
Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity…
and some scarce see Nature at all.”  

A green thing which stands in our way gets chopped down.  

Being moved to tears of joy means that we’ll think twice
before raising the axe, and if the tree has to get chopped down,
we’ll plant another one near by.  

What stories can we tell that remind us we are part of the whole?

In 1997 Julia Butterfly Hill was a young woman recently recovered from a terrible car accident.  During a year of healing, she became determined to live each moment in a way that created a better future.

Julia went out to California and fell in love with the towering redwoods, awed by their beauty and energy.  She met local activists fighting to preserve these ancient trees.  Julia felt called to preserve an area she saw as a magnificent natural cathedral.

Julia climbed up a redwood she named Luna, and lived 180 feet up in the tree.

She lived in a small blue tent on a tiny platform, supported by a number of helpers.  Julia stayed in the tree for 2 years, gaining international attention for her dedication and her message.

She only came down after an agreement was made to protect the Luna permanently.

Julia was not telling a story of domination or disconnection.  Julia experienced a deep sense of relationship to the tree.

Julia told herself a story of connection and belonging between trees and humankind.  She told a story of being part of a great family of beings.

And she acted on that story, which was meaningful and mattered, and saved a tree. Julia’s story of connection is not a new story.

It is the ancient story of the World Tree, the tree of life.  
As the traditional narratives we know fail us, this is the story waiting underneath, the one we have forgotten to listen to.

We just don’t know what to do with it.
Enmeshed as we are in machines, in cities, in technology – all that we have created – we don’t know how to start living as part of a great family of beings.
(Kingsnorth, ibid)

And it is possible we won’t know how, until we are forced by a crisis.
Perhaps the economy needs to crumble, perhaps the 401 needs to come to a full stop choked by cars.
Perhaps we won’t be able to live the new old story until the old stories collapse more completely.

But I don’t believe that.  I think we can shift. All along there have been people keeping these old stories alive.  

People like Julia Butterfly Hill who fight to protect ancient forests.   
I believe we can live the new old stories right here and right now.  And we need too, because developing that sense of interdependence matters.


Trees make me happy.  
I feel better when I am near trees, whether in winter or summer.

Mature trees with big thick trunks and wide canopies make me the happiest.
It’s amazing how the trees on the lawn have filled out just in the last three years.  They need to get bigger, though, before I am really delighted.

I am not the only person who feels better around trees.

Shinrin Yoku is a Japanese term which means “taking in the forest atmosphere.”  It has become known as forest bathing, or here in North America as forest therapy.

This is a growing practice around the world, walking with a group through a forest in a gentle and intentional way.  Time is spent becoming aware of the sounds, scents and sensations of life in the forest.   Attention is paid to the small details. Most walks end with a tea ritual.

Research suggests the health benefits of time among the trees includes reduced stress, lower blood pressure, boosted immune system, and improved sleep.  

Spending time in nature connecting with oneself and the forest helps create emotional space for the ancient stories of relationship.

We can find the World Tree again.  It doesn’t need to be populated by Gods and Goddesses.  But it does need a sense of the sacred and a sense of deep connection to the rest of the earth.

We can learn from the indigenous cultures of Canada

At Kathy and Michael’s wedding yesterday, we ended with a blessing from White Eagle, a Micmac man.  White Eagle told us that all beings have a heart, have feelings.  Human people, animal people, tree people.  

He told us their way of blessing is to say from my heart to your heart.  Megwich.  Our hearts beat together.  Our hearts beats with the heart of the earth.

We will change how we relate to the earth through the connections of the heart.  When we listen to the heart of another.  When we listen to the beat of the earth.

It’s easy to think rationally about being interconnected.  But it won’t have meaning and presence until it becomes personal for each and everyone of us.

Julia Butterfly Hill was just another young idealist until she created a relationship with Luna, the elder redwood tree.  It was her personal connection with the tree that kept her going over those long and at times scary two years.

The new old story will grow in strength when we pay attention to the ground where we live.  
When we begin to love the actual real trees around us, when we see them as animate with the spirit of life, we understand the tree of life.

We have the perfect property to develop these connections. I encourage all of you to take the time to walk our grounds, meet the animal and plant beings that share this land.

In the next year or so we will be working towards the designation of being  a Green Sanctuary.

This is a Unitarian Universalist program which recognizes those congregations that seek to lighten their ecological footprint, lift up the seventh principle in services, and work on an eco-justice project in their community.

The eco-justice project is intended to build relationships with marginalized groups, to work together to heal the earth.

More information will come in the early fall.  This is our One Common Project and will engage many aspects of our community, from a building audit to spiritual exploration to living our principles.

As we seek a world of interdependence, as we work to being a Green Sanctuary, may we connect with the trees.

May we wander in the forest, finding hope and health, learning once more the ancient stories of the World Tree.

So Say We All!


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