Tree Dressing the World

commonground_280515_080People in every age have had reason to protect their trees. In the Seventeenth Century, the Maharaja of Jodhpur sent his men into the forests near the Bishnoi village of Khejadali, to collect timber for his new palace, but the Bishnoi held their trees sacred. Hearing the Maharaja’s men start work.

Amritadevi, a local woman, rushed to a tree to protect it, and was immediately axed to death. Her example was none the less followed by many other villagers (mostly women and children as the men were away at work). By the end of the day more than 363 lay dead. When the Maharaja heard this news, he was appalled and ordered his men back.

The Bishnoi people and their forests have survived as an oasis of greenery in the now treeless deserts of Rajasthan. Two hundred years later confrontations between logging companies and local people gave rise to the Chipko movement in the Himalayas. Women and men hugging the trees of their place, have informed a world wide movement giving courage and example to people to protect their own localities.

As we near the 21st Century, ecological and cultural imperatives are growing closer together once more.

The many tree legends, myths and rituals from all over the world, have increasing relevance for all of us: they must never be forgotten. There are many stories about fabulous trees. In Japan on Mount Horai there grew a Camelia tree with silver roots, golden trunk and branches hung with precious stones which was the home of everlasting life. Xerxes, the famed ruler of Persia on discovering a plane tree he considered beautiful, is reputed to have honoured it by dressing it with jewels. The prophet Mohammed on his night journey along the Axis Mundi with the Archangel Gabriel as a guide, encountered a tree glowing with emeralds, rubies and sapphires, perhaps the miraculous Tuba Tree which stood at the heart of paradise. He was also shown the tree of Ez Zakkoum, which according to Islamic ritual greets the damned in hell, and has the heads of satans as fruit. Alexander, explorer and conqueror of ancient times, found a talking tree, with the heads of animals and people growing in its branches, which rebuked him for his ambition and forewarned him of his death far from home. In Greek myth, the Golden Fleece dressed the Sacred Oak on Colchis, before it was stolen away by Jason. This story probably has its origin in the local activity of searching for gold in nearby streams by laying a fleece in the flowing water to collect the fine grains of gold. The Jesse Tree, often seen in stained glass windows of Christian churches depicts the ‘family Tree’ of Christ. The sun can represent creation, an apple the fall, a dove the flood, a burning bush for Moses, an angel for the annunciation, a temple for Solomon, a fish for Christ and all adorning a tree which springs from the loins of Jesse.

Tree-Dressing-21There are may instances of dancing in honour of trees. The top of the Heavy Oak in Devon, was kept clipped flat, and at festival time a platform would be installed there with tables and chairs for a dance and feast. In Shahabad in north India, as part of Hindu ritual The Karan (worship of the holy tree) takes place. A tree in the centre of the village is smeared with butter then daubed with vermillion and turmeric, and adorned with flowers and garlands. The whole village then takes part in the ritual singing and dances to the beat of the Mandar drum. They dress in bright colours and the women wear marigolds in their hair. In Pakistan it is not unusual for young women to meet each other under the shade of trees. They sit and chat or sing and dance together and take turns on tree swings. On special occasions such as Eid, they dress up in brightly coloured clothes and decorate their swings with coloured sequins and with flowers. In Africa, many dances and stories are connected to trees. The tree is at the heart of village life. It is civic centre (public debates are held beneath the branches) and symbol for continuing fertility and the life of the people. Some trees are considered to be homes for the spirits of the ancestors. In West Africa for example, silk cotton trees are held in great respect. Such trees are ‘dressed’ with a ring of palm leaves around the trunk – and are protected at all costs. In Mexico during December, pinatas (bags full of sweets) are suspended from the trees as a treat for children, in a popular feast which clearly alludes to the bounty of the trees and the riches they provide. On May Day in Provence, May trees were decked with flowers and ribbons in every village and hamlet, while on St Georges Day (April 23rd) the young Slavs of Corinthia decorated a tree which had been felled on the eve of the festival with flowers and garlands. In parts of Wales, a flower-decked birch would be set up for dancing on St John’s Day (Mid Summer’s Day / June 24th) and beyond. In some parts of Russia on Maundy Thursday the people of a village would select a young birch tree from the wood and dress it in women’s clothing or ribbons and beads. This was followed by a feast, at the end of which the dressed tree was taken back and set up in one of the villager’s own homes, where it remained until Whit Sunday. During this time guests called at the house to visit the tree, maintaining a broad social dimension and connecting with nearby living trees lost to the more private Christmas tree ritual. The Norwegians, particularly in Oslo, still take branches of birch inside and decorate them with coloured ribbons or feathers. Nowadays, they can even be bought from the shops ready made. In eastern Finland until late into the last century there were special memorial trees, which protected households and brought good luck. In 1993 a primary school in Kajaani was inspired by Tree Dressing Day to create their own celebration (with the help of the Finnish Forestry Research Institute). An old rowan tree was decked out in blue and white ribbons (the colour of the national flag) and the children wrote poems and read them to the tree as part of a cross curricular event designed to deepen understanding of the importance of trees.

Trees are culturally important throughout the Scandinavian countries, where according to ancient mythology, the universe was conceived of as the great ash tree, ‘Yggdrasil’. The Christmas Tree, the Norway Spruce, is perhaps a modern vesrion of this archetypal ‘World Tree’. At Satterthwaite in Cumbria, an old oak tree by the village fountain, was reported in 1889 to be dressed every year with coloured rags and also with crockery. This sounds only mildly eccentric when compared with contemporary stories of old boots in a tree in the USA. Clearly locally significant traditions are being maintained, and trees honoured for specific reasons every year by the local community. At Chir-Ghat in India, local women tie pieces of their clothing to the branches of the ancient tree, which reputedly witnessed the appearance of the god Krishna to the gopis (cow-girls). It is an act of devotion expressed through one of nature’s most enduring emblems to link this life with the next. In Japan, according to ancient Shinto and more recent Buddhist belief, a Kami (spirit) can reside in natural ‘objects’ such as rivers, and mountains, but also in trees. When this happens the trees are sanctified and adorned with simple ritually folded strips of white paper or sometimes fabric. In other countries following the Buddhist faith, trees are also very important. The Bo Tree, under which Buddha gained enlightenment, is often a focus for the Festival of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, which takes place throughout Thailand, Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia in May. After dark the tree is ringed with lights, standing metaphorically for enlightenment. In Thailand, people also decorate the fig tree (Ficus religiosa), with colourful scarves tied around the trunk. In Australia, where the Aborigines have alweays acknowledged the importance of trees, Tree Dressing Day has also taken root in the 1990s with events in Melbourne and Hobart.

Tree-Dressing1In different parts of Britain, Ireland and northern Europe, there is a tradition of fastening rags to trees (usually hawthorn) near holy wells. After taking the water people tie a piece of their clothing to the tree. The tree is a symbol of long life and health. In Scotland these are known as clootie (cloth) trees. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1823 shows this to be an ancient custom in England even then … ‘St Oswald’s Well has a peculiar charm … if a shirt is taken off a sick person and then thrown into this well, it will show whether the person so sick, will recover or die. If it floats it denotes recovery .. to reward the saint they tear off a rag of the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts.’ ‘where’ says the writer .. ‘I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre ream in a paper myll.’ In Ireland, according to Janet and Colin Bord (1983) ‘there are about sixty holy wells in Co. Carlow and at each of them is an ancient skeough (Whitethorn Bush).  On these bushes, pilgrims to the wells were in the habit of hanging … strips of cloth (also beads / rosaries etc.) in acknowledgement of cures obtained there.’ There are over 3,000 holy wells/trees in Ireland. The tradition is continued on the Isle of Man at Chibber Unjin, the Well of the Ash Tree, and in Cornwall where rags are still hung on a tree at Madron Well . On the North American prairies, the Lakota, Ongala and Dakota Sioux still put rags in trees (rare features of this landscape) as part of an ancient sweat lodge ritual connected with spiritual purification. Originally the tree would be adorned with gifts of paint or painted hide, but since the earliest contact with European traders, these tokens have been made of cloth. Red is an offering to the sun, blue to the sky and green to the earth. In Tibet at Gyatso-la, there is a lone tree on a mountain plain festooned in prayer flags and coloured rags. The Mediterranean and Aegean has its own variations of the custom. Today, in western Turkey on the coast near Bodrum, people tie rags to a tree for luck, while in Cyprus and ancient fig growing in an early Christian catacomb, has lower branches covered in shreds of cloth. In Sheffield, Yorkshire, The Eller Tree game is still played. Young men and women, stand in a line, a tall girl at the end to represent the tree … they begin to wrap round her, chanting ‘The old Eller tree growns thicker and thicker’. When they have completely wrapped round, they all jump together calling out ‘A bunch of rags, a bunch of rags’ and try to tread on each others’ toes. Eller relates to Alder, and in the Sheffield area where this tree is common, it is held in great respect.

On Tree Dressing Day in 1993 in Loughborough, Kevin Ryan of the Charnwood Arts Trust, reported that their own ‘rag tree’ marking the entrance to the new National Forest led to much comment. A seventy five year old Canadian woman said “Oh this is just like back home, the Indians are always doing things like this.” A Welshman said people in the hills where he grew up dressed trees when he was a lad, and that even coal miners were known to dress trees. An Asian gentleman remembered dressing trees with fruit in India when he was a lad. An Irishman remembered dressing the May Mulberry Bush.

Jeannie was absolutely delighted” said Kevin Ryan, “We got talking about clootie trees and she remembered a visit to a tree near a spring which had associations with the Battle of Culloden. She told us how the women she was with had all taken bits from their petticoats or ripped their tights to hang near the water and how they all said a prayer as they tied the bits on. She then tied something to our gateway trees and promptly burst into tears as she said a prayer for a friend who had died this time last year, but she left feeling good!”

Taking Responsibility

We all have a part to play in creating this new festival. In Britain Tree Dressing day should be inclusive of all our cultures, and something which we can hand back to the world as a celebration relevant to the 21st century. Any ritual or action which makes us take responsibility for our trees must be welcomed. At a time when the ‘appointed carers’ (local authority arboricultural officers) are outnumbered by the trees in their charge by an average of 60,000 to one, we need to remember these are our trees too. We must re-learn how to respect and revere them, be ready to speak out for them and go to their aid.

In ancient Rome writes Fraser in The Golden Bough, a cornel-tree grew on the Palatine Hill, which was esteemed as one of the most sacred objects in Rome. ‘Whenever the tree appeared to a passer by to be drooping, he immediately set up a hue and cry which was echoed by the people in the street, and soon a crowd might be seen running helter skelter from all sides with buckets of water, as if (says Plutarch) they were hastening to put out a fire.’

We need to give as much care and protection to our trees, to really take them into our lives and look after them for life.