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[Chalice] Trees of Life [Chalice]

Presented May 8, 2011, by Susan Morrison Hebble, PhD

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When you think of a tree, what image comes to mind? Do you see a dogwood, exuberantly in bloom? An evergreen in a forest, or perhaps the evergreen adorned with ornaments in your living room at Christmastime? A weeping willow blowing with casual elegance in a breeze? An old oak, sturdy and strong?

I have in my front yard a red maple, planted by our home"s original owners about 25 years ago - it is budding now, rich earth-red buds that assure me that Spring is indeed here, despite Mother Nature's erratic behavior the past month. Each morning, when I open my curtains onto the day, I look at that tree. It's my beautiful, reassuring, ever-changing reference point - abud as it is now, or, in a month's time, heavy with green leaves, and as the year goes on, glorious in autumn red, patiently bare in November winds, regal in January's snow.

Now here's my next question: when you think of a tree, what ideas come to mind? Perhaps more than any other element of nature, trees have served as a ubiquitous symbol of many abstractions: life, death, fertility, strength, virility, beauty, and in recent decades, environmentalism. Particular trees may carry particular meanings: According to one on-line nursery, which offers symbolic definitions of trees along with zonal and light requirements, the birch tree stands for tolerance, the Aspen determination, the Elm not only strength of will but also intuition, and so on.

We seem to look to trees, don't we, to help us understand ourselves and, indeed, to make sense of the world. They are, after all, an element of nature that never goes away - trees don't bloom then fade then either lie dormant until Spring's warmth or decompose and fertilize the earth. Rather they are there, always present, always outside the window, bearing fruit or seeds, usually for decades, sometimes for centuries. They are as much a part of our everyday landscape as the sun and sky, as our friends and family.

To some degree, we take them for granted, as we often do the sun and sky, our friends and family. But every once in a while, they remind us of how essential and how beautiful they are. And when we lose a tree, the loss is palpable. In Western Springs, where I live, Dutch Elm Disease has taken many stately old trees that have lined the streets for decades. I'll not forget the day about 12 years ago that village officials came to take down the diseased Elm in our front yard. My young daughters stood at the window, tears streaming down their faces, begging me to stop the men from cutting down the tree. Had they mentioned any affection for the tree before this? No. But they sensed, even as small children, the significance of losing a tree.

Last month, I read of not one but two symbolically significant trees in Japan. In Fukishama stands a 1000-year-old Cherry tree, just 30 miles from the site of the nuclear disaster that resulted from the March 11 earthquake. Already recognized as a national treasure for its age and beauty - two things the Japanese highly revere--the tree has become a symbol of hope and renewal for the Japanese as its cherry blossoms have bloomed in defiance of the devastation from which the country must recover. Over 60,000 people have come to the tree, to pray and to appreciate its comforting beauty.

And in a resort town of 23,000 destroyed by both the earthquake and tsunami, stands a single pine tree, once one of 70,000 pines planted nearly 300 years ago to protect the town from ocean winds. As with the thriving cherry tree in Fukishama, this lone pine, battered and scarred, has become infused with meaning; one villager articulates its significance: "this tree and all the pine trees on the beach were planted by my ancestors . . . . I have lots of feelings about it. I hope this tree becomes a symbol for rebuilding Takata" (qtd. in Burnett).

Human beings have assigned both sacred and secular meaning to trees for millennia. Art history professor Dr. Christopher Witcombe explains: "[a]s the largest plant on earth, the tree has been a major source of stimulation to the mythic imagination. Trees have been invested in all cultures with a dignity unique to their own nature." Their beauty, strength, and regenerative qualities reinforce the mystical elements with which we imbue them. Witcombe traces mythological and sacred significance of various trees back to Ancient Egypt.

And we can look to just about any modern religion to find the tree serving various symbolic functions perhaps because, as Nobel Prize winning Bengali spiritual leader Tagore articulates, "Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven" (Fireflies, 1928).

While the tree may invoke any number of meanings, the motif that threads most consistently among religions through the ages is the Tree of Life, or the tree as symbol of unity and immortality. Indeed, with roots deep in soil, trunk strong and sturdy, branches and limbs reaching to the sky, the tree is an "ancient image of all life. . . [of] life that gives life" as it "dwells in three worlds a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting all" (Perchlik). In Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Native American spiritualism, Kabbalism, paganism, Shintoism, even the Bahai faith, we find images of a Tree of Life.

Yes, the Flaming Chalice, created by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch in 1941 to represent sacrifice and love, stands as a symbol of Unitarian Universalism. But I would argue that the Tree, call it the Tree of Life if you will, figures into the UU spirit as well. The tree image may serve as a variation, perhaps, of the interdependent web of existence, suggesting the value of both social and natural interconnection. Look behind me: prominent in this stained glass scene is not some mystical image, but trees, under which our founders meet. At the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, my congregational home, the pulpit is framed by a tree of life, a carved mural created by one of our members. Several other congregations, including one called The Tree of Life Congregation, boast Tree of Life art - quilts, weavings, sculptures. It makes sense: the tree of life is an apt symbol of Unitarian Universalism, reflecting our commitment to life, to nature, to the planet Earth.

And the tree of life carries not just religious or spiritual implications. In speculating on the interconnection between all living things, Charles Darwin sketched his thoughts in 1837: "he drew a crude - but unmistakable - evolutionary tree. This drawing, with the most ancient forms at the bottom and their descendants branching off irregularly along the trunk, reveals that Darwin understood all plants and animals are related. Above his tree Darwin wrote firmly, 'I think'" (American Museum of Natural History). Scientists agree that this "tree of life" focused Darwin's work.

With a quick google search, you'll find the contemporary extension of Darwin's ideas in the intriguing Tree of Life Web Project, "an [online] collaborative effort of biologists and nature enthusiasts from around the world. . . ."; the project, hosted by the University of Arizona, currently exceeds 10,000 pages. Darwin saw the metaphor in not only practical but almost spiritual terms:

"The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree," he wrote in 1859. "As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these if vigorous, branch out and overtop . . . many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications." (Tree of Life)

And not surprisingly, trees as symbol punctuate our cultural landscape in literature, poetry, and film. We see this most recently, in the futuristic fantasy movie Avatar, in which The Hometree and the sacred Tree of Souls play prominent roles. And due for release in just a few weeks is the Brad Pitt/Sean Penn movie entitled Tree of Life, a much-anticipated film shrouded in mystery but promising magic and meaning, "all against the backdrop of a 1950s family drama" (IndieWire). Dozens of video games even reference a Tree of Life, and we see tree images in fabrics, pottery, jewelry; and even in Disney's Animal Kingdom, stands a 14-story, 50-foot wide major attraction called The Tree of Life adorned with hundreds of carvings of various animal species. Reflecting his appreciation for the mingling of the practical, spiritual, and cultural in our world, Albert Einstein once said, "All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence."

And today, let's say in honor of Mother's Day - Happy Mother's Day, Mom, for the 49th time - I would like finally to talk about another tree of life, one that embodies these multi-dimensional elements: The Family Tree.

Maybe I'm reacting to a midlife crisis, maybe I'm just finally acting on a latent itch to find out from whence my DNA came, but I've recently embarked on the intriguing and daunting task of actively exploring my Family Tree. Yes, I signed on with

When I tell people this, I get looks of puzzlement, dismay, sometimes pity ("what a waste of time!" I've been chided.). Occasionally someone in a hushed, almost embarrassed, tone will admit his or her own interest in genealogy. I think these are probably fairly typical reactions of many Americans.

An appreciation for ancestry, for the Family Tree, is a hallmark of many cultures. We couldn't ignore its importance in England a couple of weeks ago watching the Royal Wedding, could we? And in many Asian countries, people really, truly revere their ancestors, praying to them, making symbolic offerings at ancestral altars, and looking to them for good fortune.

But think about it: America defines itself by the ability - compulsion even - to redefine itself, to shake off the dusty past, presumptuously oppressive, and look forward. Since our stake is in the future, we adore the anticipation and glimmer of what we might become, of where we might go. The stories of so many of our nation's leaders - in business, government, and art - reflect this notion. Look, too, at our great American literary heroes - Jay Gatsby, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield - for them, the family tree is a burden. If ancestry has factored into the American narrative, it was as something that must be ignored, denied, or overcome. After all, America finds nothing juicier than the self-made success story, the less connection to history, the better.

As much as I admire, perhaps even envy, the independence of the iconic up-from-nothing American, I think we may be missing a point, even if it's just an acknowledgment that we don't land on earth, kerplunk, thanks to a well-trained stork. As the late UU minister Forrest Church puts it: "None of us is an individual pure and simple. We each are a nexus of relationships and roles. By the same token, our bodies are a colony of cells and organs, with every part, unbeknownst to others, stamped with the same DNA" (Church 35). So, like it or not, we come from a whole lot of someone and somewhere else. Remember that image of a tree--it cannot reach for the sky without deep roots.

"In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future." Alex Haley said that. Remember Alex Haley? He's the author of Roots, an autobiographical novel published in 1976 - the year of our country's bicentennial. The novel, also made into an acclaimed miniseries, explores and celebrates several generations of an African American family. To Haley's great pleasure, Roots led to an increased attention to genealogy, as people began to dig into their own roots. And we have now, nearly 40 years later, a second wave of interest in genealogy in America, made fairly easy with on-line programs like and, and encouraged by reality TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Faces of America, both of which trace the roots of celebrities.

I am impressed with this interest in genealogy. I think it may signal a kind of maturity in the collective American psyche. And I also think it may signal a kind of recognition of our global connection not only with one another, but with the past and the future. As Alex Haley has said, "When you start about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth."

As a little kid, I loved to nose around attics, deciphering my grandmother's fading letters, wondering about her father's college diploma, making up stories to fit the sepia photographs in a dusty old album. And what is my connection to those two guys in the slightly creepy portraits in my parents' dining room? I have wondered, too, not only who in my history fought in the Revolutionary War (my grandmother and her mother were card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution), but how "we" came to America, and then, ultimately to Illinois. What branches - or twigs? - in the tree got up the nerve, or inspiration, or whatever it took, to board a boat and journey for weeks across the Atlantic Ocean, enduring lurching waves and, at best, tedious days and nights, to spend the rest of their lives in a relatively new country? And then, I wonder. . . . . Well, you can imagine the questions popping up, one after the other, like leaves on a tree in the Spring.

I do seem to come by this genealogical curiosity genealogically. Our family, fortunately, has borne several historians. My great uncle Rees painstakingly compiled a Morrison genealogy, with narrative details as well as basic facts dating back to 18th Century Scotland. And gratefully, another family genealogist traced the Eldred line - my paternal grandmother's branch of the tree - to the 16th Century, well before William Eldred arrived in Massachusetts about 1635.

Climbing the tree, or, really, digging the roots of the tree, has been fascinating - a bit like reading a great novel or doing a complex puzzle. I've found compelling figures with made-for-tv-movie story lines: we have some true pioneers - like the Eldred brothers, one a nutmeg grater the other a cheese maker, who in 1816 travelled by foot from Herkimer County, New York to lllinois Territory seeking good land in what they were assured would be a Free State. Happy with what they found - a lush area in Greene County - they returned to the East to fetch their families and finally settled in Illinois in 1820. And there's the story of James Gilham, who in 1794 was impressed with the beauty and fertility of what is now southern Illinois when he went in search of his wife and children, who had been kidnapped by Kickapoo Indians. After reclaiming his family, which took a few years, James Gilham's family and the families of several of James' brothers moved from Kentucky to what is now Madison County, Illinois.

I've found a few black sheep, as well - an 8th great grandmother testified against her neighbor in the Salem Witch trials. And another fellow, John Posey, a neighbor of George Washington in fact, was in and out jail for failure to pay back loans. Mr. Washington bailed him out more than once and even took Posey's son under his wing, seeing that young Thomas got an education and a commission in Washington's regiment during the Revolution. And one young couple in 17th Century Massachusetts was fined and threatened with jail for "disorderly coming together without consent."

As entertaining as these stories are, I find myself as intrigued by the people for whom I've found little information. Especially on my mind are ancestors like a young woman who was born in Connecticut in1646 and died at the age of 32, leaving behind her husband and 3-year-old son. I'd love to say to her, "Look, look what you've made! Your son not only lived, but married and had children, and they lived and had children, and so on. Look! My children are here, because you were there, if only for a short time, you were there." I know little about this woman other than those bare facts. I'm sure she, too, had a compelling story - everybody's got a story after all. But I realize that now the only way to honor her is to recognize her branch on the tree, to say her name - Mary Plumbe Wodruff - and to wish her a happy mother's day as well.

We can find value and sustenance in taking a backward glance, with a nod of respect and gratitude, for those who came before us. For regardless of how we feel about them, regardless of how little we actually know of them, we are here because of them. Just as the branches of a tree - its leaves, its fruit - exist because of roots buried deep under ground. The real hook, you see, is not just the history, which I find fascinating, but the fact that the DNA of so many people happened to mingle at particular moments at particular places in time and space.

And here am I! Indeed, this is your story too - your tree! And here you are!

Forrest Church got this. In his book Lifecraft, he celebrates the mystery of who we are:

"Begin at the beginning. Where did we come from, and why did we turn up when and where we did? Choice may be a factor during the course of our lives, but it had nothing to do with our arriving here in the first place. We didn't choose our parents. We didn't choose our country. We didn't choose the economic stratum into which we were born, our gender, sexual preference, or even our century. . .

Think back beyond your parents and grandparents, and then back further. . . . . For each of us, an almost unimaginable number of human predecessors survived infant mortality, plague, famine, and a myriad of other hardships simply to get to puberty and make love.. . .

Reckon the odds. That we should even exist staggers the imagination. . . . (96-98)

I gotta admit: I love this idea, this astonishing idea that I exist because the lives and fates of hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the centuries crossed and mingled and took root.

I guess more than anything else, I'm drawn to the tree - the thing itself, as well as the tree in all its symbolic interpretations - for the dualities it embodies - life-death, fragility-resilience, change-permanence, extraordinary beauty and beautiful ordinariness. That budding maple in my front yard, that cherry tree in Fukishama, the tree of life that spans across the pulpit in my church in Hinsdale, the Family Tree, some of whom sit or have sat in these pews, they all assure for me the promise of continuity, of grace, and of humility, in nature, in humanity, across the generations. In spite of our roots, and because of our roots, we reach outward, sunward, skyward and become ourselves.


here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

e.e. cummings

Works Cited:

©2011 Susan Morrison Hebble, PhD

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison 2011. Trees of Life, /talks/20110508.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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