catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 9 :: 2009.04.24 — 2009.05.08


The tree of sacrifice, the tree of communication

Tu b’Shevat is a little known Jewish holiday celebrated in the spring at the end of the winter rains when the trees are budding.  The primary reason for this holiday is that it marks the birthday of the trees.  All trees were of value to early generations of Jews, especially in an arid climate. As trees matured, they were more valuable. Ownership of trees bearing fruit meant a harvest that could be taxed, so for Levitical tax purposes the trees collectively became one year older all on the same day. 

What do trees do when they celebrate? In the Psalms trees teach praise. “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof.  Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice” (Psalm 96:11-12). The Psalmists, Jesus, Paul and John all used trees as images to communicate their and our relationship to God.  In Jesus’ parables, the tree borne of a mustard seed has great significance.  The book of Revelation gives us an image of a tree whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.  Paul sees all creation including the trees in violent mourning, reminding us that we are all part of a fallen universe.  Trees are sacrificed and also proclaim sacrifice.  The Book of Hours proclaimed this prayer for the noon office: “By a tree we were made bondmen, and by the Holy Cross we are set free: the fruit of the tree seduced us, the Son of God redeemed us.”  As the printing press acquired paper in abundance, the common person, not just the official penitent, could converse with God in a form ruled by times and seasons, both in its content and in the substances of its pages.

Using trees as an image for reflection inspires the artist as well as the contemplative.  Walt Whitman gives us two artistic views in the following poems from his final edition of Leaves of Grass.  The first, “For Him I Sing,” uses the tree as a metaphor communicating growth of relationship via history:

For him I sing,
I raise the present on the past,
(As some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past,)
With time and space I him dilate and fuse the immortal laws,
To make himself by them the law unto himself.

In the second poem, Whitman questions the tree: what does the tree’s solitude create?  Whitman does not think the tree is in dialogue, which is for him a necessary pathway to intimacy:

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there
without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it and
twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
solitary in a wide in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Quentin Schultze, professor of communications at Calvin College, questions communication itself in his essay, “Speak Only If You Can Improve Upon the Silence:”

So the monastics sometimes took vows of silence. Why? Is there anything fundamentally wrong with speech?  If we are busily talking we might be less inclined to listen to others. To observe them. To pay attention to them. Monologue does not guarantee intimacy. (Does dialogue? That’s a topic for another essay.)  If we don’t listen to others we can’t get to know them as distinct persons with their own hopes and fears. We can’t love them because we fail to truly know them and how to serve them. Mutual listening is a kind of communicative foreplay for relationship.

Perhaps the artist presupposes this type of listening.  In this regard, the tree is both useful for creating a book and a source of inspiration for its content.

And what do trees ask of us for their sacrifice?  John Baillie penned this prayer to be offered on Sunday, recorded in his book, Diary of Private Prayer:

O Thou who are the Source and Ground of all truth, Thou Light of lights, who hast opened the minds of men to discern the things that are, guide me to-day, I beseech Thee, in my hours of reading. Give me the grace to choose the right books and to read them in the right way.

Our challenge as we encounter them in images, books and living specimens is to “party on” with the trees.  So declare a day a tree’s birthday and enjoy it!

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