The Personhood of Trees

Venerable Beech, Calder Valley

Venerable Beech, Calder Valley

Family Group with Christmas Tress, c 1952.

Family Group with Christmas Tree, c 1952.

Sacred Trees

The Tree of Life is, of course, a fairly ubiquitous symbol.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashford describe it as a primary image of the goddess, in whose immanent presence all opposites are reconciled.  ‘Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continually into earthly creation’.  The serpent was the guardian of the tree, and of the life force in its rising and falling sap, and thus consort of the goddess.(1)

In Celtic lore the first woman was said to have been a Rowan and the first man an alder.  Single trees were the locus of shamanistic activities across Northern Europe.  For both the ancient Greeks and the Celts each deity had their own tree.  The Oak was sacred to the sky gods Zeus and Taranis because it ‘courted the flash’. Trees are often struck by lightning because they can become electrically charged.  The deep rooted oak is reputed to be particularly prone.  Its rough bark deflects lightning down through the wood, where it explosively vapourises moisture, tears open the trunk, and blows branches off.  Such ‘god-chosen’ trees may regenerated in ‘stag headed’ form.  Mistletoe, once thought to grow on oaks as a result of lightning strikes was reputedly sacred to the ancient druids.  In the Welsh language many words for awareness, knowledge and writing derive from wydd (wood), not least derwydd (‘druid’).  Venerated trees are still decorated with ribbons, rags, or wool.(2)  The word nemeton, a sacred grove, is incorporated into many European place names.

Yew Roots.

Sinuous Yew Roots.

 Tree Persons

Erazim Kohák recommends that philosophers should address trees as persons, even though they may not reply. Conversing with them in this way, rather than labelling them as resources or biomechanisms, is life enhancing, engenders respect, and is more likely to foster sustainable dwelling.  Graham Harvey describes his approach, with its focus on particular detail, as ‘narrow animism’.(3) 

I’ve been wondering whether all that human veneration might  amount to a vast anthropocentric monologue that reduces trees to the status of symbols, and prevents us from noticing their otherness, something we surely need to do before attempting cross species dialogue?  In Plants as Persons, A Philosophical Botany, however, Matthew Hall argues that, in sharp contrast to Christian theology, pagan cultures -ancient Greek, Old Norse, Anglo Saxon, Celtic, and Karelian- regarded plants as ‘relational, volitional, and autonomous living beings’.  Much as in contemporary animist societies, plants were treated as kindred beings, and embedded in ‘local relationships of care, solidarity, and responsibility’. Connectedness and consubstantiality have been identified as key motifs in Indo-European mythology in which plants and human beings emanate from the same fundamental substance.

Hall argues that an animist terminology of kinship and personhood is preferable to notions of tree ‘spirits’, since the latter might appear separate from trees themselves.  He cites various ancient Greek myths in which humans are transformed into trees, who, for example, express grief by dripping tears of resin or sap.  One story concerns Erysichton, a man who spurned the gods and refused to offer votive garlands.  He entered the sacred grove of Demeter and ordered his men to cut all the trees down.  When they refused he picked up the axe and approached a tree himself.  The grove groaned, shuddered, and went pale.  Ignoring the tree’s communication, he cut into an oak, which started to bleed.  Enraged by Erysichton’s act of violence Demeter condemned him to a life of famine.  There are similar descriptions of tree beings in Old Norse and Anglo Saxon stories.  In the Poetic Edda, for example, the world tree, Yggdrasil, suffers agony.  In the Finnish Kalevala, trees talk, sigh, weep, and express their worries and fears.  Today’s advocates of plant neurobiology argue that plants ‘integrate sensory information and make decisions based upon communication between a multitude of plant tissues such as root meristems, interior meristems, and vascular tissues’.(4)


‘Ancient’ Silver Birch

I’ve long felt an affinity with certain species of trees, and with certain individual trees that I like to visit from time to time, much as I would visit human friends.  In recent years I’ve twice had precognitive dreams alerting me to the fact that trees in my local ‘patch’ were being, or had been, felled, and giving me the approximate location.  In retrospect it felt as though the message was coming through intermediaries -in one case my companion bird species- rather than directly from the trees themselves. Perhaps I was reluctant to accept that trees could transmit their pain and panic in a language that I might be able to receive and understand?  The idea that trees convey a sense of beauty, peace, and the continuity of life, is undoubtedly more familiar.

As the Winter Solstice approaches, towns and villages across Britain respond to the enclosing darkness by decorating evergreen trees with coloured lights.  In some places, as the new year opens, there will also be wassailing.  “Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee.  Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow.  Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills.  Hip, Hip, Hip, Hurrah, Holler biys, Holler Hurrah!”.(5)

B.T 16/12/13.


1) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Arkana 1993.

2) Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames and Hudson, 1996/2000. Note that according to Ronald Hutton, the ogham alphabet is no longer thought to have been linked to trees. See Blood and Mistletoe, the History of the Druids in Britain, Yale University Press, 2009.

3) Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

4) Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons, A Philosophical Botany, Suny Press, 2011.

5) Reminiscences of Life in the Parish of Street, Somersetshire, dated 1909, pp25-26, written by an “old inhabitant” William Pursey of Street 1836-1919.

This post is part of the Animist Blog Carnival issue on the theme of trees, which can be found here.

I’d also like to ‘re-blog’ the following story about a remarkable ancient oak tree: 

The Pontfadog Oak

The Pontfadog Oak.  Photo, The Treehunter (R.McBride).

The Pontfadog Oak. Photo, The Treehunter (R.McBride).

One victim of the extreme weather of Spring 2012 was a venerable tree, thought to be around 1,200 years old.  The Pontfadog Oak, near Chirk in North Wales, had been covered in heavy snow.  Then, on the 18th April, ‘it’ -the inanimate pronoun feels wrong here, ‘s/he’ might be better?- was felled by an exceptional gale.  This was a remarkable tree, with a girth of 42 feet (12.9 metres).  Six people were able to sit round a table inside its hollow trunk.  Owain Gwynedd is said to have gathered his troops here in 1157, before defeating the English King Henry II at the battle of Crogen nearby.

On the day the tree fell, many local humans came to pay their respects.  ‘It was like a wake’.  Tears were shed.  Everyone at the Woodland Trust for Wales/Coed Cadw was ‘devastated’.  One woman said that ‘it was like losing an old friend’.  An Ancient Tree Forum recommendation to shore the old tree up (at a cost of only £5,700) had not been acted upon, and there’s now a call for a state resting place for the tree’s remains.  Jill Butler from Coed Cadw writes: ‘every day of its long life it has provided oxygen, cleaned the air, provided one of the most important habitats of biodiversity … and been an icon for this part of Wales’.  Acorns have been collected (doubtless by Jays and Squirrels as well as humans), and micro-propagation may be possible from live material. “The King is dead, Long Live the King.”  The Pontfadog Oak was clearly a person, a charismatic member of a multi-species community, an emblematic marker of place, and a living place in hir (rather than ‘its’?) own right.



5 thoughts on “The Personhood of Trees

  1. Great writing on a subject that interests us all. I always wonder when a tree falls or is cut how long it takes for its slower consciousness to realize its plight, or whether it just shifts into the consciousness of its duty now to feed the woods or be transformed into something the wood is made from. You might enjoy this post My great bear oak was nowhere near as old as the one in your story, but it was still traumatic to me when it fell. I will probably also reblog this, so thanks again for your insight in words and pictures.

  2. ‘Hall argues that an animist terminology of kinship and personhood is preferable to notions of tree ‘spirits’, since the latter might appear separate from trees themselves.’

    I think there’s room for both. I try to connect with trees as physical persons in this world and with them as spiritual persons in the Otherworld, which I see as ways of working with the same person on different planes. In my experience there’s also a vast array of spirits connected with trees and woodlands who exist separately from tree people as well.

  3. I’m glad you highlighted that Lorna. Matthew Hall (in a very interesting book) was following in the wake of Graham Harvey at that point. I would also defend a careful, grounded, use of the word spirit. I think we need to acknowledge the term has a problematic history as a signifier of disconnectedly transcendental phenomena/beings, but I think ‘person’ is just as vague, and in need of constant clarification.

    I’ve sometimes referred to the Spirit of a species, much as some non-Western ‘indigenous’ animist traditions talk about the Guardian or Master of a species. I feel the need for some such term to describe/account for the consistency of my bird experiences over many years. Your vast array of spirits connected with woodland sounds like a parallel subtle ecology. (in addition to fungal mycelia, of course!). I’d like to hear more some time (perhaps not here?) about how you experience them.

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