From the modern western perspective, it’s just a tree. A rationalist can claim that what makes it sacred is the imagination and values projected upon it by many generations of people, who have wrapped it for centuries with special rope, and set it apart from other trees. The rope signals that kami resides here. Those who revere it understand it houses a living elemental spirit that permeates Nara’s forests, earth and waters, and themselves and their ancestors, past and future. The tree is sacred because they share its spirit.
We do not have at hand the kind of environmental imagination and values the Shintoists of Japan do. Of the sacred traditions of the modern West, the most dominant derive from the Bible, which regards the revering of sacred trees as impermissible. The imagination and values extolled in Deuteronomy do not harmonize with those celebrated at every Shinto shrine. It is difficult for us, for cultural reasons, to look upon an old tree as being sacred.
Nevertheless, many of us—including those who love the Bible and its teachings—sense a kindredness with the trees we live amongst. Despite the everydayness of this feeling, people who sense and act upon it are mocked as “tree-huggers.”
Tree-huggers should know they are in good company.
Thomas Jefferson was one. He wished he “possessed the power of a despot” so he could preserve trees from being clear-cut. “The unnecessary felling of a tree,” he said, “perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder, it pains me to an unspeakable degree.”
Abraham Lincoln was a tree-hugger.
In 1864, he “possessed the power of a despot” and signed an executive order to set aside the Mariposa Big Tree Grove near what is now Yosemite National Park. His deed, the first in US history, set the legal precedent that led to the creation of the National Parks system.
Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the Smith College campus in Northampton, wrote the official report Lincoln used to justify his order. The Library of Congress calls Olmsted’s report “the first systematic expositions in the history of the Western world of the importance of contact with wilderness for human well-being, the effect of beautiful scenery on human perception, and the moral responsibility of democratic governments to preserve regions of extraordinary natural beauty for the benefit of the whole people.”
Marisposa Grove was where, in 1871, John Muir told Ralph Waldo Emerson of his kindredness with trees: “You are yourself a sequoia. Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.”
Muir reminisced how they
rode through the magnificent forests of the Merced basin, and I kept calling his attention to the sugar pines, quoting his wood-notes, “Come listen what the pine tree saith,” etc., pointing out the noblest as kings and high priests, the most eloquent and commanding preachers of all the mountain forests, stretching forth their century-old arms in benediction over the worshiping congregations crowded about them
We do not have readily at hand the kind of imagination and values the Shintoists of Japan do—but that kind of imagination and those values are as much a part of who we are as the legacies of Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson and Muir. We just ignore this part of our heritage.
That we make fun of treehuggers is a testament to the pathology of our educational and economic systems, and of our deadly ignorance of who and what we are.
Who is surprised that “without a formal environmental review”President George W. Bush logged the land that Lincoln set aside, or that the Republican Governor of Utah today filed a lawsuit of the Federal Government to allow commercial interests to log, mine and drill on federal lands that are set aside for us to enjoy what Emerson and Muir enjoyed?
Of Bush’s logging of Mariposa, NY congressman Maurice Hinchey responded: ““If the Bush administration did authorize the chopping down of protected ancient trees in a national forest, then one has to wonder how much longer it will be until the White House starts auctioning off marble slabs from the Lincoln Memorial.”
Of the high desert canyonlands—our lands—that the Governor of Utah intends to seize and despoil, Edward Abbey wrote: “We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.”
As holy as we are—that’s what I took home from the Kasuga Shrine. For to acknowledge the spirit in their holy tree, the Shintoists acknowledge the same in themselves—like Muir did.
And like Thoreau did, too: “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”