Trees, Folklore And The Human Psyche

A love of trees and green spaces is nearly ubiquitous across the globe. Even those raised in 'concrete jungles,' largely isolated from the natural and wild world, still find themselves more relaxed and at peace when they visit or view the Earth's verdant areas. In fact, just having a little greenery you can see out your window at your work or your home has been shown to increase relaxation and well-being.

With humanity's long love affair with trees, it's probably not surprising that trees have impacted our brains and even made their way into our religions, spiritualities, mythology, symbology and folklore... No doubt trees and forests are important, but what is it about trees that has us so enthralled with their existence? Is it hardwired into our brains? Is it evolution? Is it something else?

Trees In Folklore 

So, why do we love trees? Well, it's a natural human phenomena. The concept of a "Tree Of Life" is a widespread symbol across many of the world's mythologies, often related to the concept of a sacred tree in both philosophical and religious traditions. 

The ancient symbol of the Tree has been found to represent physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation and liberation, union and fertility and are seen as powerful symbols of growth and resurrection. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the "Tree of Knowledge" connects heaven and the underworld and the "Tree Of Life" connects all forms of creation. Many scholars think the trees portrayed in various religions and philosophies are the same tree.

The bond and affection to trees is so deep in Celtic traditions, that the Celts believed that the actual trees were their ancestors and gatekeepers to the Celtic Otherworld. As such, the Tree Of Life in Celtic Culture is one of their most sacred images. You can also find tree spirits in many animistic worldviews, where they see the entire environment populated with spirits, such as the Kami of Japan, or tree specific spirits, such as the Dryads of ancient Greece. 

Alongside the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, another infamous tree symbol is the known as the "World Tree." The World Tree of the Nordic Vikings was seen as the structure of the very universe itself, with its different branches and roots being home to many diverse creatures and worlds. 

Trees also make prominent places for important events, such as in Buddhism, when the Buddha was said to have 'awakened' and achieved liberation. It is said that during his ardent meditative journey, he had shelter under a great Bodhi Tree for 49 days.

Trees have even made their way into fields that are typically seen as at odds with religion and spiritual paths. The expression, the "Tree Of Life," was used by Charles Darwin as a metaphor for the phylogenetic tree of common descent, in the evolutionary sense. “Mother Tree” is a term that refers to the biggest and oldest trees in the forest, providing incredible biodiversity; they are the glue that holds the forest togetherThrough their huge photosynthetic capacity, they provide food for the whole soil web of life.

Humanity has embraced the symbolism of the majestic Tree, from its earliest recorded histories. We see it in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Ancient Egypt and Persia, Paganism and Norse Mythology, to China and beyond. It has literally been a part of every culture on earth. They are beautiful, majestic and linked to humans.  

Trees And Psychological Well-Being

Trees are vital for the air we breathe. As the biggest plants on the planet, they absorb and store carbon, provide oxygen, and combat the effects of climate change. Trees also stabilize and regenerate the soil, and they are habitat to much of the world's wildlife. They even provide shelter to many species of fungi and plants that live in their understory, like ferns. The more trees in the world, the better! 

Time spent amongst trees has been scientifically proven to have many psychosocial, physical and emotional benefits for human beings. People not only appreciate what they have in life more, but seem to be calmer and have a greater sense of connection to themselves, the land and each other. A few of these things that have been confirmed through science and are known as Attention Restoration Theory and Forest Bathing.

Attention Restoration Theory was developed by the Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Their theory states that time spent in nature helps to improve or restore our attention. So, simply being among the trees can help make you a calmer and more mindful person.

Additionally, there is a practice from Japan called Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing. Forest Bathing has been studied a lot over the last couple of decades and it has shown that time spent in nature helps boost your mood and your immune system. How do they do this? They found that many of the natural aromas and terpenes trees release can influence our mood and boost our immune system when we breathe them in. Now, many people are using essential oils from trees as an easy, natural remedy to boost mood and immune functioning. So, not only do trees actually create the air we need to breathe, but they fill it full of feel-good and health improving chemicals.

Additionally, hugging a tree increases your level of the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for feeling calm and emotional bonding. When hugging a tree, the hormones serotonin and dopamine also make you feel happier. It definitely seems like trees love and care for us. What is a better way to show our love for them, than by giving them a hug and making sure they continue to exist through protection and reforestation.

Final Thoughts

As far as our best archaeologists and anthropologist can tell, our ancestors were crafted by and evolved in the warm embrace of the Earth's tropical jungles. Although we left the trees for various reasons, making our way to grasslands and ultimately every other terrestrial (land) ecosystem on the planet, our biological change has been a much slower march than that of our rapid technological advancement and modern lifestyle. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) haven't changed much biologically in about 300,000 years, however, our lifestyle changed dramatically about 10,000 years ago when we made the change to a less nomadic lifestyle and became farmers. 

During this time, we also partook in a viscous onslaught on the natural world, turning its wild spaces into farms, towns and cities; leading to the destruction of much of the environment, as well as ravaging our minds by exposing them to lifeless, dead places devoid of natural vegetation. However, we innately remember our times among the trees and they have populated our collective unconscious and permeated our religions and folklore.

Our lifestyle has changed, but our brains and bodies have not. Nature isn't a place to visit, nature is home and as the saying goes, 'home is where the heart is.' So, it's not surprising that we feel more open, relaxed and loved among the trees, because going into the forest is actually returning home.