What is universal about the human experience? And what does it have to do with planting trees?
Let’s start at the beginning. An amorphous concept of where we came from and why seems to be at the center of each religion, philosophical group, and to some extent academic discipline. Why are we so fascinated by these questions of who we are?
Religion exists as a modality for humans to postulate responses to these fundamental questions. In yoga and many other traditions, the tree plays a central role in myths about the structure of the universe. Ashvattha, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, is first mentioned over 5,000 years ago in the Rig Veda. This puzzling tree has its root in a star in the sky with branches that grow downward and constitute all that exists in our human world. The roots are flipped, extending beyond our perspective into the celestial realm. Yogis believe there is a copy of this tree in our bodies: the spine. Even the energy center, or chakra, at the base of the spine is known as muladhara, or root. Through connection of the energy from here to the crown, we gain access to the wisdom of ashvattha.
Respect for nature is paramount here as in many world religions. Caring for a tree is seen as sadaqa in Islam, an act of charity that brings prosperity to the tender and all whom the tree provides for. The caring of trees is regarded as a fundamental human responsibility and an act of faith. In Judaism, there is great respect for trees, which are regarded as the “pinnacle” of the plant world. Midrash, or rabbinical commentary, details a sustainable approach to tree caring: although it would be possible to consume the entirety of a tree, the practice is discouraged as preserving the longevity of the tree’s giving power is worth forgoing the short-term gain. The holiday Tu BiShvat (this year beginning on the evening of January 16 and ending the evening of January 17), celebrates the “birthday” of trees, coinciding with the commencement of their season of fruitfulness.
Let’s return to ashvattha, the yogi celestial tree. Puzzlingly, this myth appears in more than one place around the world. This arises in part because it’s based on a real species, Ficus religiosa, perhaps better known as a fig tree. Figs grow paradoxically, shooting their branches up first before continuing to root downward. The shoots of the branches project out and can create copies of themselves. The peculiar growth pattern observed in this tree results in what appears as a forest, but in reality it is just one tree. This perfectly represents the common religious idea that what we perceive as separate is in its divine nature just one.
Psychologists describe a universal quality of humans called intuitive religiousness, manifesting in different forms but without fail in all cultures around the world. We are designed to notice what might be divine about the world around us, constantly searching for agency and meaning in our external environment. We feel auras, a real psychological term for the quality of emotion prompted in the presence of things unrepeatable or irreplaceable.
This motif of trees in world religions reveals that humans across the ages have commonly recognized this mystic quality in trees, connecting our religious inclinations like the overlapping roots of the fig. To study interfaith relations means taking note of these crossings and entanglements, finally coming to recognize that not only do we all depend on the same resources, but also we truly are one in the search for meaning. Religion can encourage a remembrance of this transcendent connection as a means to promote characteristics such as kindness and non-judgment.
“The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nation” (Revelation 22:2). When a community chooses tree planting, it chooses an act that has resonated with people as long as we have been conscious to question our purpose. The care inherent in all the infinitesimal steps leading to planting a seed in the ground reflects our natural inclination for reverence and care. In communities where tree nurseries from the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) are planted, every part and parcel of this act is healing by and of the community.
The project “House of Life” works like this: the Moroccan Jewish community lends land to HAF to build tree nurseries adjacent to their important cultural sites. These trees help communities escape cycles of poverty by placing them at the command of agricultural development designed to enhance wellbeing and provide food and sustainable income.
The history of interfaith relations in Morocco and oppression of religious groups at times has resulted in obstructions of the reality of our equality. Christianity in particular has been pushed to the background, with followers forced into practicing in private home churches that have even at times been infiltrated. By supporting the Fondation Mémoires Pour L’avenir in their mission to capture the stories of the Christian community and restore important religious structures like the Toumliline monastery, HAF supports the exposition of the tangled roots of religious communities in Morocco.
A moment of gratitude incited by reflection on a flowering tree branch can open our eyes to the wonders of the earth as it provides nutrition, beauty, shade, and peace, eternal as the love that many religions throughout the world cite as our true essence. Thanks to the efforts of HAF and its partners, individuals who form part of once-divided and unsupported communities benefit from the universally recognized spiritual and culturally healing properties of caring for trees.
People of all Abrahamic faiths plant a fig tree together at the tree nursery in Akrich, which is next to the 700-year-old burial site of the venerated Rabbi Raphael HaCohen. Photo: HAF, November 2021.
Catrin Waters is a student at the University of Virginia and a Volunteer at the High Atlas Foundation.
This article is published in commemoration of World Religion Day and HAF’s annual tree planting day, which coincides with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service and Tu BiShvat in 2022.