Religion and the Environment, Theology

Shaking the Tree of Anthropocentricity

Published on: December 30, 2021
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christmas tree

“Rejoice, tree of leafy branches,
under which believers are sheltered …
Rejoice, O wood most blessed!”
Akathist to the Cross, Oikos 7

Rocking around the Christmas tree in my little Norwegian hometown, I got to thinking how the Christian world is filled with trees. Not only the spruce. Not primarily anyway. But the spruce, perhaps, evoked in me just then what I might call an arboreal clarity: trunks appear on all sides of us. As soon as the human being was created, God placed this earthborn creature among leaves and branches. The Tree of Life resided in the center of primeval reality, as the source of life force. On the other side of the Fall emerged the Tree of the Cross, bearing the fruit of Salvation. Their circuit of vivacious power is broken only by another tree, the one of knowledge, whose fruits are fatal. Every Christian knows the story. Still, we tend to forget that Christianity is really a tree religion.

Early Christians knew this story well; imagining Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve, they also envisioned the Cross to be the new Tree of Life. The Lord himself, when wandering the dirt roads of this earth, might speak in Dendric: “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” (Mark 11.14) The fig tree listened, replying by withering—or so the evangelist says. Clearly Jesus identified with greenery. He called himself a vine whose branches were disciples (John 15). And he’d search for similes adequate to describe the divine reality. How can we imagine the Kingdom, he asked rhetorically? As a seed that grows and “becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mark 4.30–32; Matthew 13.31–32). Wings hover freely above the buds that constantly grow and burst with ecclesiastical sap.

But I do not mean to merely rehearse Bible stories. In addition to the familiar tree words and narratives expressed in sacred folios, Orthodox history is dense with vegetation that has grown and been grafted into the life of humans—or vice versa. For, as Elder Amphilochios of Patmos used to say, “God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture: ‘Love the trees!’ Whoever does not love trees […] does not love God.” [1]

A New Creation in Leaf

According to an early poetic tradition—similar versions appear in Syriac and Greek hymns—Adam lived together with the trees in Paradise. When he transgressed and was expelled, the other trees wept and cried. He ran to the fig trees. They blushed when they saw him and rushed to dress him in foliage. But the other trees called out to him, with an echo of God’s words: “Where are you, Adam?” All adorned with leaves, the new creature appeared as a fig tree himself. Thus was the first human a tree being.

The early Syriac poet St Ephrem the Syrian tried to imagine how various trees interacted with each other in Eden—also when Adam was not there:

Perhaps that blessed tree, the Tree of Life,
is, by its rays, the sun of Paradise;
its leaves glisten, and on them are impressed
the spiritual graces of that Garden.
In the breezes the other trees bow down as if in worship
before that sovereign and leader of the trees.

(Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise 3.2, trans. Sebastian Brock)

The other crowns around the Tree of Life express their veneration, airily bowing their branches. The arboreal leader glitters and sparkles as the foliage trembles in the breeze. Ephrem paid ardent attention to the trees of Paradise and their relationship with Adam. In fact, Ephrem seems more mindful of this relationship than of the one between Adam and Eve. Adam found himself cared for by trees, according to both Greek and Syriac poets.

Hugging Trees

Some people assume that tree hugging arrived with modern environmentalism. I beg to differ. Just think of the dendrites! Although sources are few, and many a tree dweller is literally hidden in the deep forest of history, the accounts are numerous enough to affirm that a steady little stream of miscellaneous ascetics have historically been attracted to branches and trunks. The fifteenth-century Muscovite saint Tikhon settled as a hermit in the forests of Kaluga. For several years he lived inside an oak, hugged by the wood of the tree. A millennium earlier, St David of Thessaloniki climbed up into the boughs of an almond tree, and remained in its grip for three years. His ascetic lifestyle must have been much more exposed to the harsh weather than Tikhon’s, but in their different ways they were both drawn to the arboreal embrace. And so was another Byzantine man. A green newcomer to monasticism, the young St Luke the Style would sneak out from the monastery every night unseen, to spend the dark hours hugged by a hollow tree. “The dendrites,” the twelfth-century bishop St Eustathios of Thessaloniki submitted, were “the branches of the Tree of Life, who bloom in virtue, the beautiful fruits of the spirit.” They were saints growing boughs.

Dendrites have tickled the imagination of hagiographers, but they have also reminded Christians of various periods that they need to be “grafted in … to share the rich root,” to quote Romans (11.17), and that there is something vital about trees for us all. Bringing Christmas trees into our homes is hardly the most eco-friendly way to treat conifers. But maybe, at the very least, we may learn to see in them, as in a mirror, dimly, a vague reminiscence of a humble humanity we may yet again strive to become—one a tad more vegetal. The Orthodox realm still knows chapels housed in trunks, shrines bristling with shrubs, embraced icons and protective oaks, but we can no longer claim that foliage is weeping for us, and few of us are weeping for them.

Adam Undressed

Modernity has taken us to the Anthropocene. It’s a crowded place. Scientists have given our era this name because people have over-populated the earth, and human impact on the whole ecosystem is overwhelming, leaving other species as decorative environment at the foot of our Babelic structures. But it is not just physical city streets that are packed. In modern Christian storytelling, too, trees have been felled in order to make room for more humans. Arboreal actors have been reduced to extras. Fig leaves fall into the human toolbox of nudity coverings. It’s all for the two-footed!

“Anthropocentrism,” writes John Chryssavgis in Creation as Sacrament, “is an entrancing temptation to which we are all guilty of submitting at one time or another, and which has detrimentally burdened our perspective and practice” (p. 153). The temptation, it seems, is growing ever greater. What Patriarch Bartholomew has called an ecological sin is not only throwing an empty can on the ground. It is ultimately connected to the way we as humans perceive ourselves as superior to all other life forms and assign them an existence in our shadows. In Greek it is called hubris, when a human tries to transgress his or her limits. Some may call it progress. Who needs weeping leaves anymore? Does it really matter how plants communicate? And isn’t the affinity between trees and humans merely a fanciful misconception from a time when people were less developed? I’d say: No. We need to “return to the fathers” on this point, for they can teach us ways to live with trees, love the trees, to see ourselves in trees, and to discover the trees inside us, as we wander through forests and gardens, lost in our own thoughts—distracted perhaps, but slightly hungry, as always … Where are we? Where are you, Adam?

[1] Quoted here from Kallistos Ware, “Through Creation to the Creator,” in John Chryssavgis & Bruce V. Foltz (eds.), Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (New York, 2013), 86.

This post draws on the newly published book Byzantine Tree Life: Christianity and the Arboreal Imagination by Thomas Arentzen, Virginia Burrus, & Glenn Peers (Palgrave Macmillan 2021).    

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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