One thing we know about nature is that we don’t know much about nature. We can be a pretty self-absorbed species. Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is a good corrective for that. When we’re young we’re taught the difference between plants and animals. What Wohllenben shows is that such differences are more a matter of degree than we realize. Trees move, but slowly. Their timescale can be vast, compared to our brief, get-rich-quick outlook on life. It has been demonstrated pretty clearly that trees communicate with one another. They help one another, and they can, in their dendritic way, think. They cooperate with fungi to maintain connections between their root systems. Trees might even have what we would call personalities, were they fortunate enough to have been born human.
In a little like a medieval fantasy world, Wohllenben is a German forest keeper. He knows trees and their ways intimately. The trick, of course, is that we have a difficult time seeing things in timeframes that exceed our own. There are living trees that are 9,000 years old. That’s before the Sumerians ever showed up to invent writing. In human eyes, a lot has happened since then. And although we don’t know how to define consciousness, we’re sure that it’s limited to our species alone. Grudgingly we may admit some “higher” animals to the club, but our predilection for conquest of our world would be sorely diminished had we not other creatures to dominate. Looking at the world through a sympathetic lens, however, the fact that we’ve evolved these traits from the common ancestor we have with the animals should tell us something. As Wohllenben points out, animals diverged from plants at some stage, but we do ultimately come from the same stock.
Even on a practical level, we can’t live without plants. No matter how gourmet our foodies may be, our nutrition cycle begins with plants photosynthesizing food from pure light. There is perhaps a danger in recognizing our kinship with trees too closely. We depend upon them for food, shelter, warmth, and the oxygen we breathe. We might be inclined, as Wohllenben notes, not to use them at all. The key word here, however, is exploitation. We evolved along with plants and other animals and we all rely on each other. We are all connected. We should care for those with whom we share the planet. Trees have a much longer view than we do. When the desires of one species set the terms for all the others, we soon feel the pain of the trees.
Asherah has, from lack of new material, fallen into a quiet retirement among the gods. For a while there no shortage of new books appeared, including my first, which explored many aspects of this shy goddess. While academia has pushed her to her logical limits, she has thrived in the world of popular imagination. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Grounds for Sculpture, a whimsical park in Hamilton, New Jersey featuring the work of many artists. The appreciation of art works on many levels. A piece of sculpture can take on new meanings when viewed from different angles, and a piece that seems to make no sense can become imbued with meaning when new perspective is added. Sometimes it is the title of the sculpture. A friend had pointed out to me last year that one of the artworks was entitled, Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera, by Tova Beck-Friedman. Ironically the sculpture is from the same year as my finished dissertation on Asherah, a continent away. I must have seen this sculpture many times, but without knowing what it was, had paid no attention.
Asherah is often considered a goddess of trees. My research indicated, however, that such an association was premature. Of course, any discourse that has the Harvard University stamp of approval is decidedly fact, despite contrary evidence. Nevertheless, the dendrite nature of the goddess has persisted into popular culture and even into the world of abstract sculpture. The loss of a forest is, no matter whether goddesses are involved or not, tragic. Asherah has become the protectoress of trees.
The nature of this particular lost forest isn’t clear. At first it might appear that a fire has gone through, claiming the vitality that once thrived in green leaves and mottled bark. I sense that something more is happening here. Asherah is, above all, the divine female. Here single-most constant role in antiquity was as the spouse to the high god. The loss of the forest still speaks to the on-going repression of women. We like to think that our society is headed toward equality, but progress is painfully slow. As usual with lack of momentum, religious institutions lead the way in conservatism. In the largest Christian body in the world, and in some of the fastest growing religions on an international scale, women are kept from leadership roles on the basis of gender alone. Monotheism declares there’s one god for two sexes. Those who experience life from the other side are like trees falling in the forest. We still don’t know if anybody hears.
Religion is all about death. Well, maybe not all, but still…
All religions deal with death in some detail. Perhaps that’s because death is such a universal experience. I think about it quite a lot—not to do so seems to be caught at a crisis without having thought through the implications—but mine are not always morbid thoughts (although, by definition, they may be). When I read Mary Roach’s Stiff a few years back, before I started this blog, I was amazed by the number of ways one could decide to have their “remains” treated. When I was a kid it seemed that there were only two options: bury them or burn them. To some religions the latter option felt a little close to Hell and was condemned as a sin. Occasionally I’ve posted here about various new methods that have made the news: having yourself morphed into a bullet or diamond.
In what I hope was not too much of a hint, my wife shared a further option with me—having yourself turned into a tree. Now while this seems what nature intended, it also feels profoundly Asherah-like. I have my doubts that Asherah was a generalized tree-goddess, but there is some kind of connection between wood and the goddess. Certainly by the Rabbinic Period of Judaism any tree in or near a sanctuary could be understood as the goddess and therefore a threat to monotheism’s hegemony. The solution: chop down the tree. Now Asherah whispers back, when you die, I can make you a tree.
People, like all animals, biodegrade when they die. Some saints apparently avoid this fate while others are pickled to a state of perfection artificially, but for us regular folk nature has a plan. Animals eat the plants, plants eat the animals. We are all consumers. Bios Urn is the brainchild of Gerald Moline and features your deceased body packaged in a biodegradable urn along with tree seeds of your choice. All you need is a post-holer and a bit of rain. Some might wish to be a redwood with their aspirations to immortality. I think I would prefer to be an apple tree. Apple trees give back year after year. Plants, by their floral nature, are givers. The apple tree gives in a way that seems especially divine. After all, many are those who claim it is the very tree of Eden.
Asherah’s in the news again. My book on the old girl safely moldering on obscure library shelves, I figure it is my academic duty to be a staid voice of reason on the subject. The jury’s still out on her status as Yahweh’s wife – no wedding pictures have yet surfaced – and her associations with lions and snakes have always been suspect. It is clear, from the Bible’s perspective anyway, that the physical object called by the goddess’s name was made of wood. Although such a slight association does not a tree-goddess make, it nevertheless runs counter to scholarly orthodoxy to suggest otherwise.
In the Rabbinic period it had become clear that just about any tree in the right location could serve as an asherah. So it was with a double-take that I looked at the cover of my Green Bible. I began using the Green Bible a couple of years ago because of the environmental impact of the millions of Bibles printed annually. Best estimates are that about six billion Bibles have been printed (about half of which have been sent to me by various vendors as textbook options) and I was hoping to at least use a recycled book to ease the burden. Then yesterday it clicked for the first time: the Green Bible has a tree on its recycled cover.
Asherah seems to have had the last laugh. If she was a tree-goddess. The fact remains that Asherah is a difficult goddess to qualify. She may have been associated with trees, or lions, or snakes, or wisdom, but none of these things has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. She was, however, the spouse of the high god El among the people of ancient Ugarit. And the Israelites accepted without qualm that El was essentially the same as Yahweh. Did he bring his former spouse along? We don’t know. Asherah, as her own person nevertheless, is a wonderful example of the feminine divine. Too bad she doesn’t have her own book.
In the constant struggle of humankind against nature, we often find things out of place to our refined sensibilities. With the advent of autumn we frantically rake the fallen leaves into Brobdingnagian piles and anxiously await the colossal vacuum truck to come by and suck them all away. Leaf litter just doesn’t fit the suburban image. Or perhaps there is a dead tree that threatens to fall on our artificial habitat. We call the tree removal experts to have it taken out. All animals reshape their environment. We humans recreate it.
Long ago I argued that divinized trees in the ancient world do not necessarily represent Asherah. I stand by that assessment — asherahs were apparently constructed of wood, but it does not follow that all wooden cultic objects are asherahs — this does not meet the logical requirement of sufficient condition. Nevertheless, the book of Deuteronomy suggests that in times of necessity any tree might serve as an asherah (16.21), although this is soundly condemned. Perhaps the power of the tree represents the feminine vitality of the goddess. Like a tree, Asherah often outlives humans.
Photo credit to Christopher Chung
This picture appeared in today’s paper. A crew trying to remove an out-of-place tree near an expensive home had a little trouble as the tree pulled over the crane, and not vice-versa. Seeing the all too masculine crane truck dangling helplessly in the air while the tree holds its ground, I thought again of Asherah. I do sympathize the homeowners, but my sense of wonder is temporarily restored. Perhaps nature still has the means to prevent humans setting things in their own preferred order. Perhaps Asherah still lurks at the edge of the forest. Let’s hear it for the trees!