Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Year of the Trees

I have a wonderful fat little book called Earth Prayers, which contains earth-centered prayers from many different traditions. There's an index of special days throughout the year, connected with different prayers in the book.  This is how I came to learn about Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, which takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat.  Which happens to have been last weekend.

I found many detailed resources for this celebration online.  I think the thing I love about Judaism the most is its emphasis on elaborate, meaningful, home-based ritual.  I also love the fact that Jews celebrate four different New Years, in different seasons.  This makes so much sense to me - the year is a circle, which begins and ends anywhere and nowhere.  It's not a line from Point A to Point B.

I printed out a rather long booklet of the haggadah for the seder meal to be performed on the eve of this holiday.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get it together in time to actually go through the seder, but I did read through it, in the manner of Lectio Divina.  The symbolic gestures (even when only performed in the imagination) and Hebrew prayers are quite beautiful and affective.

This holiday has had an interesting evolution (which you can read about extensively if you explore the link for Tu Bishvat above) but one of its primary associations is with the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life.  In Kabbalistic wisdom, there are considered to be four worlds, corresponding to different levels of reality, from the physical to the purely spiritual.  The Tu Bishvat seder symbolically takes you through those four worlds (up the Tree) with the eating of different kinds of fruit and the drinking of wine.  Reading through the haggadah, I realized one would probably end up slightly drunk by the end of the meal, with the ritualistic drinking of four glasses of wine.  But I suppose the tradition is to make the meal a long, relaxed affair that could take hours.

All of this got me thinking about trees, and I started  looking through my library for anything interesting to read about them.  I pulled out a book I bought for homeschooling purposes called Keepers of the Earth.  It's an amazing resource for anyone teaching children (Dan, Jennifer - I sincerely hope you have this book).  Using traditional stories from various Native tribes, it teaches children about ecology and other sciences, as well as Native American culture and history.

I read the story in the section on trees, called "Manabozho and the Maple Trees."  This story is from the Anishinabe, in the Great Lakes region, which is also where I grew up.  The gist of it is that maple syrup used to come straight from the trees year-round, but people got lazy and started lying under the trees all the time with their mouths open.

So our hero, Manabozho, went up to the top of the trees and poured water into them, making the syrup thin and barely sweet, and the Great Spirit made it so that the sap only comes at the end of winter and the people have to work hard to turn it into syrup.

This story made me think back to my childhood in Toronto, when we would take school field trips to the maple farm in February, and watch the sap drip ever-so-slowly into metal buckets, and then go inside to see how they filled huge vats with sap and boiled it for ever so long to turn it into syrup.

And I realized that it's just perfect to have a New Year for trees just when the sap is beginning to flow.  And I also began to think about slowness.

Dan Gurney recently posted an article he and his wife wrote for their local newspaper, a plea for the people of his town to slow down when they're driving.  This post really humbled me because I'm almost always in a rush when I'm driving, and frequently get irritated with people on the road who drive under the speed limit.

And then, Lucy posted about slowing down enough to take good care of ourselves.  One of the things I want to develop this year is the ability to truly relax, not just every now and then, but as a more constant state of being.  Dan's and Lucy's posts, combined with contemplation of the slowness of the maple syrup-making process, made me realize that if I want to be more relaxed, I've got to learn to slow down.  Be patient.  That relaxation and patience are in fact two aspects of just slowing down.  And that paradoxically, this will lead to a quickening of body and spirit, increased energy, a less rushed sense of time.

The story of Manabozho has reminded me that being relaxed and slowing down doesn't mean lazing beneath a tree with syrup dripping into my mouth, but is a manner of working and spirited living, being an active participant in turning work into a sweet gift.

And when I begin to slip into my familiar sense of rush and tension, I need to call to mind the maple with its slow gift of sap, or the luxurious live oak with its lazy swaying moss, or my favorite - the slowest and most spirited of trees, the patient redwood.  I would marry a redwood if I could.

Ah, trees.  My favorite teachers.  Thank you for reminding me. 
Happy New Year, dear trees.

How surely gravity’s law
strong as an ocean current
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing—
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place
Only we, in our arrogance
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrender
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things
because they are in God’s heart
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us
to fall
patiently to trust our heaviness
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.


(Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God,
translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)


  1. We are not here to remain whole
    we are like the trees
    the trees that are broken
    we must learn to draw up again
    from the great roots...

    R Bly

  2. "Trees are the Earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven." Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
    I have this quote by my art table. Ahhhh...trees.
    Funny you should mention maple syrup...I LOVE real maple syrup and just this morning I was licking the extra off my plate. It is the ONLY time I will lick my plate...can't stand to waste any of it! :) I had a blissful moment as I thought how this perfect sweetness comes from a tree?! Perfect.

  3. Trees ARE great teachers. People much wiser and less civilized than us recognized the wisdom of trees and, I am told, were given deep and specific teachings.

    One very obvious lesson trees teach with their very being is that we can be very productive, generous, and beautiful with out going---let alone hurrying---anywhere.

  4. Hmmm, what a treat this post is, full of rich goodness that we have to work at just a little, like the sap into syrup.

  5. There is never enjoyment in striving for me. This is beautiful and the book is noted. I have a long long list now for an order with Amazon!

    This post is so wonderful and invigorating. As I read I felt the pace of my breath slowing - the reminder of pacing myself to go at it slowly. Thank you. Especially with the business I have at hand this weekend. Thank you.

    This post reminded me of this: ..."but worst of all when you are the slave driver of yourself...As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."
    Walden - Henry David Thoreau

    "Only we, in our arrogance
    push out beyond what we each belong to
    for some empty freedom." - YES.

    "And when I begin to slip into my familiar sense of rush and tension, I need to call to mind the maple with its slow gift of sap, or the luxurious live oak with its lazy swaying moss, or my favorite - the slowest and most spirited of trees, the patient redwood." - Thank you I am pondering the cypress in my back yard this morning and the willow at my husband's home place - Thank you.

  6. Also, the beauty of:

    "And when I begin to slip into my familiar sense of rush and tension, I need to call to mind the maple with its slow gift of sap, or the luxurious live oak with its lazy swaying moss, or my favorite - the slowest and most spirited of trees, the patient redwood."

    poetic and flowing - just peaceful! Beautiful words.

  7. Delwyn - that's lovely. I've been thinking about wholeness/brokenness lately.

    Jenny - what a great quote to have before you as daily inspiration. I love real maple syrup too. In fact, last night we had "breakfast for dinner," pancakes with real maple syrup. Yum.

    Dan - good point. Slowing down is really about learning to enter stillness. This is fitting very well with my "quiet love" theme. What loves more quietly than a tree?

    Tess - Thank you. Yes, I'm quite taken with the sap to syrup analogy. It's a good one to work with for me.

    Jennifer - Thank you. That Thoreau quote is perfect. Thanks for sharing it.

    Cypress are another of my favorite trees. I tend to keep a supply of cypress essential oil too, but that's the one that Eliana emptied out on Christmas Eve - I need to replace it.

  8. *Update*

    There are a couple of things I wish I'd thought to put in this post, so I'll mention them now:

    First, Delwyn has a wonderful post about trees with an exercise for associating oneself with four trees that represent different aspects of one's being:

    Also, when my two oldest daughters were little, and we were living in Louisiana I used to go out walking with them in the double-stroller, and there was a school we walked past called Twin Oaks, named for the two beautiful live oaks in the front yard. The girls would chatter away for most of the walk, but every time we approached those trees, they would get very very quiet. It was a holy moment each and every time.

  9. Some of the most highly underrated organisms in the world, trees. I like to lie under them, too--but for the shade. Nothing like shade on a hot, sunny day, and the moving work of art of little spots of sun dancing all around and over you as you lay there.

    Marvelous post. I had no idea that Judaism had so many holidays you never hear about, like four New Years, one of which is for trees. That's amazing stuff. I love reading this posts of yours. They're interesting, sure, but quite relevant. You always manage to tie them in with something tangible, some real world significance.

  10. Thanks for saying so, Postie. That's very validating for me. I was just saying to Jennifer last night in an email that I worry that I'm too "out in left field" for many blog readers (especially after your thoughtful post about appealing to readers).

    I went to see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus the other day. I'm a huge Terry Gilliam fan and I adored this movie, but it got a horribly scathing review in our local newspaper, because the reviewer JUST DIDN'T GET IT. I could see something like that happening to me. Terry Gilliam is definitely not for everyone, but has a very loyal following among those to whom his work appeals. I think it might be the same way with me.

  11. Marvelous post about the richness of home based celebration. That's something I love to remember that a meal prepared with care for people you love is the most delicious meal of all - a celebration of life and the pleasure of living it.

    Your slowing down, your self care - there's a word that I added into my vocabulary this year and that is SAVOR. I was journaling for myself again yesterday about the word, why I selected it and why it feels so right for me. In slowing down we give ourselves a chance to savor all of the richness around us. May you savor this day and taste that sweet syrup somewhere along the way.

  12. Don't worry. It's the only the unworthy people you're losing, the ones who can't (or won't) think about what you've written and read between the lines. I definitely have to read twice sometimes to fully understand the complex principles you're delineating, and sometimes I don't fully understand. But none of that is your fault. I think you do a splendid job of bringing these obscure concepts and nearly forgotten rituals and traditions to light. But more than that, you make them real. You make them dance and sing. You give them real appeal, enriching them with your words.

    Like I said, it's a joy to read.

  13. ting ting - cheers to that Postman!

  14. SS - Savor is indeed a perfect word to go with this post. Thank you for the blessing.

    Postie - I am so grateful to have you as one of my readers. You make ME dance and sing with your articulate and supportive comments.

    Jennifer - We should throw him a party or something. Is there a blogging award for excellence in commenting? There should be.

  15. I agree, there should be an award for excellence in commenting. Let's DO IT!

  16. Jennifer, I've read some of your comments, and they blow mine out of the water. I think you deserve a party. Same to you, Polly. Yours are always so insightful (not to mention complimentary).

    Why don't we just ALL have a party?



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