Some years ago, I gathered as much information as I could find on my immediate ancestry to compile a family tree. It was a difficult task, considering the rarity of my surname and the confusing history of Irish tribal/familial names, which have been so prone to change throughout the centuries.
However, it’s worth mentioning that it’s never before been so easy to construct a visual record of one’s history using online services such as Ancestry.com and local records. Nonetheless, regardless of the advantages of modern technology, the task was still toilsome and required a great deal of research and detective work. Despite the challenge (or perhaps because of it), building my family tree was a fascinating process that has clarified my position within a long legacy of men and women to whom I am indebted for my genetic inheritance.
But despite the obvious apparency of the answer, the question still occurred to me:
“Why is a visual representation of one’s ancestral lineage so appealingly likened to the structure of a tree?”
One needn’t dwell on such a question overlong, as it’s obvious why we refer to such things as tree-like. But it’s the role of the writer to occasionally dwell on questions overlong and expand upon what is taken for granted, so I have considered the nature of trees for longer than I probably should have.
In my musings, I have often been impressed with the appropriate analogy between one’s ancestral line and the structure of a tree. When considered closely, the tree is a powerful symbol for human existence and our place within the cosmos, which illustrates our position as the physical manifestation of our ancestor’s legacy passed down through time.
We, like the tree, are the living embodiment of that which bridges the chasm between the past and the future.
Let us consider the structure of a tree.
The tree is supported by its roots, which are broad, deep, many-branched, and subterranean. These roots hold the tree in place and provide nourishment from the earth itself. The roots feed on the decomposing matter of dead plants and animals. Living things die, decompose, return to the soil, and through the influence of groundwater, animals, and gravity, this decomposed matter finds itself near the roots of a tree. The roots take in this matter, which we would call dead, and use it to create new life. All of this goes on out of sight, beneath the earth’s surface where no man candwell.
By comparison, we humans are created as a result of the actions of our ancestors, and the efforts of our ancestors directly affect the type of human that we become and the type of lives we lead. When we look at our family tree, the first thing we see is the trunk: one unified whole that may be said to represent our parents. But our parents are not the beginning of our identity, much like the trunk is not the beginning of the tree, because our parents themselves are the result of the actions of their ancestors who have long since died and who now lie beneath the earth unseen.
Our dead ancestors serve us in the same way that a tree’s roots serve the tree. They are gone from the world, hidden from our sight, but they continue to nourish us with valuable energy from some strange land beyond death.
Many people pray to their ancestors for guidance and enlightenment. Many people fondly remember the times they shared with their grandparents when they were children, and often they continue to be guided in life by the memory of their grandparents even after they have entered the so-called Halls of the Dead.
My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack before my eyes when I was seven years of age. But when I think of my grandfather, I only rarely see him clutching his chest on the floor of a neighbor’s kitchen. More often than that, I see him teaching me to change a car tire, or mend a broken clock, or simply reading from a book that I was too young to comprehend.
Like the nutrients in the soil that feed the tree’s body, our ancestors’ genetic legacy and memory enriches our lives and guides us from beyond the grave.
Despite the critical work done by the roots, all we see when we look at the tree are those parts that are visible above the earth, usually the trunk, branches, and leaves. The trunk is narrow and singular, a supporting pillar that unifies the whole. A tree will generally have only one trunk, which grows relatively straight and tall and supports the flourishing canopy of branches high up above the reach of predators. A trunk must have thick skin, or else it might be wounded, and possibly the entire structure will perish.
When we look at our family tree, the first thing we see is usually the trunk: one unified whole represented by our parents, who raise us out of the way of potential predators long enough for us to grow so that we might create another branch in the tree. But our parents are not alone in this effort, as they are supported by the strength they inherited from their parents who came before.
The trunk of a tree is the highway upon which the nutrients extracted by the roots in the soil ride to reach the branches and leaves high up above the ground. Similarly, our parents act as the channel through which ancient wisdom and a traditional sense of self flow to create us as the people we are. Our parents are the nearest link to us in our people’s long legacy, and it is their duty to protect us from the beasts of the earth while also shaping us into unique members of our continuing family tradition. But many parents lack the thick skin required to fulfill their duty to their family legacy. Let this be a warning to parents: trees with trunks that suffer wounds to their bark and do not regenerate are at risk of losing their leaves, rotting in their core, and dying out completely.
When it has reached a sufficient height above the ground, the trunk will branch out in many tendrils, each an individual component that will further branch out into twigs over time. We exist as branches on the tree, which are supported and nourished by our dead ancestors and our parents so that we may grow strong enough to keep children of our own.
The twigs on a tree branch are tiny and vulnerable, just as our children are. The role of the branches is to guide them and support them long enough that they might grow leaves that reach up toward the heavens and draw power from the sun. If we
survive long enough to create an ancestral branch of our own, to bear children, that is, we will inherit the immense responsibility of passing on the legacy our ancestors and our parents have given us to these youngest and most vulnerable members of our family tree. When taken in microcosm, the branch acts as a trunk to the twig, in much the same way that we assume the role of our parents when we become parents ourselves.
The twigs are small, fragile, and easily destroyed. They are the most vulnerable part of the whole structure and often fall prey to birds who snap them off to use as tools and bedding. Those twigs which survive long enough to grow sufficiently will eventually sprout leaves, and it’s the leaf that links the tree to the heavens and the greater cosmos.
As parents and mentors, we must protect the most vulnerable and impressionable members of our legacy so that they too are given a chance to open themselves up to the cosmos at large, to “reach for the skies”.
The leaf is perhaps the most fascinating component of the tree and could justly be considered a miracle of nature. The leaf of a tree is thin and wide, fragile and short-lived. It takes a long time to develop fully, but when grown it opens itself out wide to reach towards the sun, the nearest visible heavenly body to the earth.
But not only does the leaf reach towards the sun; it draws in the sun’s light and uses it to invigorate the tree and to imbue the entire structure with energy from the heavens. Photosynthesis is a miracle of nature that is almost poetic in its complexity. The leaves reach out toward the sun and absorb its light to photosynthesize it into nutrients, which are transferred down to the rest of the tree. These leaves take nourishment from the sky, from the heavens, and rejuvenate the entire structure down to the roots that dwell in the death’s silent halls.
When our children “reach for the sky” like leaves, the entire family structure is invigorated and sustained, just as the photosynthetic process of its leaves feeds the tree. Many parents will often weary of the burden that caring for children brings and become cynical. Still, even the most cynical of worn-out parents will be invigorated by witnessing their children striving in the pursuit of some transcendent goal. It has become clichéd, but we still tell our children to “shoot for the stars” and “reach for the sky” because we know that’s precisely the role of a child. Children are not born to live lives of mediocrity and conformity with what has already been. Instead, they are born to look upon the world with fresh eyes and light fresh fires during their courageous endeavors.
To succeed in surpassing the legacy of their inheritance, a child must first look to the heavens, to that which is greater than himself, to identify a lofty goal to aim at. Like the leaf, the child must draw energy and power and inspiration from this transcendent goal to reinvigorate the entire social structure as it currently exists. Children, like leaves, are the link between the great unformed potential of the heavenly realm and the familiar earthy realm of mundane existence.
Thus considered, the tree is a powerful metaphor for both the microcosm of the human self and the macrocosm of the universe as a whole, a thought which occurred to the ancient Europeans who embodied the idea in one of their greatest myths.
Consider Yggdrasil, the tree which holds all of creation within its branches. A biting serpent lies coiled around the base of the tree, digging and clawing at its roots. In the canopy of the tree lies an eagle between whose eyes sits a hawk. A squirrel runs up and down the tree’s trunk between its branches and its roots, spreading malicious rumors and insults between the serpent and the eagle. Deer gather around the tree and eat its leaves for sustenance. And just beyond, in the shadow of the tree, lie three women around a well, ancient and unworldly, who carve the fates of men onto sticks. Nine realms make up the entirety of material existence, and these nine realms hang, like fruit, in the branches of this great comic tree.
This tree, the axis mundi in Germanic tradition, resembles the human psyche very poetically. The gnawing serpent Níðhögg could be likened to our subconscious mind, which lies coiled around the base of our waking ego and chews on our every thought and action, slithering forth to make its presence known in our sleep. The eagle with the hawk on his brow in the tree’s upper branches may be likened to our higher consciousness, our Logos, which is the nearest part of our psyche to the Heavens. The meddlesome squirrel, Ratatosk, scuttles up and down the trunk of Yggdrasil, spreading discord and malice between the eagle above and the serpent below, much in the same way that the spirit of doubt and fear causes strife and disunity betwixt our conscious and unconscious minds.
The tree, like mankind and the human psyche, is a bridge between worlds. The tree is rooted in the earth, but it reaches ever upward toward the heavens. It splays out its branches like a penitent in prayer, raising his arms to the sky in supplication to the divine cosmos. The tree takes nourishment both from the light of the heavens and the dead matter of the earth. In much the same way is the soul of mankind fed. We are here because of our successful ancestral heritage. Without the many generations of our dead ancestors who struggled through life to pass on their genes, we would be far worse off than we are, or we would not be here at all.
While we’re alive, we also strive toward the heavens in many different ways, hoping to attain some lofty goal or to manifest some higher ideal in our lives. Many animals look to the stars, but we are the only animal who has successfully sought them out and dwelt among them. We are the only animal in which higher consciousness is noticeably manifested, which makes us more divine than other animals of lesser consciousness.
Like the tree, mankind is a bridge between what is past and what might yet be, a link in the chain which binds the past to the future and the heavens to the earth. For this reason, we refer to our “Family Tree” not merely because of the branching pattern of our ancestral lineage. In the building of a Family Tree, we acknowledge our status as being one present manifestation of an ongoing genetic and cultural legacy to which we are eternally bound and which encourages us to take strength from the past so that we might make manifest the potential of the future.
“Man is something that is to be surpassed.
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman- a rope over an abyss.
What is great in Man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”.
*To read a better writer than I am discussing the relevance of trees in the collective human psyche, go to http://paulkingsnorth.net/2017/04/15/the-axis-and-the-sycamore/