World Tree


No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

— Carl Jung

Recently my son and granddaughter stopped off in Columbus, Ohio en route to a friend’s 40th birthday party and swung by the house where I grew up in the 1950s. My parents had retired to Arizona more than 30 years before, and I had not seen the old homestead in all that time. The pictures my son sent me were a surprise. The two-story suburban colonial was much as I remembered it, but the maple tree in the front yard – barely more than a sapling when we moved there in 1951 – now threatened to engulf the property. The trunk was a good three or four feet in diameter, and the branches extended to every corner of the yard and perhaps beyond. It was impossible to tell from the pictures how tall the tree was, but it was obviously massive. No doubt the roots extended far underground. My younger sister talked to the current owners when she went back for a high school reunion a few years ago and learned that the tree was believed to be the oldest in town.

I later asked my granddaughter what she thought of the tree. “Good for climbing,” she replied matter-of-factly, like any true nine-year-old. What kid doesn’t like to climb trees, but do we ever ask why? Does it have anything to do with the fact that our species is descended from tree-dwellers who only began walking upright a few million years ago -- barely a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms? Morphologically, we still resemble our tree-dwelling ancestors, with our wide, flat rib cages, stiff lower spines, flexible wrists, and shoulder blades that lie along our backs. Tarzan the Ape Man is a fantasy figure, of course, but his enduring popularity as a cultural icon may be linked in some obscure way to ancestral memories.

Trees have mythical resonance around the globe. Primordial myths in many cultures feature a colossal “world tree” at the center of creation that serves as a kind of tent pole holding up the sky. It is the axis mundi around which the world revolves, with its branches extending up into the heavens and its roots reaching down into the underworld. Mythic heroes might climb the tree seeking knowledge or treasure in higher realms (think “Jack and the Beanstalk”). The biblical creation story features two trees, one with fruits promising eternal life and the other knowledge of good and evil. The serpent that beguiles Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a common motif in such tales.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung found great psychic significance in trees, which he regarded as an archetype residing in the collective unconscious of humanity. “Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life,” he wrote. They symbolized what medieval alchemists referred to as the union of opposites, connecting the heavens, earth and underworld. For Jung, the underworld represented the unconscious. Just as a tree cannot reach the heights if it is not nourished from below, the psyche must be rooted in the depths. He warned against any spiritual striving that tries to sidestep the darker elements of the psyche. "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious," Jung said. In other words, in order to climb, we must first dig.

Carl Jung, Dreams, Memories, Reflections

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