Throughout history, many cultures have had very strong links with trees. In this post, I will briefly explore the western intellectual tradition and trace how the locus of meaning shifts through time using trees as a reference point.
In pre-modern times, trees were part of an enchanted world where “charged” objects imposed their meaning on people and thereby exhibited a certain power over them (see 2). For example, in Greek and Roman mythology it was believed that each tree was inhabited by a hamadryad, or spirit, that would punish mortals who harmed trees; this belief protected the trees from being cut down (4). The tree was a common motif to represent reality and was used in many myths and religions.
Modernity emerged out of the enlightenment. It brought about science and management techniques that offered a detached and calculated way on engaging with the world (). Humans made remarkable strides in understanding the material world and discovered amazing concepts such as the tree of life.
Although the modern age helped get rid of the negative side of superstition associated with mythology, it simultaneously suppressed an important dimension of the human experience that is responsible for giving humans stability and continuity.
Consequently, it didn’t take long for the modern era to severe its ties to logic and wither away to postmodern balderdash.
The postmodern age can be summarized as a period of institutionalized denigration of man and an objection to the traditional family unit that the patriarchy upholds. It was characterized by the fabrication of an false hierarchy where positions of authority were given to manipulators of words and images. People who chose to have a negative relationship with the state were privileged over those who wanted a positive relationship with the family (bloom). "Power" became more fashionable than truth and science turned into self-referential jargon that was expected to be taken as fact over common sense.
We finally arrive at the remodern age―a retrieval of the original tenets of modernity but applied in a decentralized manner.
Here, the tree symbolizes the process of individuation (3). Individuation is an “almost imperceptible, yet powerfully dominating impulse that comes from the urge toward unique, creative self-realization… a process in which one must repeatedly seek out and find something that is not yet known to anyone (3).”
It is an undertaking where an individual creates something that is distinctly their own and empowering them to live authentically. The tree, with its slow, powerful growth that differentiates into a specific but unique pattern, is a fitting symbol that represents this process.
Although the locus of meaning shifts from external objects to an agentic* perspective over time, trees remain associated with life, strength, health, regeneration, protection, productivity and steadfastness.
From pre-modern mythology, to modern science and remodernist symbology, the tree represents the unity of being and the triumph of life and order over extinction and chaos.