Let Trees Provide the Sacred Architecture for Your Garden - by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

In the Hudson River Valley, where I grew up, my childhood home commanded a view of an old apple orchard with a few craggy, depleted trees. Beyond this largely open expanse, a stonewall marked the boundary line between forest and field. I remember the feeling of transformation that came over me when I climbed over that wall; no longer in sight of neighborhood windows, surrounded by dense undergrowth and the wildness of trees… it was a magical, comforting experience. I used to follow deer paths, imagining myself as an Iroquois warrior or a European explorer, wondering if I was leaving footprints in places never walked upon before. The trails led to a pond at the center of the woods, swamp maples and pin oaks ringed the small circle of water. Staring at the reflection of clouds combing through the canopy of leaves over my head, I felt close to something unspeakably profound.

It's funny how quickly we learn to distrust and dispose of those kinds of experiences. Our culture often seems a like conspiracy designed to wring any sense of wonder from our bones. Even our children seem to be competing with one another to exhibit a practiced cynicism and ennui. Yet, despite all of that, many of us share a primal, instinctive reverence for trees.

Throughout the world, in countless ancient cultures, trees and forests were central to our spiritual understanding of creation. From Norse mythology to Celtic ritual, from the lore of Native Americans to the writers of the Bhagavad Gita, the rooted presence and skyward reach of trees served as an inspiration. Their great trunks bridged heaven and earth, their trembling leaves, in the words of Black Elk, whispered prayers to the Great Spirit. What are the classical temples of Greece if not recreated sacred groves of columns and light? When Christianity made its way from the Mediterranean to the dark forests of Northern Europe, missionaries anxious to plant the tree of their own faith destroyed those held sacred by the Germanic tribes.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that we place great symbolic importance on the planting of trees, nothing we can add to the landscape is as permanent, as transforming. In our gardens and landscapes, everything starts with the trees. If chosen wisely, and planted well, they become the architecture around which we, as gardeners, weave our lives. They are our gifts to the future and signs of our hope and faith. According to a Greek proverb, "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit under."

Our modern tree planting festival, Arbor Day, is celebrated in April, but here in Central Texas, most experts agree that the best month for planting trees is October. Planting now allows root systems the time to begin to establish themselves in their new homes before the winter dormant season. Once the ground warms up again in the spring, the roots should be off and running. This head start provides a greater chance of surviving the dreaded summer months when the stress on newly planted trees is greatest.

This October, I will begin to plant my new garden and, as you may have guessed, I will start with the trees. For weeks now, I have walking through my new neighborhood looking at the existing trees, checking to see which species are thriving and which are barely surviving. What I see is not that different from most neighborhoods in the city- an eclectic assortment of native oaks, elms, and pecans, and introduced species that run the gamut. Some were planted in a haphazard manner and are burying one another; others found homes in carefully chosen sites and have achieved a magisterial scale. Rarely, however, have I seen them worked into a design in a way that truly befits their symbolic and structural importance.

As more and more of us turn to our gardens for spiritual sustenance, I would like to suggest that we should intentionally try to create sacred space when we design our gardens. If we look closely, we can find all of the inspiration we need close at hand. For example, our native live oaks often resemble the legendary sacred groves of our ancestors through their habit of growing in small clusters or "mottes". Once within these circular groves, with the splendid architecture of the trees sheltering us from the merciless Texas sun, we often feel as if we are in a world apart. The branches arch overhead and then reach down to the ground providing a perfect place of sanctuary. What prevents us from creating these kinds of spaces, even if they are not immediately available to us?

In a few days time I will be setting out my own version of a sacred grove, my hope is that you will do the same. When you do, invite your sons and daughters to participate, let them get a little wet, even muddy, refilling the excavated holes. Before finishing, however, take a moment or two to share with them your hope that they will grow along with the trees, bestowing gifts on those drawn into their circles.

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