Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trees Talk?

Judges 9:8-15

Besides the Green Man in England, there are tree trolls all over Scandanavia — and Russian documentary footage shot during a reconnaisance mission to the vicinity of the 1908 "Tunguska event" depicts Siberian trees with grotesque human faces presumably carved after "the end of the world."

Actually, the Siberian tree faces seem a little contrived; it's not clear if the trees were carved by local shamans or bored Russian cinematographers. The only other evidence for largescale Siberian tree carvings has been a shaman's coffin hewn from larch, not a sculpture. One of the best indicators that Disney's film Pocahontas is not a story about Native Americans, but about Rousseauvian eurofantasy Noble Savages, is the culturally displaced old tree woman. And here in Cedar Rapids, there's a ten-foot-tall Viking hewn and varnished from the standing trunk of a storm-blasted tree not half a mile away from where I live.

Trees with faces seem fairly eurocentric to me, so the mention of talking trees in Judges is unexpected and a bit peculiar. Did the ancient Hebrews have some kind of trade and gossip contact with ancient forest peoples? The only Graeco-Roman tree spirit I'm aware of (though my ignorance is vast) is the Laurel once pursued by the hardy Apollo. Where were the Celts 4,000 years ago? And anyway, I thought they were cattle barons, not woodsmen. Were the Goths and Vandals still in Khazakstan about then? Or Taklamakan?

But anyway, on its merits in context, what does the story in Judges mean? The greenwood mocks its lesser, agricultural sisters, domestics all — the olive, the fig, the grapevine and the bramble. Each of the mild, economically important varieties decline the honor of "ruling the trees," and the bramble (just thorns, presumably) is actually sarcastic about it, predicting that if the woods are not serious about seeking a king among brambles (which of course they are not), then they — the "cedars of Lebanon," standing in for the Urwald as a kind of placeholder, evidently — will be burned to the ground.

Which, in Europe and most of North America (where even the tallest trees are second growth remnants of the forest primeval) and today in the Amazon basin, is exactly what has happened. But the Bible, in Judges, is about murder and betrayal, kinship and politics, not trees. Trees would be better.

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