Requiem for a Holy Tree

by Elizabeth Cunningham

Arboricide. There really is such a word. It means “the wanton destruction of trees.” On December 8th, 2010 arboricide was committed against the legendary Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, the a tree that is said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea some two thousand years ago. The tree, whose ancestry has been traced to the Middle East, blooms during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. Each year on December 8th a sprig is cut from one of the tree’s descendants in St John’s churchyard and sent to the queen for her Christmas table. Whoever attacked the tree was likely familiar with the custom and chose the day accordingly. The Thorn Tree that stands—or stood—on Wearyall Hill was felled once before by Cromwell’s troops during England’s Civil war. The townspeople replanted the tree from cuttings, as they no doubt will again.

For the first arboricides, the tree was a symbol of Papist superstition—and perhaps also the wealth and privilege of the established religion. Whenever I hear the word Papist, I know the other “p” word, pagan, is just under the surface. The Cromwellians also made war on Maypoles, Beltane fires, observances of saints’ days, all the old customs that had been baptized and renamed by the Roman Catholic Church. Until the current arboricide is arrested, we can only speculate on the motive.

Some accounts call the arboricide an anti-Christian act which I think is unfortunate and inflammatory. The great thing about a holy tree is that no creed is required for veneration. Whether or not the tree sprang from Joseph’s staff and whether or not the staff was made from the wood of Jesus’s cross, the Glastonbury Thorn Tree is sacred because it is beloved, because it is a place of pilgrimage where people bring their troubles as well as their homage. It is sacred because it connects faith and myth, past and present, nature and miracle. It is sacred because it is a tree, with its roots in the earth and its branches in the sky, because it mediates those two worlds and draws sustenance from both, because, like all trees, it shows us how to do the same.

The veneration of trees pre-dates Christianity and no doubt all organized world religions. The tree is a source of life, offering shelter, food, habitat, fuel, soil preservation and enrichment—not to mention breathable air. In places where trees are scarce or land has been cleared, the tree is a gathering place, a landmark. In a world where we are losing forest at an alarmingly rapid rate, we would all do well to venerate trees, believers and atheists alike. No matter the motivation or beliefs of the arboricide, let’s not forget that it is a living tree that was attacked and living forests that continue to be at risk. May this loss awaken us to our deep-rooted, sacred connection with trees.

PS: For those of you waiting for news of Maeve, the revisions of Red-Robed Priestess are complete! I hope to announce the publication date soon.

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7 comments

Elizabeth Cunningham December 10, 2010 - 7:08 pm

Maeve here. The story is complete, but I can still mouth off here. I may write blog posts again, too. Eliz had to get a new computer and huffpo doesn't recognize her anymore, so we probably won't be cross-posting there.

As to the Thorn Tree, I mourn its destruction. You can meet the tree when it was still a staff in Red-Robed Priestess where I give an account of its transformation to a tree.

BTW Eliz is pretty much of a mess since finishing our twenty year labor of love. She has been wondering around singing: Sometimes I feel like a Maeve-less child a long way from Tir na mBan.

Really she's not Maeve-less. None of you ever need be Maeve-less. I am with you always. But I know what she means. I miss her, too.

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Julie December 10, 2010 - 10:06 pm

"The townspeople replanted the tree from cuttings, as they no doubt will again. "

I sure hope so. I too am saddened by this arboricide…don't these vandals have any respect?

" It is sacred because it connects faith and myth, past and present, nature and miracle. It is sacred because it is a tree, with its roots in the earth and its branches in the sky, because it mediates those two worlds and draws sustenance from both, because, like all trees, it shows us how to do the same. "

beautifully said…i almost teared up. 🙂
and i am wearing a tree pendant right now.

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Man Named Kim December 11, 2010 - 2:35 am

we are all assaulted when any of us act in rage or vengeance toward a living thing.

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Anonymous December 11, 2010 - 5:08 pm

I have this strange vision of Maeve seeing her future descendants live on: brief flashes of one fighting the Gulf War with girl power, and another living in quiet contemplation of nature, giving art a whole new meaning and supporting herself in true Vine and Fig Tree style. Her life is within history, and yet contains it. And at its core, every story is love passed on from one age to the next.

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faerian December 12, 2010 - 6:09 pm

tears across the world will nurture the life of the new tree… may the wounds that caused whoever committed this violent act be healed…and the symbolism of man's fury enacted on life not be lost on those who can make a difference…
(holding you and Maeve close to my heart Elizabeth…this is a time of transformation and the cuttings of Maeve grow in hearts all around the world -and we owe you deep gratitude for that)

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Unknown December 13, 2010 - 4:39 pm

Beautiful commentary, Elizabeth.

It's hard to believe that someone would actually do that, cut down a living tree that millions venerate.

I cut wood for firewood, and sometimes our forester marks living trees for cutting (it's called selective cutting, and it's supposed to strengthen the forest, giving other trees more space to grow: it does work). I never like cutting a living tree, though, and would never consider cutting one like the thorn tree of Glastonbury.

I hope the rage that motivated such a violent act will be calmed and deflected into something useful. It's amazing that no one saw him in the act.

I just cut down a large dead ash tree in our back yard, and thanked it for all the fuel it will provide to keep us warm this winter.

I certainly hope there are cuttings in the Glastonbury community that can and will be replanted, to revive the thorn tree for future generations.

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Brooke December 20, 2010 - 6:10 am

Beautiful, and sad. This is a moment, where all I can say is 'when all else fails consult a poet–like Elizabeth' It is just too sad to absorb, someone besides lightening (which is somehow forgivable) zapping a tree– but what a beautiful eulogy here.

Maeve, keep Elizabeth in good comfort, like you keep me. I am now embarking on your jouney in Bright Dark Madonnna, which will bring me up to date and ready for your next installment!

You've been under some duress, with a little PTS. Can relate. Feeling inspired how you just keep on moving–and how you keep thinking your story is (or shoud be) done and that you don't know any more stories, and out pops another one for you to walk through, and I am sure you couldn't have predicted any of it.

Thank you for helping me love the surprises around the corner!

Thank you for giving me allegory to deepen love and connection with the trees.

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