Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Everything written here is supported by sources I have referenced (check for yourself), as always, so do not treat this as an assault on either side and / or their respective religions. This post is through the lens of the tree, so treat it as such. Moreover, the entire topic is very interesting.

As Israel collides with Palestine, trees are – and always have – been caught up in the melee. Principally, olive and citrus groves, some of which may have been tended to for many centuries by the Palestinians (Temper, 2009), are bulldozed or otherwise uprooted, with little respect for their cultural and historical importance (Allen, 2008; Graham, 2002). As an example, in 1986, when the Israeli military seized Midya, over 3,300 olive trees were uprooted, and a further 2,000 olives were bulldozed in Qattana (Bardenstein, 1999). Some of the trees removed from Qattana were later re-planted within the Jewish sector of West Jerusalem (Lentin, 2000), though by that point the damage (in many an aspect) had certainly been done. Some Israeli residents did protest their planting (out of anger towards the state), by tying ribbons to the trees that contained messages such as “Take me back to Qattana!” (Bardenstein, 1999), whilst others, across the entire conflict, have chained themselves to the olive trees in order to stop the bulldozers from uprooting them (Sfard, 2009), supported Palestinian farmers by helping them harvest from their olive trees and, at times, defending them in the process (Stephan, 2003), provided replacement olive tree for those uprooted (usually by settlers), or helped to retain olive trees within occupied territories for their symbolic meaning of peace (Braverman, 2009) – “extending the olive branch“, per se.

AN olive grove being bulldozed. Source: The Independent.

Below the surface level of removing ‘enemy’ trees, the removal of olive trees has a very political undertone. Olive trees have been held in very high regard by Palestinians for generations (and are regarded by some as holy trees), where they were farmed and thus supported viable economies (Braverman, 2009; Cohen, 1993), and their removal (or ‘capture’, by where groves were encompassed into the territory of Israel) by Israeli forces therefore can also be interpreted as an attack on Palestinian culture and custom (Bardenstein, 1999; Bowman, 2007; Braverman, 2009; Kershner, 2005) – notably when such acts are supported by the Court (Sfard, 2009). In some cases, it may even be Jewish settlers who vandalise or cut down the olive trees (Kershner, 2005), and even when the Israeli army have allowed the Palestinians to harvest their olive crops. In such instances, the Israeli army will generally not intervene (Pigni, 2010).

Such a political (and, to a marked degree, religious) act may be most pertinently discerned when the olive groves (or individual trees) are captured or destroyed during harvesting season, which has indeed occurred in some instances (Batniji et al., 2009). Moreover, the fact that many olive groves have been uprooted (comprising of tens of thousands of individual olive trees – in Qafeen alone, 12,600 olives were uprooted for this reason) for the construction of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank was also a cause of huge upset, for the Palestinians; particularly when their uprooting was coupled with justifications including to construct watchtowers, roads, checkpoints, and other security fences (all of which further hamper daily life and privacy), in addition to the use of the groves for sheltering armed Palestinians (Braverman, 2009). For those groves not uprooted, the Separation Barrier may instead have isolated Palestinian farmers from their olive trees, for much of the year. In Qafeen, over 100,000 olive trees suffered this isolated fate.

Olive trees are removed to facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier. Source: Haaretz.

Whilst the capture and removal of Palestinian groves has been ongoing, Israel has also been afforesting barren regions of its territory – and for many decades. Spearheaded largely by the Jewish National Fund that was established in 1901 (and since 1961 has been Israel’s exclusive forestry agency), the afforestation program was, at its core, a religious, ecological, and territorial pursuit (Amir & Rechtman, 2006; Bardenstein, 1999; Braverman, 2009; De-Shalit, 1995; Ginsberg, 2000; Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2013), with pine species (including Pinus halepensis) being particular favourites (Osem et al., 2008; Weinstein-Evron & Galili, 1985). In recent decades, the emergence of numerous pests associated with the pine (such as Matsucoccus josephi) has however led to more diverse plantations, with other pine species (including Pinus brutia) and deciduous tree species being selected for use (Braverman, 2009).

In essence, a core reason for this afforestation is because Israel, in the ages gone by, was considered to be covered with forests (even up to the 11th century A.D., in places), though it is suggested that when the Jewish people were in exile those who occupied Israel (from around 722 B.C. – 1948 A.D.) destroyed many of these forests (due to arson, harvesting for fuel, overgrazing, sabotage, and warfare) and thus, upon the return of the Jewish people to Israel, in order to bring Israel back to its former character, forests were (and still are) planted upon the barren slopes (Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2012; Tal, 2013). Braverman (2009) states that the Jewish National Fund has planted over 200,000,000 trees across more than 225,000 acres of claimed land, since its inception. However, according to the Old Testament, in the book of Joshua, even Jewish peoples have been responsible for some of this historic clearance in their Promised Land (Tal, 2013), and for this reason the Jewish National Fund is seeking to restore Israel’s forests of ten thousand years ago – soon after the last glacial ice age. In fact, a great deal of planting, each year, is undertaken in the leading up to – and on the day of – Tu B’shvat (Bardstein, 1999; Zerubavel, 2000).

israel afforestation time contrast
Hiran Forest in 1998 (left) and 2008 (right). Source: KKL-JNF.

After the creation of the Jewish National Fund, though prior to its major afforestation practices towards the middle of the century, the British had, since 1918 (after they had seized southern Palestine), planted up many hundreds of thousands (if not many millions) of saplings (comprising of species including stone pine, tamarisk, terebinth, and oaks) on the hills of Israel (Tal, 2013), and before this (from 1860 onwards) the Turkish Ottoman Empire and settling German Templars had done much the same (Ginsberg, 2006; Liphschitz & Biger, 2004).

In this afforestation project, such planted areas are also oft designated as forest reserves and thereby protected by Israeli law, which Braverman (2009) dubs as “lawfare” against the Palestinians, whose land may have been afforested following seizure. This planting up of forest on occupied lands, of which a sizeable portion was planted over destroyed Palestinian villages in the years after 1948 (an act of camouflage, and for some allegedly the camouflage of war crimes), also makes the land very difficult to reclaim, as the reclaimers must first remove all of the trees (after gaining the permission to clear the perhaps protected forest); in this sense, Palestinians may never be able to occupy such land again, be it for living within or for cultivation. In some cases, Braverman (2009) writes, Palestinians have even retaliated against this afforestation by firing rockets into the planted pine forests or burning the pine forests through arson, with a desire much aligned to Israel’s uprooting of the olive trees (in a sense, a ‘tree for a tree’). In this respect the tree, and specifically the pine, is a tool of war, and thus represents the enemy as a solider would (Boerner, 2011; Braverman, 2008).

On a more philosophical level, the fact that the Jewish National Fund would plant a tree for each newborn from Jerusalem in Jerusalem’s artificially-borne Peace Forest, dedicate the specific tree to the child, and provide the individual with a certificate (including a photo of the tree) that remarks on how it is hoped the tree and child grow together, outlines the innate affinity (or interchangeability) man has with trees (Braverman, 2009); as is detailed before this blog post on earlier ones associated with trees and religion.

Furthermore, the populist and globally crowd-funded nature of a fair portion of the tree planting, supported via financial gifts (complete with material rewards, such as memorial stones) and the use of the ‘Blue Box’ (located in households, schools, and offices), sewed into the fabric of the afforestation project a very emotionally evocative and inclusive aspect to both children and adults of the Jewish faith, even if the donator was geographically separated from Israel (Bar-Gal, 2003; Braverman, 2009; Zerubavel, 2000). Perhaps, this ability for a Jewish person to fund the planting of a tree may dampen their feeling of loss for not living within the Promised Land; in place of their presence, they can fund the planting of a tree, which can be considered a “proxy immigrant” (Braverman, 2009). At a tangent, the returning of the landscape to forest is also important on a cultural level, because the forests were incredibly important for the Jewish peoples’ ancestors; often would children be named after trees, and even Israel itself was sometimes compared to a tree (Zerubavel, 2000; Zerubavel, 2005).


Allen, L. (2008) Getting by the occupation: How violence became normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Cultural Anthropology. 23 (3). p453-487.

Amir, S. & Rechtman, O. (2006) The development of forest policy in Israel in the 20th century: implications for the future. Forest Policy and Economics. 8 (1). p35-51.

Bar-Gal, Y. (2003) Propaganda and Zionist Education: The Jewish National Fund, 1924-1947. USA: University of Rochester Press.

Bardenstein, C. (1999) Trees, forests, and the shaping of Palestinian and Israeli collective memory. In Bal, M., Crewe, J., & Spitzer, L. (eds.) Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. USA: University Press of New England.

Batniji, R., Rabaia, Y., Nguyen–Gillham, V., Giacaman, R., Sarraj, E., Punamaki, R., Saab, H., & Boyce, W. (2009) Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Lancet. 373 (9669). p1133-1143.

Boerner, R. (2011) Trees as soldiers in a landscape war. Landscape Ecology. 26 (6). p893-894.

Bowman, G. (2007) Israel’s wall and the logic of encystation: Sovereign exception or wild sovereignty?. Focaal. 50 (1). p127-135.

Braverman, I. (2008) “The Tree Is the Enemy Soldier”: A Sociolegal Making of War Landscapes in the Occupied West Bank. Law & Society Review. 42 (3). p449-482.

Braverman, I. (2009) Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, S. (1993) The politics of planting: Israeli-Palestinian competition for control of land in the Jerusalem periphery. USA: University of Chicago Press.

De‐Shalit, A. (1995) From the political to the objective: the dialectics of Zionism and the environment. Environmental Politics. 4 (1). p70-87.

Ginsberg, P. (2000) Afforestation in Israel: a source of social goods and services. Journal of Forestry. 98 (3). p32-36.

Ginsberg, P. (2006) Restoring biodiversity to pine afforestations in Israel. Journal for Nature Conservation. 14 (3). p207-216.

Graham, S. (2002) Bulldozers and bombs: the latest Palestinian–Israeli conflict as asymmetric urbicide. Antipode. 34 (4). p642-649.

Kershner, I. (2005) Barrier: the seam of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lentin, R. (2000) Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Reoccupying the Territories of Silence. USA: Berghahn Books.

Liphschitz, N. & Biger, G. (2004) Green Dress for a Country – Afforestation in Eretz Israel: The first hundred years 1850-1950. Israel: KKL.

Osem, Y., Ginsberg, P., Tauber, I., Atzmon, N., & Perevolotsky, A. (2008) Sustainable management of Mediterranean planted coniferous forests: an Israeli definition. Journal of Forestry. 106 (1). p38-46.

Pigni, A. (2010) A first-person account of using mindfulness as a therapeutic tool in the Palestinian Territories. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 19 (2). p152-156.

Sfard, M. (2009) The Price of Internal Legal Opposition to Human Rights Abuses. Journal of Human Rights Practice. 1 (1). p37-50.

Stemple, J. (1998) Viewpoint: a brief review of afforestation efforts in Israel. Rangelands. 20 (2). p15-18.

Stephan, M. (2003) People power in the Holy Land: How popular nonviolent struggle can transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Journal of Public and International Affairs. 14 (Spring). p164-183.

Tal, A. (2012) Israel’s New Bible of Forestry and the Pursuit of Sustainable Dryland Afforestation. Geography Research Forum. 32 (1). p149-167.

Tal, A. (2013) All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present. USA: Yale University Press.

Temper, L. (2009) Creating facts on the ground: Agriculture in Israel and Palestine (1882-2000). Historia Agraria. 48 (1). p75-110.

Weinstein-Evron, M. & Galili, E. (1985) Prehistory and paleoenvironments of submerged sites along the Carmel coast of Israel. Paleorient. 11 (1). p37-52.

Zerubavel, Y. (2000) The Forests as a National Icon: Literature, Politics, and the Archeology of Memory. In Elon, A., Hyman, N., & Waskow, A. (eds.) Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology. USA: The Jewish Publication Society.

Zerubavel, Y. (2005) The forest as a national icon: literature, politics, and the archaeology of memory. Israel Studies. 1 (1). p60-99.

Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Trees in the ecosystem pt IV: Trees & arthropods

The arthropods are vast in terms of species, and include ants, beetles, butterflies, mites, moths, spiders, and so on. Therefore, covering the entire spectrum of arthropods in this section is impractical, though the general provisioning by trees will be outlined and species will be used to illustrate given examples.

Many arthropods are considered to be saproxylic in nature – they principally utilise dead woody material (both standing and fallen, in both dead and living trees) as habitat, for at least part of their life cycle, though they may also rely upon fungal sporophores associated with the presence of deadwood, as is to be detailed below (Gibb et al., 2006; Harding & Rose, 1986; Komonen et al., 2000). Of all the saproxylic arthropods, beetles are perhaps the most significant in terms of the proportion occupied of total saproxylic species worldwide (Müller et al., 2010), though saproxylic flies also feature in great numerical abundance (Falk, 2014; Harding & Rose, 1986).

Beetles may be either generalist or specialist in nature (on either broadleaved or coniferous hosts), and they will normally require a host with an abundance of deadwood (or large sections of coarse woody debris) usually over 7.5cm in diameter that resides within an area typically not heavily shaded (Müller et al., 2010; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015). This may be, in part, due to many beetle species (in their adult stage) requiring nectar from herbaceous plants, which would be lacking in woodland with significant canopy closure (Falk, 2014; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015). This means that veteran trees amongst wood pasture and parklands (including in urban areas) may be particularly suitable (Bergmeier & Roellig, 2014; Harding & Rose, 1986; Ramírez-Hernández et al., 2014; Jonsell, 2012; Jørgensen & Quelch, 2014), though this is not at all a steadfast rule as species may also be found abundantly in (perhaps more open) woodland, and particularly where there are large amounts of veteran trees and deadwood – around 60 cubic metres per hectare, according to Müller et al. (2010). Granted, they are found particularly in older (mature to veteran) trees, including within cavities that possess wood mould, water-filled rot holes, dead bark, exposed wood, sap flows, fruiting bodies (of fungi and slime moulds), mycelia of fungi, dead branches, and dead roots (Carpaneto et al., 2010; Falk, 2014; Harding & Rose, 1986; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015; Stokland et al., 2012). Beetle species may also not necessarily associate preferentially with a species (or group of species), but with the conditions aforementioned that are present within a tree (Harding & Rose, 1986; Jonsell, 2012). At times, preferable conditions may be an infrequent as one veteran tree in every hundred (Harding & Rose, 1986).

A veteran oak tree that is of prime habitat for a variety of organisms.

Despite this, species preference is observed. For broadleaved obligates, heavier shade may be more necessary, and in such instances there is a closer affinity of the beetles with fungal mycelium. Because fungi tend to produce more mycelium in cooler and more humid conditions (though this does, of course, vary with the species), the broadleaved obligates may therefore be found normally in greater abundance where conditions are more suited to fungal growth, and their presence may thus be associated with a canopy openness of as little as 20% (Bässler et al., 2010; Müller et al., 2010). This is, of course, not a steadfast rule, and many open wood pastures may support a great abundance of saproxylic beetles (Harding & Rose, 1986).

It is also important to recognise that many species of saproxylic beetle are reliant upon particular stages of the wood decay process. For instance, species that require fresh phloem tissue will only be able to colonise briefly in the first few summers following on from the death of the phloem tissue (Falk, 2014). Other species require significantly-decayed wood in a particular micro-climate, and even of a particular tree species (Harding & Rose, 1986). There also exist intricate associations between species of fungi and saproxylic insects. Inonotus hispidus, which is usually found upon ash, is the habitat for Triplax russica and Orchesia micans, whilst the coal fungus (Daldinia concentrica), also oft found upon the deadwood of ash (Fraxinus excelsior), is the main provider of habitat for Platyrhinus resinosus (Falk, 2014). The birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) is also host to numerous species of Coleoptera (Harding & Rose, 1986); as is the polypore Fomitopsis pinicola (Jonsson & Nordlander, 2006; Komonen, 2003; Komonen et al., 2000). This means that these species may be found where there is a suitable population of the fungus’ host species, where sporophores are present and will likely fruit again in the future, across numerous trees, and for many years. Most beetle species rely on oak more so than other tree species however, as oak generally lives for much longer and thus provides a wider array of different micro-habitats, and possesses increased compositional complexity as a result (Harding & Rose, 1986; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015).

A fruiting body of Inonotus hispidus on apple (Malus sp.). This fungus not only creates habitat in the wood that it degrades but also is a direct habitat through its sporophore.

Therefore, the loss of suitable habitat through active management programmes (including logging, and felling trees for safety reasons in urban areas) will have a very adverse impact upon saproxylic beetles, though also certain species of moth, and even species associated with saproxylic insects, including parasitic wasps, solitary wasps (which use beetle bore holes for habitat), and predatory Coleoptera (Harding & Rose, 1986; Komonen et al., 2000). Curiously, research by Carpaneto et al. (2010) concluded that trees that were ranked as the most evidently ‘hazardous’ were host to the most saproxylic beetle species, and their removal would therefore have a drastic impact upon local populations. Similarly, fragmentation of woodland patches suitable for saproxylic populations has led to a decline in the meta-populations (Grove, 2002; Komonen et al., 2000), as has deadwood removal in a managed site itself (Gibb et al., 2006). Interestingly, though not surprisingly, ‘deadwood fragmentation’ also has an adverse impact upon saproxylic insect populations (Schiegg, 2000).

Both ants and termites also benefit from the presence of deadwood. With regards to both, nests will usually form at the base of a tree or at an area where there is at least moderate decay – enough to support a viable population (Jones et al., 2003; Shigo, 1986; Stokland et al., 2012). Ants and termites both follow CODIT (compartmentalisation of damage in trees) patterns in relation to how their nests progress, and thus their territory will increase as fungal decay propagates further into the host. Ants will not feed on the decaying wood of the host however, and will simply use the decaying site as a nesting area. Conversely, termites will feast upon decayed wood and essentially control (perhaps by slowing down) the spread of fungal decay in a manner that provides as much longevity of the host as possible for a viable nesting site (Shigo, 1986). In tropical rainforests, termites are in fact considered to be one of the principal means of wood decomposition (Mori et al., 2014), and thus the provisioning of deadwood habitat is absolutely critical. Without decaying wood within trees therefore, ants and particularly termites will lack a potential habitat, and thus where a stand is actively managed populations may be markedly reduced (Donovan et al., 2007; Eggleton et al., 1995). Of course, termites are not necessarily to be desired when they are invading the wood structure of a property, and therefore deadwood is not universally beneficial (Esenther & Beal, 1979; Morales-Ramos & Rojas, 2001) – at least, when human properties are involved.

Ecologically beneficial? Yes. Economically beneficial? No. Termites can – and do – damage timber-frames buildings, as is the case here. Source: Pestec.

The presence of deadwood may also be beneficial for ground-nesting and leaf-litter dwelling spiders, which can utilise downed woody debris (particularly pieces with only slight decay) for both nesting and foraging (Varady-Szabo & Buddle, 2006). In fact, research by Buddle (2001) suggested that such spiders may more routinely utilise downed woody material when compared to elevated woody material (dead branches and telephone poles) because of the greater array of associated micro-habitats, and particularly at certain life stages – such as during egg-laying, for females (Koch et al., 2010). Furthermore, as fallen woody debris can help to retain leaf litter (or even facilitate in the build-up leaf litter), spider populations are more abundant and more diverse in sites where such woody debris is present (Castro & Wise, 2010). Therefore, where woodlands are managed and areas are clear-cut, spider populations may be markedly reduced in terms of the diversity of species. However, generalist species may benefit from the amount of cut stumps (Pearce et al., 2004). Curiously, Koch et al. (2010) suggest that spiders may perhaps benefit from woodland clearance, because the vigorous re-growth of trees and the higher light availability to the woodland floor (promoting herbaceous plant growth) increases the abundance of potential prey. Despite this, old-growth species will suffer (Buddle & Shorthouse, 2008), and thus the population structure of spider populations may dramatically change.

Soil mites are a further group that benefit from coarse woody debris, though also from hollows and holes throughout the basal region of a tree (including water-filled cavities), and from fungal sporophores and hyphae associated with wood decay (Fashing, 1998; Johnston & Crossley, 1993). Typically, termites will use fungi and insects found within the wood as a food source, and the wood structure itself will provide for an array of niche micro-habitats that are critical at different life stages of a mite. Certain mite species are obligates that associate with coarse woody debris exclusively, and may in fact only be associated with certain species’ woody debris. Additionally, mites may utilise woody debris and hollows within trees to parasitise upon other species using the ‘resource’, with both lizards and snakes being parasitised by mites following their frequenting of such resources. Beetles may also be parasitised, though the mite in such an instance may use the beetle as a means of entry into woody debris (Norton, 1980).

It is not just deadwood that arthropods will utilise, however. Foliage, both alive and abscised, is also of use (Falk, 2014). For example, the ermine moth (Yponomeutidae) will rely upon the living foliage of a host tree as a food source, and the bird cherry ermine moth (Yponomeuta evonymella) is one example of this. During late spring, larvae will fully defoliate their host Prunus padus, before pupating, emerging, and then laying eggs upon the shoots ready for the following year (Leather & Bland, 1999). Many other moth species will, during their larval stage, also behave in such a manner and thus defoliate their host – either entirely, or in part (Herrick & Gansner, 1987). Other species may alternatively have larvae mine into the leaf and feed upon the tissues within (Thalmann et al., 2003), such as horse chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella). Flies, including the holly leaf-miner (Phytomyza ilicis), will also mine leaves in a similar fashion (Owen, 1978). Ultimately however, the same purpose is served – the insect uses the living tissues of a leaf to complete its life cycle, and fuel further generations.

Bird cherry ermine moth having defoliated an entire tree. Source: Wikimedia.

Fallen leaf litter, as briefly touched upon earlier when discussing spiders, may also be of marked benefit to many arthropods. Ants, beetles, and spiders are but three examples of groups that will utilise leaf litter as a means of habitat (Apigian et al., 2006). Beetles will, for instance, rely upon leaf litter to attract potential prey, though also to provide niche micro-climates that remain relatively stable in terms of humidity, light availability, and temperature (Haila & Niemelä, 1999). Their abundance may, according to Molnár et al., (2001) be greatest at forest edges, perhaps because prey is most abundant at these edge sites (Magura, 2002). Of course, this does not mean that edges created through artificial means will necessarily improve beetle populations, as research has shown that there are few ‘edge specialists’ and therefore populations usually will go into decline where there has been significant disturbance. Unless management mimics natural mortality events of forest trees, then constituent beetle populations may thus suffer adversely (Niemelä et al., 2007).

With regards to ants, Belshaw & Bolton (1993) suggest that management practices may not necessarily impact upon ant populations, though if there is a decline in leaf litter cover then ants associated with leaf litter presence may go into – perhaps only temporary (until leaf litter accumulations once again reach desirable levels) – decline (Woodcock et al., 2011). For example, logging within a stand may reduce leaf litter abundance for some years (Vasconcelos et al., 2000), as may (to a much lesser extent) controlled burning (Apigian et al., 2006; Vasconcelos et al., 2009), though in time (up to 10 years) leaf litter may once again reach a depth suitable to support a wide variety of ant species. However, the conversion of forest stands into plantations may be one driver behind more permanently falling ant populations (Fayle et al., 2010), as may habitat fragmentation (Carvalho & Vasconcelos, 1999) – particularly when forest patches are fragmented by vast monoculture plantations of tree or crop (Brühl et al., 2003). The conversion of Iberian wood pastures to eucalyptus plantations is one real world example of such a practice (Bergmeier & Roellig, 2014).

Also of benefit to many arthropods are nectar and pollen. Bees, beetles, butterflies, and hoverflies will, for instance, use nectar from flowers as a food source (Dick et al., 2003; Kay et al., 1984), and generally (but not always) a nectar source will lack significant specificity in terms of the insect species attracted (Karban, 2015). Despite this, different chemicals secreted by different flowers, and the toxicity of certain nectar sources to particular insects, means certain tree species may only be visited by certain insect species (Adler, 2000; Rasmont et al., 2005). Tree diversity may therefore be key to sustaining healthy insect populations (Holl, 1995), and where species may prefer to frequent herbaceous plant species the presence of a diverse woodland canopy above may still be very influential (Kitahara et al., 2008). This may be because a diverse array of woody plant species increases the diversity of herbaceous species. At times, pollen may also be a reward, as may (more rarely) a flower’s scent. Karban (2015) remarks that all are collectively dubbed as ‘floral rewards’.


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Trees in the ecosystem pt IV: Trees & arthropods

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

See part III of this series on state forestry in France here.

This phenomenon of the environmental and social misunderstandings of the peasantry and their forests can be further observed in Indonesia, and specifically upon the island of Java. This is because Indonesian state forestry practices began in Java with the State Forestry Corporation of Java in the 1870s, initiated by the Dutch colonial government, and emanated outward from the island into Indonesia more broadly.

The natural forests of Java have historically been a mix of a variety of tree species, including Altingia excelsa, Elaeocarpus macrocerus, Pinus merkusii, Tectona grandis, and Toona sureni. These forests have been the home of many millions of villagers, with their livelihoods being critically dependant upon the longevity and thus careful management of the forests and surrounding areas. Activities undertaken were rather similar to those undertaken in Uttarakhand, and in relation to construction teak (Tectona grandis) was the most favoured tree. Owned – pre-colonially – by Javanese kings and other elite individuals, villagers were permitted to use these forests under their decree, and often would there be a fair but entirely manageable (financial and free-labour) levy imposed on the villagers to maintain the functioning of the Javanese domains. However, because of the nature of forest communities, which were generally-speaking somewhat isolated from the king or other sovereign, villagers had a certain amount of freedom to ignore particular rules and regulations associated with their contract with the forest owner, though this of course varied with the extent of isolation – not that there were many limitations on how villagers could utilise the forest anyway, with only sparing and well-guarded royal forests and sacred groves being protected.

As far back at 1596, the Dutch, who would go on to rule Java from 1796, placed as important value on Javanese timber – notably teak. Javanese villagers, initially employed by the king or regional sultan under contract from the Dutch, though after 1743 generally directly employed by the Dutch, would harvest this timber, and sell it for purposes including ship building. Similar trade relations were also established with the Chinese. Subsequently, an informal ‘state’ forestry practice had actually begun centuries prior to the creation of the true state forestry department in 1865 (and the associated forest laws written between 1860-1934). However, the pre-colonial rule of Java was, as has been detailed, a relatively passive one, with villagers having a good degree of autonomy over their lives and forests. It was only when state forestry came into being, primarily for the cultivation of teak, that this began to drastically change, as the Dutch government sought to control and limit the relationship villagers had with their forests for the purposes of financial profit.

Notably, the tactics employed by the Dutch went about to usurp the villager and their relationship with the forest. In this sense, villagers had very little influence into the creation of teak plantations and felling operations, despite such operations having a sometimes quite drastic impact upon their livelihoods. One notable impact upon villagers, beyond the loss of forest cover, was their rapidly declining population of buffalo, for the buffalo were drafted by the Dutch to transport felled timber from the site of felling to the river or coast. Some of the largest teak trees, for example, required 80 buffalo to transport, and en route it was not uncommon for 10 of these buffalo to die. Because buffalo were used by villagers for cultivating land for agriculture, their population reduction had very real consequences for local food production.

An image, of unknown date, depicting two Indonesian workers felling a tree for its timber. Source: FAO.

By the same token, the environmental destruction associated with cleared forest areas, or even sparsely-forested areas after select trees were felled, had adverse impacts upon the lives of the villagers, and this occurred both before and after the onset of state forestry. The forest laws passed, notably those from 1860-1875, also saw large portions of land come under state ownership, which directly opposed cultural norms associated with villagers, in essence, owning the land surrounding their villages. These now state-owned areas were also policed, with quite harsh punishments for seemingly meagre ‘crimes’, which only became crimes – having once been customary villager rights – after the state itself detailed them as so under forest law. For instance, 45,000 people were arrested in 1905 for forest crimes, with most being for stealing wood – wood that was some decades earlier free to take.

Such changing of land ownership also limited the ability for villagers to farm in the surrounding landscape (by 1940, 3,057,200 hectares of land were state-owned), as did it hinder their ability to migrate to flee oppression and other undesirable circumstances, including excessive population growth and poor financial standing. However, with regards to farming, recently felled areas could be temporarily farmed (known as tumpang sari) by villagers with the permission of the state, for a period of between 1-3 years on average – the palette of crops was however limited to ones that would not have adverse impacts upon the trees regenerating within the area (usually teak or pine), either naturally or far more routinely artificially (from planted seed). Of course, this did mean that some villagers had to constantly follow the path of the forestry operations, in order to sustain their way of life; as did it sometimes require villagers to adhere to the demand of corrupt forest officials, who oversaw the allocation of tumpang sari land. Ultimately, the increasing levels of bureaucracy were alien to villagers, who were unaccustomed to such a myriad of regulations surrounding the use of forests.

A photo of a forester in central Java, taken between 1900-1940. Source: Wikimedia.

Such a situation was unfortunately only further exacerbated in World War II, when the Japanese took control of Java in 1942-1945 (Peluso, 1992). In this period state forestry operations, spearheaded by the Japanese Forest Service of Java, doubled in timber output compared to under the Dutch, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy by Dutch foresters and ransacking by Javanese villagers led to the forests deteriorating in quality quite massively in only three years – the effects are still observable today, in the landscape. Then, following Indonesian independence in 1949 (after four years of sometimes violent revolution), the new state only served to continue with state forestry operations (under the banner of the State Forestry Corporation), all whilst using the old Dutch laws (mostly almost verbatim – notably forest boundaries) and some of their foresters, albeit with recalibrated intentions that ‘better’ (a potentially malleable term, in this situation) served the nation’s populace.

In light of this, protest was certainly common from the late 1800s onward, and specifically from 1942-1966. The form a given protest took would however vary, with particular protests being non-violent (migration and ignoring the forest laws) and others certainly more violent (acts of crime, arson, and – more broadly – rebellion). Within the umbrella of protest, there are certain movements that deserve notable attention, however. One pertinent example is what was known as the Samin Movement, which was a social movement borne in 1890 but gained most notable momentum by 1907 when over 3,000 village families had adopted the ethos of the movement. This form of protest, founded by the peasant Surontiko Samin, was non-violent in approach and involved protesters purposely ignoring the instruction of state forest officials, for the purpose of safeguarding traditional customs of the Javanese villagers. However, because of the state’s pursuance of dissenting villagers, certain villager leaders did not support the movement, for fear of retribution if they did indeed show support. Therefore, some Saminists were exiled from their villagers, or excluded from communal practices.

A large teak (Tectona grandis) that the Samin Movement encouraged native Javans to utilise for their own needs, in place of supporting the Dutch forestry efforts. Source: Wikimedia.

Some decades later, during the second half of the 1940s (after the demise of the Japanese colonial government and at the inception of revolution, which itself ended in 1949), protests began to significantly rise in frequency and became far more organised, due to the adoption of a stance on forest politics by many political organisations. For example, in 1948, the Indonesian Communist Party and People’s Democratic Front attacked buildings and structures owned by the Forest Service, after it failed to amend forest policy in a manner that would more extensively benefit local people. These attacks caused rather extensive damage, and some main routes to transport timber were rendered impassable after bridges were destroyed. Two years prior, approximately 220,000 hectares of state-owned forest in Java was damaged (or destroyed) by protesting groups and individuals, and a further 110,000 hectares occupied by villagers and taken over or stripped for timber and firewood.

Alongside such protests, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union and Indonesian Peasants’ Front would support the villagers, in hope of returning Java’s forests to the people. In the few years following 1962, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union was most effective is achieving this aim of returning the state-owned forests to villagers; perhaps because nearly 25% (or 5,654,974 individuals) of the adult Indonesian peasantry were members. Granted, organisations did exist that were distinctly anti-communist, such as the Islamic Workers’ Union, who in fact battled with the Indonesian Communist Party over issues relating to state forestry. In the years immediately after 1964, the Islamic Workers’ Union was known to lead communist supporters into the forests of Java, shoot them, and then bury them in mass graves within the forest.

Following on from law changes in 1967, such protests generally begun to adopt a more clandestine approach. Because of the increasing militarisation of the forest service, notably with regards to its four different police forces, villagers were more fearful of reprisal if caught disobeying forest law. Stands comprised largely – or exclusively – of teak were most ferociously guarded. Granted, villagers did sometimes attack the armed police forces, and notably when the police forces were caught undertaking clandestine operations themselves, and also burned the state-owned forests of teak and pine (principally Pinus merkusii). At this time, the forest service also became more centralised, which further alienated a forest service from the villagers that, despite its now Indonesian-run state, reflected distinctly its Dutch ancestral roots, and diametrically opposed the traditional Javanese agrarian lifestyle. As a consequence of villager exclusion, the quality of the Javanese forests progressively declined over the decades because villagers had to resort to ‘theft’ to obtain what they could once gain on a subsistence basis (or to support black market demands for teak, in order to supplement the limited wages they would gain by working for the State Forestry Corporation on an ad hoc basis), which has contributed to sometimes quite severe environmental degradation. Such issues are still pertinent today.

Principal source

Peluso, N. (1992) Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java. USA: University of California Press.

Additional sources

Benda, H. & Castles, L. (1969) The Samin Movement. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 125 (2). p207-240.

Boomgaard, P. (1992) Forest management and exploitation in colonial Java, 1677-1897. Forest & Conservation History. 36 (1). p4-14.

Colchester, M. (2006) Justice in the forest: rural livelihoods and forest law enforcement. Indonesia: CIFOR.

Galudra, G. & Sirait, M. (2009) A discourse on Dutch colonial forest policy and science in Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. International Forestry Review. 11 (4). p524-533.

Honna, J. (2010) The legacy of the New Order military in local politics: West, Central and East Java. In Aspinall, E. & Fealy, G. (eds.) Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy. Australia: The Australian National University.

Korver, A. (1976) The Samin movement and millenarism. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 132 (2-3). p249-266.

Lindayati, R. (2002) Ideas and institutions in social forestry policy. In COlfer, C. & Resosudarmo, I. (eds.) Which Way Forward?: People, Forests, and Policymaking in Indonesia. USA: Resources for the Future.

Lounela, A. (2012) Contesting State Forests in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Authority Formation, State Forest Land Dispute, and Power in Upland Central Java, Indonesia. Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies. 5 (2). p208-228.

Maring, P., (2015) Culture of control versus the culture of resistance in the case of control of forest. Makara Hubs-Asia. 19 (1). p27-38.

Peluso, N. (1991) The history of state forest management in colonial Java. Forest & Conservation History. 35 (2). p65-75.

Peluso, N. (1993) ‘Traditions’ of forest control in Java: Implications for social forestry and sustainability. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters. 3 (4-6). p138-157.

Smiet, A. (1990) Forest ecology on Java: conversion and usage in a historical perspective. Journal of Tropical Forest Science. 2 (4). p286-302.

Vandergeest, P. & Peluso, N. (2006) Empires of forestry: Professional forestry and state power in Southeast Asia, Part 1. Environment and History. 12 (1). p31-64.

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

See Part VII of this series here.

Beyond European Paganism (which was covered recently here), there exist, as detailed by Hall (2011), many other indigenous animistic religions that share similar outlooks on trees, across the entire world. Much like with Paganism however, there is distinct variation between cultures within specific geographical regions, thereby meaning that specific tribes or peoples will hold differing views upon trees when compared to other tribes or peoples, in spite of both potentially even being from the same indigenous religion.


For example, Australian Aborigines view all autonomous life (‘Dreaming beings’) as coming from the earth (which is in itself, alive), and therefore all life shares identical ancestry or ontology (complete with their spirit ancestors) (Clarke, 2011). This means, for the Aborigines, that life is a series of heterarchical relationships, in place of a hierarchical system found in monotheistic religions. Trees are certainly within this belief framework, and are subsequently – alongside all other Dreaming beings – the kin of humans. Such an ancestral affinity with trees manifests itself in the religious mythology associated with certain Aboriginal peoples, with one such example being that of the Adnyamathanha of Southern Australia. In this tale, a man and woman, upon being startled by something in the wilderness, morphed into the wild orange (Capparis mitchellii). Tales from the Gunwinggu tribe echo such a metamorphosis, in which humans are also transformed into trees. For instance, a couple, upon leaving their camp after a quarrel with their families, turned into pandanus trees (Pandanus spp.). Similarly, whilst not associated directly with trees, an old man from South Goulburn Island was so immobile that he turned into a yam (Dioscorea spp.) (Hall, 2011).

The wild orange (or ‘native orange’). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At a slight tangent, for the Yanyuwa people of Northern Australia, the spirit ancestor Tiger Shark scattered seeds of the cycad palm (including Cycas angulata) across their lands, again outlining a spiritual affinity between man and trees (David et al., 2006; Hall, 2011). In fact, the Yanyuwa people will assign a particular plant for each tribe (or clan), and such a plant signifies the clan’s ancestry (or kinship with nature) and thus becomes their totem. This ‘sacred’ plant, specific to each individual clan, is then not consumed by the clan, and in instead nurtured and allowed to flourish as a species (Spencer & Gillen, 1899). A notable example of this ancestral plant heritage is between the kurrajong tree (Brachychiton paradoxus) and the Yarralin clan, which sees the tree adopt a maternal position within the spiritual aspects of the clan’s existence. Peoples of the Yarralin also have connections to trees on the masculine level however, by where the birth of a son is mirrored with the birth of a tree, which signals the continuation of the patrilline (Rose, 1992). The Wuyaliya clan in Yanyuwa country also consider themselves to have descended from a tree: the grey mangrove (Avicennia marina). All such accounts detailed outline the close link between man and trees, and – on the broader scale – plant life. However, in spite of such a close bond, it is still accepted that trees must be used for the benefit of man, though in a respectful manner that means, if a tree is harvested for its materials, it is not unnecessarily killed (Hall, 2011).

Nearby in New Zealand, the religion of the Māori peoples can also be detailed in a similar vein, with regards to the kinship or ancestry (whakapapa) of man and plants. Notably, in the Māori creation tale, where a tree was said to have existed within the void of the coming cosmos (which was created from the energy of its ripening buds), Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) had an abundance of children, which were the progenitors of most – if not all – things of the earth, including plants, humans, rocks, and the seas (Altman, 2000; Hall, 2011). In this sense, the Māori religion teaches that man operates within the bounds of nature; of which all belongs to the earth, and not man. Specifically, the god of the forests, known as Tāne, created all trees (which initially resembled humans, though later turned into actual trees – this relates to the kinship between man and trees), and therefore sacred groves for the Māori were dedicated to Tāne; of which the kauri (Agathis australis) would be particularly sacred (Altman, 2000). Within these groves, and perhaps beyond, the bones of the dead would be buried within tree hollows, so that the spirit of the deceased could occupy (haunt) the tree, which would then become sacred (Altman, 2000; Clark, 1896; Taylor, 1870).

This enormous Kauri tree is the embodiment of the forest god and is dubbed ‘Tane Mahuta’. Source: Foot Prints Waipoua.

North America

On the other side of the world, the religions of the indigenous peoples of North America are also worthy of note. In Alaska, for instance, the Koyukon people consider animals and plants to have formed from humans after a global flood, in the distant past. For the Koyukon, the god Raven was responsible for much a metamorphosis. Geographically nearby, the Tlingit people considered Raven to have formed people from leaves, again signifying the mortal kinship man has with the tree (Hall, 2011; Kan, 2016). This birth from trees can also be found in Tsimshian mythology, where it is understood that man was born from the elder (Sambucus spp.) (Hall, 2011). For the Koyukon, certain plants and trees were also seen to be possessed by spirits; albeit ‘lesser’ spirits, when compared to those of animals and humans, with humans actually possessing souls that are immortal. For trees, there is also the belief that they are aware of their surroundings, and thus a forest is rife with communication between the individual trees. Such a belief may indeed contribute to the Koyukon stance of yielding to nature and acting in a moral manner, in place of seeking to abuse and dominate nature for gain (Kuwabong, 2004; Looker, 2013).

Further inland in North America, the Ojibwa, who occupied what is generally now considered to be Canada, saw trees (and other parts of the natural world) as possessing personhood. Granted, such personhood does not equate them to humans, but instead means that they have a desire to continue living, and thus this desire must be respected through responsible interaction with nature (Haberman, 2013; Hall, 2011). Additionally, the Ojibwa had a close connection with the cedar (perhaps the Juniperus virginiana, Thuja occidentalis, or Thuja plicata), which was their axis mundi. Such an association meant that the cedar features on the ritual drums of many Ojibwa shamans, as it was believed that this would help channel the spirits (Pratt, 2007). Within Canada, the Nuxálk people also saw trees and having personhood, and in fact considered trees and humans to once have been able to communicate. In the present day, whilst humans have lost this ability to directly speak to trees (instead communication must come via prayer), the Nuxálk still view trees as being able to understand human speech and, in their own way (including through dreams), still communicate with humans (Hall, 2011).

The Oglála, who were one of the seven tribes of the Lakȟóta people, provide a further example of kinship between man and tree within the indigenous cultures of North America. Through the Sacred Hoop, all persons (possessing sentience) are connected, and these persons constitute the archetypal living organisms (humans, plants, animals, fungi, etc) and also the non-living aspects of nature (including the earth, sun, and sky – known as Wakan). For the Oglála, it is the Wakan that occupy the highest position within their world view, followed by non-human organisms. Therefore, humans actually rank last, and this is because humans are the least connected to the world around them – plants and animals hold a far more intricate relationship with the earth, sky, and sun, when compared to humans, who rely wholly on non-human persons for existence (Hall, 2011). Subsequently, the Oglála consider it mandatory to harmonise with the natural world, and thus their relationship with trees is one of co-existence.

Akin to many other indigenous religions, the Oglála will also use trees within sacred rituals associated, including those associated with death, protection, and gaining knowledge (Powers, 1975). The cottonwood (presumably Populus deltoides) was a notably important tree for the Oglála, for it was hunted, harvested, and then used as the centre point for the prayer ritual known as the (rather macabre) Sun Dance, which took place on the full moon during June or July (Cain, 2007; Powers, 1986; Steinmetz, 1990). In this respect, the cottonwood can be likened to the axis mundi, for it was considered the centre of the universe during the ritual (Brown, 1989). The cottonwood was also said to, in even the lightest of wind, be heard saying prayer to the Great Spirit (Langenberg, 2013). This association perhaps gives credence to its religious importance, for the Oglála, given that all beings are to pray to the Great Spirit.

A cottonwood selectively chosen for the Sun Dance. Source: Slate.

People from the tribes of the Iroquois, a further indigenous culture found in North America, the tree was also the axis mundi. Considered to have been either the balsam fir (Abies balsamea), the pine (Pinus spp. – potentially synonymous with the balsam fir) or the elm (Ulmus americana), this cosmic tree was located within the ‘sky dome‘ (akin to the firmament) and found at the centre of the world (Altman, 2000; Herrick, 1995). The tree’s roots penetrated into the shell of the Great Turtle, upon whose back the earth was supported, and its branches held up the sun and moon (Romain, 2009). This Great Turtle emerged from the primeval waters after being brought up by the Earth Diver toad (Werness, 2004), which again demonstrates the link between the axis mundi and primeval waters.


In the Mayan culture of Mesoamerica, which dates back to at least 2000 B.C., trees were certainly well-regarded – the ceiba (including Ceiba pentandra and Ceiba aesculifolia), in particular. The ceiba provided the Mayans with an array of products, including: (1) the wood that was harvested to construct canoes; (2) the fruit pods, when young, that could be consumed, and promoted weight gain; (3) the mature fruit pods, which contained a silk-like substance that could be spun into cloth; (4) the seeds, within the fruit pods, which could be used, after being boiled, for the oil they produced for both cooking and lighting; (5) the bark, which had medicinal values in treating ulcerations, haemorrhoids (piles), and gonorrhoea, and could help expel placentas; (6) the leaves that could be used to treat rashes, swellings, and burns, and; (7) the roots, which were utilised as a diuretic (Anderson, 2003; Leonti et al., 2003; Stuart, 1988; Zidar & Elisens, 2009). In drier regions, the ceiba was also found in locations where there was an underground (but near-surface) water supply, and therefore its presence could also aid with locating water sources. When ceibas were found in such locations, settlements were usually built around the ceibas, thereby meaning the ceibas occupied the centre point of the settlement (Anderson, 2003). This trend of ceibas being central, within the main plaza, still continues to this day (Christenson, 1997; Lara-Alecio et al., 2001).

A huge ceiba in Puerto Rico known as ‘La Gran Ceiba de Vieques‘. Source: Parque la Ceiba de Vieques.

For these reasons, the ceiba became sacred by 300-900 A.D., and was known by the Mayans as the ‘yaxché‘ (‘the first blue-green tree‘) – ‘blue-green‘, which translates from the Mayan word ‘yax‘, was the most important colour of the Mayans, and therefore it is of little surprise why the ceiba was known as the yaxché. For the Mayans, the tree therefore possessed many character traits, which had spiritual and iconic associations. For instance, ceibas, and particularly large ones, symbolised great power (political and religious, in particular), and therefore possessed a very distinct masculine energy. However, simultaneously, the ceibas had a maternal (feminine) aspect, because some Mayan tribes considered themselves descendants of the ceiba. Moreover, the ceiba was considered to be the tree that cared for deceased children, by providing them with milk from its fruits, which had similarities with female breasts (Altman, 2000; Anderson, 2003). The soul, known in the Mayan language as ‘sak nik’ nal‘, which translates to ‘white flower thing‘, relates to the ceiba’s flower, and is therefore another more feminine side that the ceiba possesses, within Mayan culture (Christenson, 1997). It was believed that, prior to birth, a human soul was borne upon the ceiba. More primordially, prior to the birth of the world, the Tz’utujil people (who were part of the Mayan civilisation) believed that there existed only a tree (god), from which all life sprang, after the tree became pregnant with potential life and set flower and – subsequently – fruit (Haberman, 2013).

Means of worship to the tree included the construction of ‘tree stones’ (known as steale), which represented the Mayan ‘world tree’, where central to four Bacabs that held up the sky from the four corners of the world, a ceiba tree (the axis mundi) was found (Mathews & Garbler, 2004). This ceiba’s branches supported the heavens (where human souls were borne), its trunk supported the terrestrial world, whilst its roots stretched down into Xibalba (the underworld) (Altman, 2000; Christenson, 1997; Haberman, 2013; Lara-Alecio et al., 2001; Nakabeppu, 2014; Zidar & Elisens, 2009). In some instances, a wooden cross, coloured blue-green, was also worshipped, as this blue-green cross represented the ceiba (yaxché). Interestingly, once the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, the green cross’ similarities to the Catholic crucifix enabled for the easier conversion of Mayans to Catholicism (Anderson, 2003). For this reason, ceibas can oft be found situated with churchyards. The spined trunks of ceibas also featured upon burial urns and incense burners, which were constructed by the Mayans. The flower of the ceiba also frequented Mayan ceramics (Zidar & Elisens, 2009).

The ceiba cross. Source: Travelblog.

Similar to the Mayans, the Aztecs, during their 13th to 16th century existence, also held the ceiba in high regard. Known locally as ‘pochotl‘, the ceiba had strong associations with travelling Aztec traders (known as ‘pochteca‘), who journeyed across middle America to buy and sell goods. The linguistic similarities between the name for the ceiba tree and the traders is not surprising, as ceibas were found along most trade routes and in most trading centres: rivers (along the banks), roadways (adjacent to the highways, where tall ceibas would also act as landmarks), and marketplaces (where they would provide shade for the traders and public) (Anderson, 2003).

Another similarity, in the linguistic sense, is between the ceiba (‘pochotl‘) and the demi-god Pochuta. This demi-god, who was depicted as being rather bulky or “corpulent”, was responsible for leading people away, to safety, from the dangers of the gods of hurricanes and earthquakes, and therefore the ceiba may also have connections to being a protector of people (Anderson, 2003). Aztec shamans would also conduct their ceremonies and rituals under the shade of the ceiba tree. Akin to the Mayan axis mundi, the ceiba was likely to also have been the Aztec axis mundi. This central tree of their religion – the Tree of the Centre – supported the cosmos, and was connected to the kingdom of the fire deity Xiuhtecuhtli and also with the rain deity Tlaloc. The four other trees surrounding this core tree, found at all four corners of the world, further aided with the organisation of the cosmos (Altman, 2000). The deities Quetzalcoatl and Macuiltochtli also held associations with the axis mundi.

Both Mayans and Aztecs, as well as other Mesoamerican civilisations that existed prior to the 16th century, also had strong links with the Panamanian rubber tree (Castilla elastica). In order to make rubber (for producing bouncing rubber balls to be used in ceremonial games, hollow figurines, and other objects), these civilisations, as early as 2000 B.C., mixed latex harvested from the tree with juice of the morning glory vine (Ipomoea alba). Prior to this (and of course, after), latex would have been used as-harvested from the Panamanian rubber tree, for its adhesive properties (Backhaus, 1998; Hosler et al., 1999; Tarkanian & Hosler, 2011). The Aztecs also combined liquid from the bark of Castilla elastica with cacao (chocolate), as they considered it to be a drink that could cure infections (Dillinger et al., 2000). The copal tree (Protium copal, and more largely the genus Bursera) was also utilised by the Aztecs, as well as the Mayans and other Mesoamerican civilisations, for its resin. This resin could be used during ceremonies where it was burned as an incense, or alternatively used to make objects, such as knife handles and religious figurines (Lucero-Gómez et al., 2014; Vandenabeele et al., 2003).

Latex from the rubber tree. Source: La Selva.

South America

Further down towards and into South America, the indigenous Mapuche Pewenche people of Chile and Argentina hold the monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) as sacred, as a consequence of their sky deity being associated with the tree (Altman, 2000) and the tree providing them with protection (Redden, 2013) – notably women and children (Altman, 2000). Their view of the monkey puzzle as sacred is, in fact, so significant that their name literally translates to ‘people of the monkey puzzle tree‘ (Asselin, 2015). Subsequently, the tree is actively conserved by the Mapuche Pewenche, who hold a very detailed understanding of the ecology of the monkey puzzle.

A duo of monkey puzzles in the Patagonian mountains. Source: Land of Winds.

With regards to tree spirits, the Calchaquí people worshipped the spirits of local trees, whilst the Shipibo-Conibo people saw each individual tree as possessing a spirit. Therefore, if a tree was felled by human activity, it was seen as an offence against the tree spirit. Particular indigenous religions of South America also detail how man and woman were born from trees, thereby drawing in trees – and tree products – into creation myths. For example, the tribes of Guyana believe that, following a great flood, the last two human survivors (one man and one woman) re-populated the earth by throwing fruits of the moriche palm (Mauritia flexuosa) over their shoulders. Upon these fruits striking the ground, those thrown by the man became men, and those thrown by the woman became women (Altman, 2000).


Across Africa, indigenous religions can also be observed to associate quite intricately with trees. For instance, tribes throughout modern day Burkina Faso would have worshipped their gods within sacred groves 90-120 trees strong, which were comprised of the species known as the African teak (Milicia excelsa), bark cloth tree (Antiaris toxicaria), and silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) (Altman, 2000). More expansively, remnants of once much greater forests in Burkina Faso were – and still are – considered sacred, perhaps in part because of their evident fragility in the wake of deforestation practices (Dudley et al., 2010).

A similar phenomenon was be observed in Ghana, where over 1,900 sacred groves and forest patches exist, and are sacred because of their cultural importance – in these locations, deities are revered and the dead are buried (Ormsby, 2012). Tribes in the region that is Kenya also considered forests sacred, and notably those found upon Mount Kenya, which was itself seen to be the abode of their deities. In these sacred forests, prayer and other religious rituals (such as sacrifice) would have been undertaken (Nyangila, 2012), to bring good fortunes and good health to the worshippers and their tribes. In arid desert regions of Africa, sacred trees may even have been those that provided shade for humans and their livestock – as was the case with the Nuer people. For the Nuer, the shade is in fact understood as the manifestation of a spirit being, and particularly so if the tree casting the shade was grown from a cutting taken from a sacred tree (Altman, 2000). The Gaanwar clan of the Nuer people also saw themselves as descending from heaven through the grey-leaved saucer berry (Cordia sinensis), which sat close by to a tamarind (Tamarindus indica).


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Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

Fungal finds at a local Apple Day

Autumn is upon us, and the apples are ripening on the trees, ready to be picked and eaten raw, cooked, or made into juice or cider (including cider vinegar). For me, the events (generally dubbed ‘Apple Days’) that come alongside this apple-harvesting season are great fun, and it was delightful to see people of all ages come to pick apples and enjoy walking through an ancient orchard. Quite honestly, small local events such as the one I attended today are a great way to meet people, relax, and overall have an enjoyable day, all whilst supporting local businesses that come to sell their products (I picked up a jar of cinnamon honey, which is absolutely delicious!). Beats staring at a computer any day!

Of course, I was there with a few intentions (1) to buy and eat local apples, (2) to explore the ancient orchard, (3) take photos of the trees, and (4) hunt for fungi. Brilliantly, I managed to tick all four things off, by the end of the afternoon. Nothing tops trying locally-sourced produce, and apples picked either directly from the trees on site or brought in from the wider area aren’t something one comes across every day, particularly if shopping at larger supermarkets.

With regards to the other aims on my list, not only were there some stunning ancient apple trees to get photos of, but some sublime fungi to go alongside – namely, Inonotus hispidus, though also a tier of Ganoderma australe. Any agarics on the floor would have, sadly, been trampled by those exploring, and from clearance work to create paths in the days before. Not to worry, for the Inonotus-laden apple trees went down a treat with me, and also some children who took a keen interest in them as well. Certainly, a great opportunity to teach them a thing or two about fungi, and their responsiveness to feeling the fungal sporophores and exploring the trees for other fungi was really good to see – they even found some more, as I could hear from a few trees away!

Below are an assortment of pictures from the various apple trees that did have sporophores on them, and the trees upon which they reside are – in themselves – quite sublime. Contortions galore, and that really rugged look that only an old fruit trees can really possess. Enjoy!

For those who do like ancient orchards, Wildtrack Publishing (run by Ian Rotherham) put out a good book on such orchards across the UK. At only £22.50, it’s a good price, too!

Apple tree #1

A gorgeous little tree, though certainly not young!
Some great sporophores can be seen, here.
The one at the base is tiny, and very downy atop.
This one is a much better example of a ‘textbook’ Inonotus hispidus, and is growing out from an old pruning wound.
Probably my favourite photo from the day, is this one.
A look at the underside here – complete with finger marks!
Two more on this same tree.
An over-mature sporophore, that has grown around a small twig – this is a phenomenon exclusive to the polypores, I do believe.
And higher up in the crown sat this small guy.

Apple tree #2

This apple tree sat away from the beaten path, amongst plenty of nettle and bramble. Not that the tree cares about that!
Oh, look! More Inonotus hispidus, along a large limb or two.
I counted four, in total (plus a fifth on another limb). All associated with historic wounds, it appears.
A really interesting picture, showing how the colonisation traverses the limbs / stems. Perhaps colonisation came from both limbs, or broke through the ‘barriers’ present at a junction. Thankfully, this is a small tree and the limbs are rather upright, else it’d have a much greater risk of failure.

Apple tree #3

Right adjacent to the second apple tree, sat this fine creature. A very sprawling and thin crown, complete with fungal decay along one of the stems.
Entry would have come either from a pruning wound or from storm damaged limbs. We can see a pruning wound at the end of this limb, though given the apple’s age it’d be impossible to diagnose the exact cause. Inonotus hispidus is an unspecialised opportunist, making it a fungus that invades exposed sapwood, so either cause of wounding would suffice.
A closer view shows it growing around many small twigs!

Apple tree #4

Another apple tree that has endured the throes of winter, many times over. This one has a great crop of apples, too.
And, again, no escape from the ravenous hunger of Inonotus hispidus.
The sporophore sits directly adjacent to an old wound – an excellent entry point, for the spores.
Looking up-close and personal, we can see how this sporophore has blackened in maturity (though looks fresh enough to be from this year), and is probably now completely inactive.

Apple tree #5

Right by the stalls, sat this magnificent apple tree. Remains of butchered pomes can be seen on the stack of bramble, cow parsley stems, and grass. The stuff of nightmares – p(h)omicide.
No less alarming, for the tree, was the presence of this Inonotus hispidus. Remarkably fresh for this late on in the season, so obviously we have a late bloomer here.
Utilising the zoom feature on my new camera.
And once again! Note the small yellow threads on the underside, which can often be seen on the crevices beneath a fresh sporophore of Inonotus hispidus.
And one from probably a year (or three) ago, can be seen on the other large limb.

Apple tree #6

If you look closely, you can spot two different species of fungus on this apple tree!
One can be seen here, and it is…
…probably Ganoderma australe! The ‘press-test’ resulted in me not being able to push through the upper surface with my finger, even with quite a lot of pressure, thus suggesting it’s unlikely to be Ganoderma applanatum. The fact the stem is living also makes it far more likely to be the former, too.
The exposed context shows incredibly deep tube layers, which vary according to what phylogenetic type this fungus belongs to. For Ganoderma australe, there are at least 12 different types, each with different characteristics.
Quite the sublime tier, here!
And some Inonotus hispidus. Who would have expected that……..!?!?
The one on the left is lazy and thus is resting on a small twig. Cheeky.
Hopefully it washed its hands after, too.

Apple tree #7

The last tree we will be looking at here was free of fungal sporophores!
Just kidding – it had two.
We can see them both here, just about!
The one around 1.5m up the stem sits proud upon a wounded area.
As does the one lower down. We can spot a very occluded wound just to the lower left of the sporophore.
Fungal finds at a local Apple Day