The Tree at the Center of the World?

by Ched Myers

The following excerpt gives some of the reasons why BCM has adopted the oak tree as its logo. From Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis Books, 1994), chapter eleven.

Second Isaiah, a prophet of exile who knew the pain of displacement, beckoned his people to join the hymn of Yahweh's sovereignty to the ancient love song of the vineyard: 

  • Sing to Yahweh a new song of praise from the ends of the earth!
  • Let the sea roar and all that fills it the coastlands and all their inhabitants. 
  • Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice...         (Is 42:10f).

This biblical intimation that the land sings its own song may be more than poetic. Bruce Chatwin has written about how traditional Aborigines find their way across the vast distances of the Australian outback by learning its "songlines" - chants associated with sacred sites and other distinctive characteristics of the land.   Is it possible that such songlines exist in every place?

Oak Cathedral

If so, we the dis-placed - ever trying to control and contain the land with topographical maps, surveyors sticks and ideologies of ownership - have not had ears to hear them. Similarly, Chief Sealth Suquamish once warned that European-Americans would forever be haunted by the spirits of those who dwelt here before us on Great Turtle Island: "At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and deserted, they will throng with the host that once filled, and still love, this land; the white man will never be alone."

Is it possible that such spirits do indeed dwell here? If so, we whose past has been devised and dismembered have not had eyes to see them. I am convinced not only that these beliefs, which lie at the heart of traditional culture, speak the truth of Great Turtle Island, but that they represent an ultimatum to Christians. Will we continue to ignore the songlines and to excommunicate the spirits of the land in which we dwell? Or can we learn to hear the songlines as essential verses in the earthsong of God's praise, and see the spirits as part of the great "cloud of witnesses" spoken of in scripture (Heb 12:1)? 

I am a social product of all the forces of urban alienation. Nevertheless, the love in this land has summoned in me a love for it. This love was buried in my soul like the smallest of seeds, placed there by ancestors I never knew. The nights and days of my life have passed and the seed has grown, "I know not how" (Mk 4:27). The more that seed comes to flower, the more I believe that a truly contextual theology must pay attention not only to history and to social location, but to the songlines of the land. It was, after all, the land from which and for which we were created (Gen 1:26; 2:7). The task of re-placed theology is to reclaim symbols of redemption that are indigenous to the bioregion in which the church dwells, to remember the stories of the peoples of the land, and to sing anew its old songs. These can then be woven together with the symbols, stories and songs of biblical radicalism. 

Rudolfo Anaya writes: "The tree, or the tree of life, is also a dominant symbol of the Americas, and its syncretic image combines the tree of Quetzalcoatl and the cross of Christ. My ancestors nourished the tree of life; now it is up to me to care for all it symbolizes." It is a compelling analogy. Just as the cross keeps Christian faith rooted in the practice of discipleship and solidarity with the poor, so can the "tree of life" keep us rooted in the soil of real and beloved places. Just as the cross takes differing forms in varying contexts, so will the tree of life differ from georegion to georegion. In Arizona it might be the saguaro cactus, in northern California, the redwood, and in Baja, the yucca. But in central and southern California, the tree of life is most assuredly the oak tree. 

California is home to nine species of oak trees (genus Quercus). They occur from the Oregon border to Baja California and are found on offshore islands, along the coast, over most of the foothills, and throughout the valleys and high mountains of the state's interior. The noble Coast Live Oak ( Quercus agrifolia), with its magnificent gnarled and spreading architecture, is the species I know and love best, since it is the most widespread in from the coastal plains and protected bluffs to the inland arroyos and foothills of central and southern California. To "read" the oak is to understand the land and people of this place; it is thus a theological text. What might a teologia de los robles look like? 

No matter how far one digs through the cultural-historical strata of this place, the oak is always there. The human history of California began in the shade of her native oaks. Acorn foods sustained many diverse Indian cultures that evolved and thrived among the woodlands for centuries... It is not surprising that oaks were revered by native Californians, held sacred in elaborate acorn ceremonies, and depicted as symbols of fertility, strength, and oneness with the earth. Acorns, much more nutritious than basic European foodstuffs, represented the staple of the Indian diet in most places, where economic life centered on gathering and storing them. Acorns were second only to salt among the food items most frequently traded among native Californians, and were used as well for medicine, dyes, toys and music. Acorns represented to some tribes the Ikxareyavs ("Spirit People"), and were present in ritual life from birth (some tribes tied an infant's umbilical chord to the branches of an oak) to death (mourners were purified by the smoke of oak boughs and painted with acorn ash). 

What was here for the Indian was here for the Spaniard. When Sebastian Vizcaino, the mariner who surveyed Alta California in 1602, landed at Monterey in December, his party held the first mass in this place under the shade of a huge oak. A large, deep cross was cut into the tree's trunk, which in effect became the Pacific coast equivalent of Plymouth Rock. This same tree was visited again in 1770 by Junipero Serra, who again celebrated mass under it. The Spaniards were taken with the California oaks, reflected in many place-names. Was it a primal natural symbol for them? Hugh Thomas writes of Spain: 

Politically, from the early Middle Ages at least, assemblies composed of representatives of all men over 21 would meet every two years under an oak tree at Guernica, in Vizcaya. There, the Monarch, or more usually his representative, would swear to respect Basque rights. An executive council would then be elected by lot to rule for the next two years. Both the oak tree and the city of Guernica acquired a sanctity for the Basques, suggesting a transference to political life of an ancient worship of the oak.

And the oaks were here for the Yankees, too. Not too far from where I live now is a plaque commemorating a tree that no longer stands. Under the so-called "Oak of Peace," it reads, General Andres Pico surrendered to Colonel John Fremont, ending the U.S. war with Mexico in 1847 and beginning the era of Federal occupation.

I grew up in an oak forest - that is, what was once an oak forest, before it was turned, early in the century, into a suburban neighborhood. But many of the trees were preserved; homes and even streets were built around them, streets with names like Los Robles and Oak Knoll and Edgewood. The house of my childhood was surrounded by extraordinarily beautiful oaks; my mother tended them lovingly. I spent many hours gazing up at them, and dreaming. But my neighborhood was, as I have said, a privileged exception. Because whatever else statehood has meant for California, it has brought a holocaust upon the native oaks. The golden hills and dry valleys were stripped of these wonderful trees first for firewood, then for construction materials, then for farming and grazing, and finally for housing developments. 

Since the 1940s, California has lost more than one million acres of oak woodland as a result of rangeland clearing and agricultural conversion. Projections indicate that population growth--and the inevitable suburbanization that accompanies it--may claim another quarter million oak-covered acres by the year 2010. For every tree that is ripped out, we who live on this land become increasingly uprooted. The native oak is now an endangered species. If we lose this tree of life, the songlines will cease, and the land will die. 

The sacred tree at the center of the world. This is what Bruce Barton called the cross planted by Fr. Serra in the oak-studded hills above San Diego in 1769. There is something deeply attractive about correlating the Indian tree of life with the cross. I imagine the oak as the new symbolic center for a re-placed church in California. But for this to be a redemptive, not merely a rhetorical, symbolic transformation, we Christians will need to go on a vision-quest back to that first communion under the Monterey oak. For there is still conquista in our bones, and not enough conscience at hand. 

Hanging in my study is a photograph of an old Live Oak taken back in Tajiguas canyon north of Santa Barbara, another place my family used to camp. Called by locals the "Indian tree," one can still make out in its trunk two carved figures, thought to be a rendering of a Chumash neophyte receiving communion from a Spanish padre. Perhaps if Fray Serra and his descendants had understood and practiced a fundamental identification between cross and tree, rather than between cross and sword, the history of California would have been different. But that is not how it happened. And today, the locus imperii is no more hospitable to Quercus agrifolia than it is to the via crucis. 

In this land of the Western Gate, therefore, "whoever would follow Jesus must take up" the tree of life as well, the via roble. For the Great Economy is like an acorn which, though small, when pressed into the earth grows up and puts forth large branches. El roble sagrado al centro del mundo. By it we can practice mesticismo, and in its great canopy "all the birds of the air can find a nest."   

Mission San Antonio, the third of the 21 missions established by Serra, was named San Antonio de la Canada de los Robles; a bell was hung from the branches of an oak. Today the restored site is surrounded by a military base, yets the mission many acres have remained relatively untouched since the time of the Franciscans. One can still see the irrigation beds that piped down water from the hills, and walk quietly among adobe ruins. The last time I visited, the valley was carpeted with flowers that day, and that we took refuge from the hot midday sun under an old spreading oak. Songlines.