Sláinte!: The Tree of Life

By Edythe Preet, Contributor
April / May 2009

Though I am at most times a mild-mannered pacifist, last week I had a meltdown. But I had a good reason. I was fighting to save a tree.
Every winter since moving into my Fifties Bungalow in 2002, I have pleaded with the owner not to prune the 50-plus-year-old 60-foot-tall poplar tree on the front lawn. The last ‘pruning,’ just before I moved in, had almost killed the tree. It had suffered a ‘topping’ equivalent to a guillotined decapitation and all the secondary branches had been lopped off to within three feet of the main trunk. For the first few years the tree could only produce deformed shriveled leaves, but slowly new branches grew to replace the amputees, until finally it again appeared to be thriving.

Then, last Monday, my landlord (who knows as much about pruning trees as he does about astrophysics) dropped off an ‘expert’ he had picked out of a work gang in the parking lot of Home Depot. My heart sank. A brief conversation evidenced the fellow actually did know what he was about, but still I watched eagle-eyed as he began to thin out the canopy. When I was satisfied that he wasn’t going to butcher the tree after all, I went back inside the house.

Somewhat later my landlord returned and, even though I could hear him bellowing that it was his tree not mine, I felt confident that the trimmer would continue pruning properly. Suddenly something hit the roof so hard that the whole house shook and my cats jumped three feet into the air.  Dashing outside, I saw that all the lower branches had been whacked off and the trimmer was hanging onto the stub of what moments before had been a thick triple branch arcing high above the house. That was when I lost it.

In a rather loud voice (some might say a shriek), I begged and rationalized with every argument I could think of to stop the massacre. Finally, in desperation I compared my landlord to the Anglo invaders who completely denuded Ireland of its magnificent ancient oak forests to build English ships. I hit a nerve. Fiercely Irish-American, he shot me a withering ‘that’s not fair’ look and told the trimmer to stop.
Some might call me crazy for hazarding eviction just to defend a tree, but even the most die hard global warming naysayers are finally admitting we’d be in big trouble if we lost all our arboreal allies. Anyone with just a drop of Irish blood would say that’s a no-brainer. Referring to the deforestation of Ireland that occurred more than four hundred years ago, “Cill Cais,” the most often quoted Gaelic poem laments: Cad a dheanfiamid feasta gan adhmad? Ta deireadh na gcoillte ar lar…(What will we do for timber? The last of the woods are gone…)”

When humans first appeared on earth, dense forests covered the land masses. The earliest hunter/gatherers relied heavily on found nuts and fruits, bird nests that yielded eggs, and beehives that dripped honey. Leaf cycles marked the passage from fertile to barren times. In spring, green buds signaled the sun’s return. In autumn a kaleidoscope of color announced winter’s coming. And in the cold months, early humans had many hours to muse about the giant plants that not only provided them with shelter, tools, food and fuel, but outlived everyone as well.
In ancient Ireland, trees were believed to possess magical powers, and their importance is reflected in the Brehon Laws. An early legal poem, translated by D.A. Binchy, states: “A danger from which there is no escape is the penalty for felling a sacred tree…the fine of three cows is fixed for cutting the stem [trunk].” The many rules, sanctions and penalties regarding treatment of trees were divided into four classes according to each type’s usefulness and symbolism.

Most important of the ‘chieftain’ trees were the mighty oak that could withstand a lightning strike, provide bark for tanning animal hides, and was the primary source of construction timber; the hazel which was revered as the Tree of Knowledge and whose nuts fed the salmon that was eaten by Finn who then became the wisest of men; and the yew, that kept its evergreen leaves even in the darkest depth of winter, assuring all that the sun would return and life would continue. Other chieftain trees included holly, with red berries that appeared in mid-winter; ash, symbolizing health; pine, with its phallic-shaped cones; and apple, whose fruit provided drink for the gods. The ‘peasant’ trees were alder; willow; hawthorn, associated with spring fertility rites; rowan; birch, whose leaves heralded the coming of spring; and elm, associated with fairies and the passage from life to death. The ‘shrub’ trees were blackthorn, which heralds spring and guards autumn; elder, which provides bounty and health; aspen, symbolizing the wind; and juniper, offering purification. The ‘bramble’ trees were dog-rose, bramble, fern and spindle, among others.

In these modern times so much of what we use comes in tidy packages, purchased in antiseptic shopping malls or supermarkets, that we are very often blind to the original sources of the materials we consume. The list of tree foods is impressive, and so many products come from trees – from chewing gum to turpentine – that it boggles the mind. We still rely on forests for fuel, paper and lumber, and recently it has come to light that the daily destruction of our remaining rainforests threatens our continuing supply of the most vital tree product of all: oxygen.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, humanity lost touch with the trees that had witnessed its birth and nourished its evolution. It is vital to remember that a worker with an ax can lay low in just a few hours what Time will take centuries to reproduce. While many of earth’s resources once used can never be replaced, trees are forgiving. The forests can be replanted. Thirty-five years ago, I promised the trees of the world that I would never again use a paper napkin. My mouth-wiping collection today fills several drawers and consists mainly of tough as nails, beautiful as a butterfly, soft as silk Irish linen. I figure that I’ve saved at least one tree so far, plus the one on my front lawn last week. May I suggest that this April, in honor of Arbor Day and Earth Day, you dip into your inherited Irish reverence for trees and take the No Paper Napkins Pledge too? Sláinte!

Grilled Salmon w/ hazelnut butter
1     salmon steak
4     ounces butter, soft
2     ounces hazelnuts, toasted and chopped fine
lemon juice to taste

Combine butter, hazelnuts and lemon juice. Grill salmon steak, and when cooked to personal preference just before serving place 1 tablespoon hazelnut butter on the steak.
Recipe: Irish Traditional Food, Theodora Fitzgibbon.

Apple-Walnut Muffins
2     cups flour
2     teaspoons cinnamon
1     teaspoon baking soda
3⁄4     teaspoon salt
1⁄2     teaspoon nutmeg
1⁄8     teaspoon cloves
8     tablespoons (1 stick) soft butter
1     cup sugar
1⁄2     cup light brown sugar
4     large eggs
1     cup walnuts, chopped
1     package cream cheese, softened
1     stick butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350F. Line muffin tins w/ paper. Sift flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and cloves together; set aside. Cream butter and sugars, add eggs and beat to combine. Stir in walnuts and applesauce. Fill muffin cups 3/4-full. Bake 15-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Beat cream cheese, butter and sugar until thoroughly combined. Spread icing on muffins.

Dirty Martini
2     oz gin
1     tbsp dry vermouth
2     tbsp olive juice
2     olives
Place an ice cube and a small amount of water in a cocktail glass. Place in freezer for 2 – 3 minutes. Fill a cocktail mixer with all ingredients including olives. Cover and shake hard 3 – 4 times. Remove cocktail glass from freezer, and empty. Strain contents of the mixer into the cocktail glass. Makes 1 cocktail.

Note: The distinctive flavor of gin comes from Juniper berries.

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