The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Tree Sign

I wonder about the trees:
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling-place? 
--Robert Frost (The Sound of Trees)

Signal. A message emitted by the bark, branches, crown, leaves, or trunk of a perennial woody plant (see EFFERENT CUE).

Usage: People of all ages find something elementary and comforting in trees, which have long been symbols of transcendental beliefs among traditional folk such as the Druids. Taking the world as a whole, the custom of climbing trees is still widespread, especially among those young enough to mend after a fall. (N.B.: The phone number of Tree Climbers International, a voluntary association of human beings dedicated to arboreal climbing, is 404/659-TREE.)

Word origin. The word tree comes from the ancient Indo-European root deru-, derivatives of which include enduretrust, and truth

Anthropology. An arboreal theme is rooted in human perception, language, and thought. Trees and tree-climbing have become psychic planks in the mind's evolutionary platform, not only of Druids but of modern folk as well. Bark and limbs still appeal to hands, and even now a human's primate eyes seek shelter and safety overhead in branches and boughs. Thus influenced and inspired, Claude Monet painted willows, while poets have celebrated oaks, and municipal governments have lined their city streets with sycamores, maples, and elms.

Archaeology. Included in the 5,300 year-old Copper Age "Iceman's" equipment were a. an arrow quiver reinforced by a hazel wood spine, b. 14 arrows made ofviburnum woodc. a backpack made of an arch of hazel wood and two slats of larchd. a copper-bladed ax with a handle made of yew, and e. two eight-inch tall canisters made of birch bark (Rensberger 1992; see CONSUMER PRODUCT).

Culture. In the British Isles, knuckle touch-wood--rapping the knuckles on a wooden surface (e.g., on top of a conference table)--offers "protection." "This is an ancient superstitious practice dating back to the days of tree-worship, when it was the custom to touch the sacred oak to placate the powerful Tree Spirits. The roots of the mighty oak were thought to descend into the underworld" (Morris 1994:151). 

Evolution I. The earliest tree yet discovered by humans is a 40-foot-high, fossilized Eospermatopteris, unearthed in Gilboa, New York, near Manhattan. Now on display at the Smithsonian, the oldest tree dates back ca. 365 million years to the Middle Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era, ca. 363 million years before the arrival on earth of the first fossil human, Homo.

Evolution II. Trees have a very special meaning. Human beings, along with lemurs, monkeys and apes, evolved from a long line of tree climbing primates, a biological order of agile mammals with grasping hands, which originated ca. 65 m.y.a. in the Paleocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era.

Media. To focus world attention on the plight of redwood trees, activist Julia Hill lived in an ancient redwood named "Luna" for 738 days, beginning on December 10, 1997. Explaining the significance of her bold gesture and months of survival on a wooden platform 180' above terra firma in northern California's Humboldt County, Hill invoked the nonverbal medium of touch: "'They [the redwoods] touched me unlike any malls, cars, make-up and [sic] magazines,' said Hill, who brought the audience to laughter by simulating the first time she hugged a redwood. 'It was a spiritual level that no cathedral, church or money could touch in me'" (Tran 2000).

Oregon Heritage Tree. 1. "BROOKINGS, Ore.--A sequoia tree planted on the spot where a Japanese bomb fell in the southern Oregon forest in 1942 will be named an Oregon Heritage Tree" (Anonymous 2001D). 2. "Nubou Fujita, who dropped firebombs on Oregon forests during WWII, returned in 1992 to plant a sequoia tree in a peace ceremony" (Anonymous 2001D). 3. "He [Fujita] died in 1997 and his daughter scattered some of his ashes near the tree" (Anonymous 2001D).

Sacred trees1. Nonverbally, the great size of trees is a factor in their worship (see LOOM). 2. Important in the sacredness of trees, as well, is a spatial concept of being at the center (see PROXEMICS): "The tree cult is most clearly present in Ireland where there was a special term for the sacred tree, bile. Each tribe had a sacred tree, or grove of trees, probably at an inauguration site near the centre of the tribal territory . . ." (Eliade 1959).

Photo of eucalyptus tree (Encinitas, California, USA) by Doreen K. Givens (copyright 2007)