The Pine Tree

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


 When the earth was enveloped in darkness and man blindly groped about on its surface, Raven the Trickster, the benefactor of man, rose up in his dark flight to seek the light of the sun. He flew until he reached the illuminated center of the universe where he alighted upon the branch of a solitary pine tree. Observing the daughter of the sun coming to drink from the spring near the tree, he transformed himself into a floating pine needle and passed between her lips as she satisfied her thirst. Thus Raven impregnated the daughter and gained entrance into the house of the sun. As grandchild of the sun he was able to steal away the great ball of light and scatter its rays upon the world. As a pine needle he was able to penetrate the heavens and bring forth light upon the earth.

 This is the oldest myth of the Haida people who live along the pine-clad coast of northwestern America. To them the pine is sacred – an evergreen witness of the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death. So it is among many people that boughs of pine are used as emblems of the sun's birth, marking the winter solstice. As a perennial symbol of life, this coniferous witness heralds the coming of the vernal equinox. Pagan priests in central Europe held aloft pine branches to celebrate the solar festivals. The ancient Egyptians decorated their houses with evergreen boughs at the time of the winter solstice, and the Greeks associated the never-dying vegetation with nature deities. According to them the pine was born from the body of the nymph Pitys, whose name means 'pine' and who was sacred to Pan. In China the pine is called sung, indicating prosperity and longevity, while from ancient times the Japanese have used the word matsu to indicate both the pine tree itself and the verb 'to wait.' The genii of the famous Takasago pines are said to appear in the moonlight as a white-haired man and his wife, an aged and gnarled couple marking time in the world. This identification with aged beings and longevity is connected with the very widespread idea that the pine tree provides a link with ancestors.

 Some traditions claim that these ancestors were human, while others suggest they may have been stars. The Iroquois called the Pleiades The Dancing Stars' and thought they were a group of brothers. One of these brothers, they say, fell to earth and became embedded in the soil. At that spot appeared a tiny sprout which grew into a heaven-aspiring tree – "and so was born the Pine, tallest of trees, the guide of the forest, the Watcher of the skies." Similarly, the Egyptians identified the winter solstice tree with the starry firmament. If these ancestors were human, they may have been like the great teachers, the 'Man of the Mountain' or Sennins of Japanese tradition. They came together in the mountains where the pine trees grow, in the places of longevity above the changes of the world. Some say they left their spirits in the trees of the lofty sacred groves.

 Of course the pine species is very old. Being a Gymnosperm, it belongs to the oldest class of trees on earth, dating back to Paleozoic times. It is very widespread, adapting to a great variety of climates and soil conditions. Its embryo produces a small initial amount of tissue, out of which growth commences, extending from the tip of the shoot up and from the tip of the root down. Thus, with the pollinated seed at the center, the pine grows up in one solitary stem into the heavens and downward in a branching network into the underworld. It is because of these characteristics that the pine is a powerful and organically complete symbol of an axis linking the three worlds of heaven, earth and Hades. This is why the pine is called both the tree of life and of death and is used as a means of communicating with the highest gods as well as with the dead, or what the Estonians and Finns would call Hiisi, spirits of the underground. The Finno-Ugric people believe that these spirits, unlike the heavenly spirits, watch over the morality of people and can be dangerous if not properly propitiated. They use the word Hiisi to designate the sacrificial grove where such rituals take place and think of the pine as the 'dark tree' through which they 'sacrifice downward.' The Lapps, to this day, build small boats and place them in the branches of the tallest pine in the vicinity. In olden times this sacrificial boat was filled with offerings of food for the Master-Soul of the dead who came forth at the time of the winter solstice. With the influence of Christianity, the offerings were made to the same representative spirit of what came to be called 'the Christmas people.'

 The Votiaks of Siberia also leave sacrificial offerings in pine trees out of the same concern to communicate with spirits of the earth and of their own ancient heroes. It is as though the branches bear the offering which will be transmitted in spirit to the roots. They keep forest copses or lud wherein the trees themselves are sacred and only the cleansed devotee may enter. Surrounded by wooden fences, an outer enclosure encircles an inner sanctuary where only the Guardian of the lud may enter to tend the fire and keep the sacrificial table. The Guardianship is inherited by birth within a particular clan, but a lud can only be found through its spirit which reveals itself in a dream. The dreamer must set out at once in search of the dream place and immediately enclose it within a fence. The sacred pines within the grove grow and die while their spirit witnesses the carefully guarded ceremonies which take place beneath the branches of its greatest trees.

 It is not uncommon for man to think of his own life in terms of the life of a tree. He feels the trunk to be his central line of maturation while the branches often represent explorations into areas of self-reaffirmation, or testings of his individual powers. Branches often become dead ends and excessive energy focussed along them may result in imbalances. It is often only later, after identification with the overtly manifest tree lessens, that man becomes concerned with roots and begins to sense their function within his own being. Some men, in dreams, see themselves as solitary pine trees and sense in the singularity of the stem an intimation of their own individuality.

 The pine maintains a single stem throughout its life and is nurtured by its leaves or needles which synthesize light and convert it into chemical energy. Because this energy must reach the roots of the pine, often more than a hundred feet away, there is an increase of branching to produce a greater foliage exposure to the sun. In facilitating this, branches grow upward at the crown, horizontal in the middle and downward at the bottom, forming an overall pyramidal shape. The base of each branch is thickened due to a buttressing effect of combined stem and branch growth that increases with the increased angle of the branch. This 'compressed wood' requires more nutrients which in turn require a greater foliage exposure to insure additional photosynthesis. The greater the foliage extension, the larger and more numerous must be the supporting branches. This necessitates acceleration of cell growth within the stem which increases in girth and height, magnifying the stress upon the osmotic system supplying water to the crown as well as upon the supporting root system which must therefore expand laterally. The growth pattern of the pine exemplifies a necessary and total balancing of all parts comprising the whole. It is a perfect botanical illustration of what is reflected in human economics as the principle of supply and elastic demand, a microcosmic example of universal interdependence increasing in magnitude in exact ratio to growth. The greater growth produces a dominant tree but it also necessitates a more delicate balance between all its parts. The taller dominant tree is exposed not only to more sun, but also to more wind, which produces a swaying that promotes cell production and redistribution of nutrients from the crown to the roots.

 The wind not only sways the tall pine, it also blows the pollen from the pollen cones and enables it to sift between the scales of the seed cones and enter the ovules directly. Each spring the terminal buds of the growing pine extend straight up away from the earth. As the needles get longer they become phototropic and move from east to west following the sun in a daily cycle. When cambial activity begins at the base of the shoot, the buds are forced downward by the parent branch, producing compressed wood on the stem. Thus the evergreen needles remain, locking in moisture and supplying the whole tree with synthesized light energy for many successive years.

 The single stem of the pine tree, suggesting man's individuality, is like a central spine or resinous canal through which flows the fluid of life. The osmotic effect must work to bring up the fluids to the crown, but it is from the crown that the synthesized light energy must be distributed downward throughout the whole tree. Man consciously branches out in experience as he grows, his nature being to seek light. But in the process of branching he diverts the energy of his entire being to support the venture, and in doing so, weakens the central core of himself. Great wisdom is required to know how to extend oneself out and conserve energy while doing so. The human tree may branch out continually with no detriment to itself if there exists a total placement of consciousness on the central reality within the manifested system. Once the organic system comes to exist, continued production of energy and growth must take place, but if the focus remains on the invisible central source of light, the balance of functions can continue indefinitely. As the pine synthesizes and assimilates, it must also distribute and expand. Analogously, man must balance the synthesizing and concentrative power of Manas with the expansive centrifugal power of Buddhi. He must blend the eye and the heart.

 The differential growth patterns of pine trees reflect the difficulties in achieving this balance. Just as the annual budding of the pine at first grows straight up toward the light and only later bends and turns toward that which promises light, so also the infant unconsciously grows toward an invisible and immovable source of light and then becomes consciously focussed upon the cyclical changes affecting manifested life. With greater age, man, like the pine, is increasingly affected by gravity and accretions of growth materials that tend to limit and unbalance the life pattern. Finally the grown man, having been exposed to the vicissitudes of life, lives out his term at some level, reflecting to some degree the potential that was intimated in his spring growth.

 The pine is a pyramid and a symbol of fire. Bishop Berkeley claimed that spiritual fire was fixed in the viscid juices of old pines and that, mixed with water, it could produce a fire which does not heat but which contains solar light. He prescribed the use of this mixture as a great panacea of human ills, one that would aid in re-establishing the internal balance necessary to permit the free penetration of the solar light on all planes of man's being. To light this cool flame within, man must obtain control of the spiritual energy within him through that center which synthesizes and regulates his entire nature. In mystical terms this relates to the opening of the third eye, the spiritual organ which finds its physical seat in the pineal gland that derives its name from its pine cone shape. This gland translates the energy of light into a fundamental secretion with biochemical impact on the whole autonomic nervous system in man. It acts to maintain all the body's rhythms in phase with one another. Perhaps the counterpart in man to the pine needle is the pointed and concentrated manasic growth which must pierce the akasic light field, while the counterpart to the pine cone is the pineal gland which, when activated, can consciously shed light throughout and around man's whole being, like seeds raining down upon the earth.

 Perhaps it is because the functions of tar and resin in the pine correspond so closely to higher alchemical processes in man that they can aid in re-establishing the alignment necessary to permit an analogous flow of higher energy. The flow describes a pyramid whose apex at the crown is the mystical link between heaven and earth and stands for the root – of fire. The base, represented by the spreading branches, spirals to the four cardinal points, symbolizing a gradual materialization of form. Thus the triangular fire is joined to the four-cornered cube of earth through the hexagonal medium of water. This is precisely reflected in the medicinal mixture of pine-tar water affecting the earthly body of man. The fire is the first world, water the astral world, and earth the material surface of the underworld which holds the roots of the sacred pine. The path between the roots in the underworld and the heavenly root symbolized by the apex of the pyramid represents the mysterious journey of the soul through death into life.

 This passage of the soul traces back to previous Rounds, to the time of the Secondary Groups of Divine Progenitors. The seeding of the akasa by Divine Consciousnesses gave birth to a process of manifestation, cycling through astral canals from the root above to the roots below and back again. This archetypal process, impressed on the astral, begat the ethereal form of the conifer which condensed and reached its full physical expression only in the Third Race of our present Round. Thus the pine tree is a living relic of the proceeding Round, an expression of the early stages of divine manifestation. Ancient awareness of these great inner secrets of evolution appears to be reflected in the ritual 'sacrificing down' of the Votiak Guardians of the lud. They sacrificed to the realm of the dead, wary of its dangers but knowing that a connection could be made through the tree to the source of 'that which giveth life and death.' The small boat placed in the pine's boughs by the Lapps must travel, bearing its offerings, into the underworld in order to raise up that which lives. The dangers of the journey from above-below and up again exist within the astral-psychic realm. The pine is a pyramid symbol of fire or spirit but the growth necessary to evolve the complete pyramid involves the astral.

 Carl Jung identified the pine tree as a symbol of the growth and development of psychic life as opposed to instinctual life symbolized by animals. This echoes the teachings of The Secret Doctrine which describe the archetypal process of manifestation reflected in the astral conifer. Jung further suggests that the wood itself, in the way it grows, offers a connection with the ever-deepening layers of the collective unconscious. The accumulated layers of rings in one individual tree may be interpreted as a recapitulation of a process of concentric growth producing the entire psychic substratum of nature. Men in dreams or trance states sometimes experience themselves as trees. The inner layers of their being gain possession of their consciousness and the psychic reality of age-old evolution manifests in all its logical purity. If this realization can be brought into waking consciousness where Manas is fully active, man can comprehend more fully what it means to exist as a pivotal point in evolution. Like the symbolic pine, man is an axis linking the three worlds, a potential adept, master of all realms.

 Initiates have been called 'Trees of Righteousness,' and we are reminded of the sacred Kounboum tree which grew out of the hair of Tsong-Kha-Pa at the spot where he was buried. The foliage and the bark of this mysterious tree are said to reveal layer upon layer of religious teachings. Perhaps this tree is kindred to those that embody the spirit of the Taoist 'Men of the Mountain,' the matsu who stand and wait. In the places of longevity in which they grow, it is fitting that the oldest trees on earth abide. On mountain slopes in certain places some grow so old that they seem immortal, having achieved a perfectly balanced existence. As descendents of astral forebearers that bore the impress of the Prajapatis, they carry within them the essence of our own ancestry.

 In the symbol of the pine which reflects the pristine nature of man, there is fused a connection between the sun and the stars – the fiery Solar Ancestors and the Star Rishis. The roots of the pine are tendrils leading at once into the underworld and the most primitive dimensions of space. They carry man back through time to his own source, even while his growing sense of Self bends toward the sun. For man, like the pineal pyramid, is not merely rooted upon the surface of the earth, his apex linked with heaven. He descends back in time to the beginnings with each incarnation. He spends his life drawing upon the solar light, carrying it within his being down into all stages of manifested life. He becomes the fiery pyramid, the essence of those pyramids built by the ancient Egyptians who consecrated each one of them to a star. He begins to harken to higher winds of ideation. He draws up the ancestral fluids and bathes them in the synthesized light of solar knowledge. He becomes a balanced world on behalf of the whole, and he stands like the solitary pine tree, "the guide of the forest, the Watcher of the skies."

 . . . to the follower of the true Eastern archaic Wisdom, to him who worships in spirit nought outside the Absolute Unity, that ever-pulsating great Heart that beats throughout, as in every atom of nature, each such atom contains the germ from which he may raise the Tree of Knowledge, whose fruits give life eternal and not physical life alone.