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Nature, Culture, and Big Old Trees

Nature, Culture, and Big Old Trees
Live Oaks and Ceibas in the Landscapes of Louisiana and Guatemala

A vibrant portrait of the relationship between people and trees in Louisiana and Guatemala.

January 2004
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
199 pages | 6 x 9 | 42 b&w illus., 7 maps |

Big old trees inspire our respect and even affection. The poet Walt Whitman celebrated a Louisiana live oak that was solitary "in a wide flat space, / Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near." Groves and alleys of live oaks remain as distinctive landscape features on Louisiana's antebellum plantations, while massive individuals still cast their shade over churches, graveyards, parks, and roads. Cajuns have adopted the "Evangeline Oak" as one of their symbols. And the attachment that Louisianians feel for live oaks is equaled by that of Guatemalans for ceibas, the national tree of Guatemala. Long before Europeans came to the Americas, the ceiba, tallest of all native species, was the Mayan world tree, the center of the universe. Today, many ceibas remain as centers of Guatemalan towns, spreading their branches over the central plaza and marketplace.

In this compelling book, Kit Anderson creates a vibrant portrait of the relationship between people and trees in Louisiana and Guatemala. Traveling in both regions, she examined and photographed many old live oaks and ceibas and collected the stories and symbolism that have grown up around them. She describes who planted the trees and why, how the trees have survived through many human generations, and the rich meanings they hold for people today. Anderson also recounts the natural history of live oaks and ceibas to show what human use of the landscape has meant for the trees. This broad perspective, blending cultural geography and natural history, adds a new dimension to our understanding of how big old trees and the places they help create become deeply meaningful, even sacred, for human beings.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Human-Tree Relationships
  • Chapter 2. Dances with Trees: Notes from the Field
  • Chapter 3. Natural History: The Secret Lives of Ceibas and Live Oaks
  • Chapter 4. Cultural History: How Trees Develop Character
  • Chapter 5. Coda: Charismatic Megaflora and the Making of Landscapes
  • Appendix: Tree Species Noted in Text
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Kit Anderson is a cultural geographer and ethnobotanist who holds a Ph.D. in geography from Louisiana State University. She is a former editor-in chief of National Gardening Magazine and author of numerous articles on people and plants. In addition to teaching at the University of Vermont, she offers consulting on people-plant topics.


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"Palín, La Ceiba," shouted the bus driver as he pulled over to stop on the highway. I hurried to squeeze through packed bodies to get to the front of the bus, trying not to knock anyone in the head with my backpack, wondering if he had added the bit about ceiba for me, the lone gringa in the crowd. It was hot and noisy outside on the highway. A group of us headed up a dusty street that led into town, most with bags and baskets of produce, me with camera, tape measure, notebook, and water bottle. Foreign tourists are rare here. This is a Guatemalan place.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala, and the small town of Palín, about an hour from the capital by bus, has the most famous ceiba in the country. "Enorma," people had said when describing it to me, holding their arms out as if trying to get them around a huge trunk.

Finally I could see something dark ahead, a promise of shade in the glaring hot sunlight of the walled streets. At first it was just a bit of branch reaching into the street, but by the time I reached the church steps, the huge hulking shape of the ceiba had spread out to cover the whole plaza in deep shade. Within the area defined by the generous branches was a bustling market, hundreds of people making their way among piles of brilliantly colored fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

As I stepped into the ceiba's shade, the temperature dropped, the light became comfortably dim, and my eyes focused on the intense activity all around me. Piles of ripe pineapples and tomatoes were arranged next to stalks of izote flowers and cherimoyas; tropical corn, beans, and squash shared blankets with temperate apples and pears. Women weighed produce on hand-held scales, wrapped them in paper or plastic, and handed them over in exchange for coins. Most were indígenas, Mayan women identifiable by their distinctive traditional clothing in bright colors. Drawn to the center, where a massive cement structure surrounds the huge, painted trunk of the ceiba, I joined others who sat on the concrete steps. From this raised observation post we could survey the whole market, and the constant activity of bargaining, polishing, sweeping, gossiping, eating, and playing.

Sitting there, sharing my lunch with a vacant-eyed woman who had wordlessly stretched out her hand for food, I was struck by the incredible contrast with another famous tree place I had visited not long ago: Oak Alley in Louisiana. Like Palín, Oak Alley is a wellknown place dominated by a symbolic tree species, the Southern live oak. Unlike Palín, Oak Alley is a private place, open to those who have paid an entrance fee. Visitors from all over the world come to tour the gracious antebellum plantation home and to photograph the double row of gnarly old trees that leads from the Mississippi River to a Greek revival mansion. Once an entrance drive connecting house and river, that place today feels more like a sacred grove.

Trees tell stories. In their arrangements, location, shapes, and even their tissues, they record changing environments, cultural values, social relationships, and notions of the sacred. For more than three years I was immersed in a study of live oaks in Louisiana and ceibas in Guatemala. Both of these trees are large and long-lived species that can appear as permanent fixtures in the landscape. My goal was to answer a few basic questions: How did these two trees come to be so important in their respective landscapes? How have people affected the trees and how, in turn, have the trees affected their human companions? It has been a fascinating and eye-opening journey into the topic of nature, culture, and the development of landscapes, one that is far from over.

The story of ceibas and live oaks is part of a much larger story of human relationships with what we call (collectively) nature. I believe that in interactions with trees, Homo sapiens' closest counterpart in the plant kingdom, humans express fundamental relationships with the nonhuman that help define who we are. The dividing line between humans and trees can become thin. As John Evelyn put it in the seventeenth century, "What is homo but arbor inversa?" Thus people have married trees, condemned them for murder, and given them legal standing. Trees in children's literature love to give advice. The wise "ents" in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series even manage to walk. In Thailand, Buddhist monks have amazed Westerners by wrapping trees in robes. and ordaining them as monks in order to promote conservation efforts in a way that makes sense there. Plenty of cultural groups claim descent from particular species of trees.

Big trees, those that have survived many human generations, play an important role in the structure of landscapes and the experience of place. Few are neutral in their meaning. They can reflect cultural identity, notions of the sacred, concepts of nature, and individual or group memory. A single massive baobab in the flat, dry landscape of sub-Saharan Africa says something entirely different from a row of columnar poplars along a road in France, or the tangled labyrinth of aerial roots and branches of a sprawling banyan in India. The baobab means water, shelter, familiar guide, and nourishment for nearby villagers and weary travelers. Poplars mark travel routes, too, but are not centers, like the baobab; instead, they imply movement, borders, a manicured landscape of tidy fields where edges matter. A single banyan can shelter an entire market, provide room for play, harbor holy: men and women in silent meditation, and draw pilgrims from miles away for worship. Learning to decipher trees' messages is an exercise in natural and cultural history.

Humans come from a long line of arboreal primates. At one time, trees furnished just about everything for life-shelter, food, medicine, tools, clothing, and travel routes. Talking about trees was so important that names for trees are among the earliest words in the Proto-Indo European language. Besides their role in subsistence, trees are intimately tied to notions of the sacred. Through much of the world, they have been recognized as home for a variety of gods and spirits. Individual trees, certain species as a whole, and chosen groves are important places in the landscape for ritual practices, community gatherings, or private mediation.

People and trees working together have created distinctive landscapes all over the world. In highland Spain and Portugal and on the rolling hills of California, separate peoples developed stable oak woodlands by managing native stands for acorn production. On the Iberian Peninsula the system includes feeding pigs on the abundant acorns; in California, the nutritious acorns were a major staple crop, managed in part by fire. Both olive groves, featuring gnarled old trees with their silver-green foliage, and deep green shady cypress walks have been part of Mediterranean landscapes for millennia. England has centuries-old coppiced woodlands, ancient root systems that bring forth ever-new saplings for house construction, and that harbor carpets of colorful spring wildflowers. Pollarded willows with enormous trunks and bushy heads of new shoots line rivers in Europe, their roots holding the banks, their tops harvested and twisted into baskets by people. Before disease claimed New England's famous elms in the twentieth century, settlers of European descent had created a region known for its beautiful villages and roads shaded by the spreading, graceful canopies of American elms. Now they've been replaced in the popular imagination by century-old maple trees that yield syrup in spring, and blaze red and orange each fall, attracting tourists by the millions. Management of native plants for basketry, food, and other uses has profoundly affected extensive regions, so that it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between "natural" and "cultural" parts of the landscape.

Also adding to the complexity of landscapes is the human proclivity to move plants around with them. What was once considered "exotic" can become a "natural" part of the scene. England's familiar sycamores were introduced into that country only at the end of the sixteenth century. The classic English hedgerows, and their well-loved elms, were also human creations of a particular time period; nevertheless, when the elms (many of them imports from mainland Europe) succumbed to disease in the twentieth century, their loss was mourned as a national tragedy. Across the Atlantic, in the prairie region of the American Midwest, settlers planted small square forests of eastern trees around homesteads to keep the great open spaces at bay. They soon became a normal part of the scene. English settlers transformed great stretches of New Zealand when they tamed these open spaces by planting miles of hedges, using familiar trees and shrubs from home.

The story of the yews in English cemeteries is a good example of how one generation of planters can affect the landscape for centuries, even millennia. In The Churchyard Yew and Immortality, the English geographer Vaughn Cornish traced the origins of the familiar brooding, dark green giants that stand next to so many village churches. Using old land and church records, correspondence with parish vicars, and his own observations, he came to some surprising conclusions. Although yews today are associated mostly with druids, he found that it was Norman Christian missionaries moving up through England in the eleventh century who planted them. They used this sole native English evergreen to substitute for cypress, the usual choice for Mediterranean burial grounds. Many of today's trees date to the eleventh century, making them nearly one thousand years old. Cornish observed that people still repeat the customary planting patterns, not knowing why they do it—it just looks and feels right.

Trees, as living things, take an active part in these transformations. Some have a particular talent for adapting to life with people. Tropical oranges, when brought to Italy and France, required glass houses to survive, but in Paraguay they fairly leapt from the confines of gardens to invade the native flora and soon seemed native themselves. Apples did the same in New England; they are now welcomed as a familiar friend in old pastures and even managed as an important wildlife food source in regrown forests. Eucalyptus trees from Australia,, planted all over the world, including California and the Andean highlands, have succeeded in populating the world beyond their wildest dreams. The huge trees, with their blue-gray foliage and distinctive odor, dominate parts of these landscapes, and manage to keep competition at bay. The ginkgo, too, must be grateful. From its early role as a captive of temple gardens in China, it has become an enormously widespread ornamental in cities worldwide. Its wild relations, meanwhile, have gone extinct. In addition, the ginkgo is revered today as a miraculous source of energy and well-being. As dispersal agents, humans have done well by these species.

Among the most admired trees of the world are those that manage to achieve great size and age. Identifying and recording such trees is a long-standing human interest. John Evelyn recorded the giants of England in his seventeenth-century Silva. A current-day counterpart is Thomas Packenham, who has described sixty "remarkable" British trees, most of them extremely large and/or old. Among them is the "Great chestnut" by the church of Tortworth in England, believed to date to the twelfth century, and still a massive tree. In North America, the discovery of giant sequoias and redwoods in the western Sierras in the nineteenth century led to pilgrimages to the "sacred groves" of California. After scientists publicized the age of California's bristle cone pines, trees that, though not huge, are able to live for up to five thousand years, people began to pay tribute to these wind-blown survivors in the Sierras. In Mexico, Montezuma's cypress, remnant of pre-conquest gardens outside of Oaxaca, draws visitors, as do several ancient ginkgos in South Korea and China. Other trees believed to reach one thousand years of age include the tatara, sacred among the Maori of New Zealand; the monkey puzzle, source of food and also sacred among the Pehuenche of Chile and Argentina; baobabs of Africa; and the cumaru (producer of aromatic tonka beans) of the Amazon region.

Organizations to protect and celebrate big old trees are publishing directories and books and leading trips to visit them. In the United States, we have national, state, and local groups that track so-called champion largest individual specimens of particular species—trees and famous and historic trees. It is even possible to buy descendants of specific famous individuals, and someone has recently decided to preserve tissue from the biggest of the big to make sure the genetic material is not lost.

Why so much focus on big and old trees? One reason is that trees have a long history among human societies as images of cosmic order. Different kinds of trees have symbolized life, fertility, community, and the world's sacred center. Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree, formed the center of the Norse cosmos, the axis mundi, its branches reaching into the sky, its roots to the underworld. In India, the Pipal, or bhodi tree, is venerated as the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened (although its history as a sacred tree is much older). The oak of Guernica, a specific living tree (although it has been replanted several times) is the symbolic center of the Basque people today. Other species have symbolized the center in different times and places. Psychologist Carl Jung focused on trees as important symbols of transformation in dreams. He also linked them to images of the cross, which he interpreted as symbolizing the tree of life, and the archetypal mother, in several different cultures.

As symbols of the center, specific living trees in the landscape sometimes take on a sacred character. Yet usually it is not the trees themselves that are objects to be worshipped; rather, they are the place where the sacred world can break through into human reality, where communication with the gods is possible. The bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in India, for instance, has been a pilgrimage site for more than two thousand years. A visitor in the seventh century described it as surrounded by a brick wall, and with a stone altar below its branches. (This tree has been replanted several times over the centuries, but that does not seem to detract.) Certain tree places, either individual trees or groves, are thus set aside, declared separate, off limits, different from the ordinary or profane. People will forego material gain to protect such trees, and mourn trees that are damaged or killed.

As a number of critical studies have shown, the symbolism of particular trees has been used by the powerful to assert their control over land and people. In Georgian England, the elite class manipulated landscape trees and woodlands to maintain their power and make the existing social order look natural. Species like the oak, which were equated with great families, as well as ash and elm, were off limits to the lower classes. Fortunately, meanings can also be subverted. During the American Revolutionary War the aristocratic oaks became liberty trees. Also important to remember, when analyzing the meaning of trees, especially in the past, are the voices of people who lived amid the trees. While the aristocracy was moving mature oaks around on their country estates to perfect their views, what of the spreading village trees around which people gathered and children played, trees that meant home and community? The landscape, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has continued to show, is full of hidden dimensions, experienced by people on many levels and in different ways depending on their own cultural and personal backgrounds. Like other landscape elements, trees can evoke fear, joy, comfort, mystery, sorrow, tradition, and childhood. Their many and varied roles are what make them such rich subjects for research and insight into the experience of place and landscape.

Another explanation for the tree fixation of humans is biological and evolutionary. The theory of biophilia, for instance, suggests that humans have an innate, genetically programmed need to affiliate with other living organisms. Often humans choose large, charismatic species on which to focus this need. Based in evolutionary reasoning is Jay Appleton's notion that when looking at landscapes, humans consider "prospect and refuge," an instinctive remnant of survival in a savanna environment. An attractive (safe, desirable) landscape has a balance of both-places to be concealed, with good views to survey the surrounding landscape for prey and predators. A single large tree provides both. Within its shade, where survival is temporarily not the main preoccupation, creative and community activities can take place. Such trees, then, become places in the landscape with great significance.

For urban dwellers, parks and street plantings often provide the main contact with trees. The whole notion of city trees is actually relatively recent. Beginning in the eighteenth century, there was a movement to green streets and squares because trees were thought to make the environment healthier and improve the character of inhabitants. This was especially true in Europe; the custom came later to the more recently colonized North American continent, and was by no means universal. Today, however, urban forests (a term that would have seemed absurd not that long ago) are threatened by high levels of pollution, random damage from vehicles, overhead interference with wires, and root crowding. Tree life expectancy is quite short. And yet many people, regardless of the impracticality, still want big trees planted in the city.

There may be good reasons for this. Recent studies on children's relationships with nature suggest that interactions with trees can help shape concepts of self. Trees are among the crucial places where children can explore, develop physical skills, hide out, learn about seasonal changes, and make private spaces to just be. That has certainly been borne out in my presentations on trees to various audiences. Anytime I show an image of children climbing in trees, or of tree houses, or even a few rungs nailed to a tree, people smile and sigh. Given the opportunity, they tell tales of climbing, hiding, playing, and dreaming in favorite trees. They remember smells, the texture of the ground beneath, sounds of wind in the leaves, picking up things that dropped from the branches, the feel of bark. Emotional memories are vivid as are the physical sensations experienced in and around these tree places.

The two tree species I chose to study are the ceiba (Ceiba pentandra [L.] Gaertn.) of Guatemala and the live oak (Quercus virginiana Miller) of Louisiana. Ceibas interested me because there was some mystery about their distribution pattern, and because of their reputation as a sacred tree since ancient times. Live oaks were the dominant street tree in southern Louisiana and clearly had a symbolic role connected to plantations and Southern life in general. Although not related botanically, the two trees have some important things in common. Both are among the largest and longest-lived trees in their areas, and neither is valued for an economic product today. Both are the subject of many stories and legends, and both have affected their landscapes physically and symbolically. Both appeared to have been taken beyond their native range by people, but just how and when and by whom was unclear.

A cross-cultural comparison promised to yield more depth into the question of trees and landscapes than looking at only one example. Such an approach triggers questions and comparisons that can yield new insights and different points of view. To help with focus, since both these trees cover tremendous areas, I decided to limit the study areas geographically to Louisiana and Guatemala.

As it turns out, the two areas also share some qualities. Both had thriving indigenous cultures before the European invasions in the 1500s. Both feature rich biotic diversity. Plantation agriculture and export crops, including sugar and cotton, followed colonialization, and are still important exports from both. Topographically the two are quite different. Louisiana is mostly flat, while Guatemala, except for coastal lowlands, is largely mountainous. Although both areas were colonized by Europeans (who created the political boundaries that define each place today), Guatemala was first settled primarily by Spanish, Louisiana by successive waves of Spanish-, English-, and French-speaking peoples. In Guatemala the major cultural groups today are the Spanish-speaking Ladinos and the native Mayans, with a smaller proportion of African and Asian-derived groups. Louisiana is known primarily for its Southern white culture, French-speaking Cajuns, a large population of African Americans and smaller percentages of other groups.

My goal was to learn what these trees were doing in each place, and how humans and trees together create landscapes. I wanted to understand the relationships from both sides—the people and the trees. Methods were borrowed from several traditions, including cultural geography and ethnobotany. The focus was on the individual, specific, and observable, from which I could draw conclusions about more general patterns. Because so much depends on the trees' part in this, I spent a lot of time learning their natural history (see Chapter 3), relying on published sources and information gleaned from interviews and observations. The approach that proved most useful for fieldwork was ethnography.

Ethnographic methods, traditionally used by anthropologists to study culture, can also be applied to understanding the nature of place and the experience of landscape. Following accepted practices, I watched and recorded everyday interactions with the study trees, and spoke with people from all walks of life about ceibas and live oaks. The topic of trees was nonthreatening. In fact, it led to many animated conversations and elicited all sorts of stories and memories. Interviews varied in format, from structured formal interactions in offices of experts to more casual conversations on buses and sidewalks, in plazas, restaurants, and other public and private places. Originally, I hoped that measuring trunks would help me determine the age of trees, but it turned out that both these species grow at highly variable rates. Establishing age and growth rate requires repeated measurements over a period of years. Instead, measuring trees was a sure way to attract people and engage them in conversation. Photographs recorded landscape roles, branching patterns, and comparisons between the two species. I also gathered images from postcards, artwork, tourist promotions, and archival sources.

Analyzing ethnographic interviews and observations is different from the task of calculating means and standard deviations. My goal has been to allow the people and trees to speak, through their actions, words, and presence in the landscape. That meant slowly developing categories and identifying patterns, then going back to the field to check them out. Eventually, as I pieced together firsthand observations with evidence from interviews and historic material, the stories presented in this book evolved. They are not the only stories, merely the ones I found, or that found me. Others wait to be told.

Human-tree relationships provide a window into the whole topic of nature and culture. For some time, geographers and others have struggled to refine our notions of these two terms. Are they separate concepts, as has generally been accepted? Or is everything we know culture, including the cultural notion of nature? Or is culture something nature has produced (and thus is part of it)? Some scholars have suggested we drop the duality and speak instead of nature-culture hybrids, or put them together into one term, "nature/culture," that better expresses the reality of our world. I don't propose to resolve these questions. Rather, I believe the details of how ceibas and live oaks, together with people, have created distinctive landscapes and places, offer insights into what actually goes on between humans and the other-than-human. From that, perhaps we can infer something larger regarding the concepts of nature and culture.

On a more immediate, practical level, I hope this work proves useful to those who make decisions regarding trees in our landscapes. What people revealed about live oaks and ceibas is not limited to those species. Wherever there are trees, there is a dimension of meaning that is difficult to gauge from casual observation. The species and particular individuals hold great power. The results of removing, modifying, or planting trees can be profound and longlasting. It is worth the time spent to learn, watch, and listen.


“...[A]n eloquent book that uses two species of large trees, live oaks in Louisiana and ceibas in Guatemala, to demonstrate the multiple ways that humans have transformed, and in turn have been transformed by, their environments.”
Journal of Cultural Geography

“Dr. Anderson convincingly demonstrates why big old trees loom large in our cultural stories and individual imaginations: they are landmarks, benchmarks through time, and cultural talismans or touchstones. . . . Anderson is an engaging writer who delights in her subject; her enthusiasm is contagious.Gary Paul”
Nabhan Director, Center for Sustainable Environments, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff