The Axis and the Sycamore
Originally published in Orion Magazine.
THIS SUMMER, I built my children a tree house. Adults build tree houses because they always wanted one when they were young, or because they can remember their own childhood tree house fondly. The actual children are secondary concerns. I deliberately built my tree house large enough so that adults could sleep in it. When the kids grow up and get bored with it, my wife and I plan to claim it for ourselves. Maybe we'll sit up there as the sun goes down and listen to the birds, or watch the foxes emerge from the hedge bank and go looking for the neighbor's ducks again.
I built the tree house in a sycamore that grows in a hedgerow in our field. We don't have many mature trees on our land, and this one attracted the kids as soon as we moved here, to the west of Ireland. It has a personality of its own: it leans out into the field as if it were bending over to inspect the ground. They used to call it the fairy tree and leave offerings in a little hole in the trunk. Sometimes they got replies.
I'd been promising them a tree house for a couple of years before I got round to building one. I wanted to get it right. When you're building something for your children, you want to be pretty sure it's not going to collapse on top of them or send them catapulting from the tree eight feet down to the ground. That kind of thing tends to decrease their confidence in your fatherly construction skills.
But there was something else I wanted to get right. A lot of tree-house designs I saw involved putting the thing right at the heart of the tree, and that in turn involved a lot of what is euphemistically known as "tree surgery," which in everyday English means "hacking a lot of branches off the tree." The shape of our sycamore meant that if the tree house were to sit in the tree itself, a lot of the big branches would have to come off. Something in me balked strongly at this. I like this tree: it has a wholeness about it. I don't suppose it's very old, and it's not even a native species (as if that should matter—neither am I), but it's definitely some kind of being. I didn't want to hack it about for the sake of providing yet another space for humans.
So I ended up building a tree house on stilts, the back of which is attached to the trunk, which also acts as a ladder up into a small door. The tree house has windows and a clear roof, so you can see that you're up in the branches, and the light filters through the leaves into the space. You can't get in without climbing up the hedge bank and scaling the trunk, but the house is really attached to the tree rather than sitting in it. I only had to saw off one small branch. The kids love it, and I'm proud that it hasn't fallen down. But I feel as though I've done a strange service to the tree as well, and that seems as important, somehow, as anything else.
"I get a sense of peace up in a tree that I never quite feel anywhere else."
Before I started writing this essay, I went up into the tree house and sat there above the frost-coated field. I enjoyed building it: building jobs are usually more stressful than peaceful, but this was an exception. I get a sense of peace up in a tree that I never quite feel anywhere else. I'm sure this must go back millions of years and run in my primate blood. Our primate ancestors spent much longer in the trees than our relatively young species has spent on the ground, and building a tree house has given new life to my preexisting dark suspicion that we should never have come down from the branches in the first place. We are primates built for trees, and the branches still welcome us. Maybe all of our ecological crimes are a result of some madness sparked by leaving the canopy. Maybe we can't function properly down here. Or perhaps it's just harder to cause trouble in a tree. There's no fire up there, no sword. That's where Eden was: up in the branches, with the birds and the bracket fungi. Once you come down, all your troubles begin.
IN 1949 the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined a new word: Achsenzeit. Usually translated into English as "Axial Age," it referred to the historical period between the eighth and third centuries BC. During this period, Jaspers said, five distinct civilizations, those of Greece, Palestine, Persia, India, and China, all experienced profound transformations, which between them created "the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today." In each, a combination of social, economic, and technological changes, including the spread of ironworking, literacy, urbanization, and market economies, disrupted old social and religious orders. Philosophers and spiritual pioneers, including Buddha, Plato, Socrates, Zarathustra, Elijah, Jeremiah, Confucius, and Lao Tzu, developed new and groundbreaking ways of understanding man's place in the world. Hierarchies began to crumble, certainties were questioned, and new ways of thinking and seeing began to develop from the ensuing confusion.
The greatest significance of the Axial Age, in Jaspers's mind, was that these shifts led people toward different ways of seeing the world they lived in; they may even have changed human consciousness itself. The shift away from a communal, oral, rural culture to a more individualistic, literate, urban culture led thinkers and seekers in all five civilizations to begin to explore the nature of the self and question what it meant to be an individual human in the world.
The Axial Age, in other words, was a period of collapse from which emerged new ways of seeing and being. When I first came across Jaspers's notion, a few years back, it sounded curiously familiar. Unstoppable technological change. Seemingly endless waves of warfare, with frightening new weapons. Accelerating urbanization and the disappearance of rural ways of being. New ways of communicating, speaking, and thinking. Old political and spiritual hierarchies no longer up to the job. A widespread sense of fear and uncertainty as the world changes almost faster than can be reported. It sounded like the world I was living in. It still does.
"The Axial Age, in other words, was a period of collapse from which emerged new ways of seeing and being."
I wonder now if we may be living through a second Axial Age, this one birthed in Western Europe and North America. Consider the shifts the world has undergone since the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, or even the European Reformation. A global economic machine, initially in the shape of the European empires and more recently in the guise of what we call globalization or development, has crashed its way into the economies and cultures of virtually every corner of the earth, extracting wealth and enfolding people into a worldwide commercial economy. Everywhere that this machine has landed, local political and economic systems have collapsed or shrunk to be replaced with variations on a single template: market economy, nation-state, centralized two-party democracy, mass media.
Corporate power has mushroomed and the language of business and the assumptions of the market have infiltrated previously unthinkable aspects of life, from the nursery to the kitchen. Science has turned religion on its head. The internet has revolutionized the manner and speed of communication and may even be altering our neurological wiring. Robotics and computing are gearing up to replace humans in many areas of life. Warfare has become ultratechnological and increasingly lopsided. And unprecedented waves of human migration are driving deep cultural and political shifts and schisms across the world.
This is the story of our times. It is not a comforting story. Rather, it is a tale of constant upheaval, a never-ending storm in which it can seem impossible to find a mooring. And in this second Axial Age we must also cope not only with these cultural transformations but with the consequences of our ongoing attack on the life-support systems of the earth itself. We are walking the surface of a living planet that is itself in a period of radical transition. We began that transition, by accident, as a side effect of creating our new world. Now we have to live with the consequences.
After ten thousand years of human civilization, the second Axial Age is bringing us up hard against questions that have finally become too big to look away from: Can we recognize that we are the snake in the garden? Can we own up to our abuses and begin to make restitution? Is that even possible? Can we change? This may be our last chance to face these questions and try to answer them. Climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, soil depletion, acidified oceans, melting ice: all the warning signs have long been flashing red. It is too late now to plan for the future or to issue warnings about it. The future is here. We are living in it.
When we contemplate these changes and these threats, we tend to revert to certain ways of speaking, which themselves stem from certain ways of seeing. We use the language of science and economics; the language of politics; the language of anger and righteousness, guilt and judgment. We talk about parts per million of carbon and we talk about our responsibilities to future generations. This kind of talk is easy; it is expected. But I have come to believe that it is largely useless, and not just because nobody is really listening. It is useless because it does not get anywhere near the heart of the matter.
As in the first Axial Age, so in the second: the real questions to be answered are not questions of politics, economics, or social morality. They are questions about what is missing from all of this talk and from the world that we have built. They are questions about what has meaning, what matters, what is greater than us, and how we should behave toward it. And those, whether we like it or not, are religious questions.
THE FIRST AXIAL AGE was, above all, a challenge to settled religious notions. In northern India, for example, around 500 BC, Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become a Buddha, or "awakened one," began to question the nature of reality and the religious practices of the day, because nobody was giving him answers that satisfied him. The alternative that he developed involved a deep and unsparing examination of the nature of the human mind and the supposed separation of the individual self from the greater whole. The key to Gautama's method was questioning: questioning the reality of the self, questioning the solidity of existence, questioning the nature of the mind, questioning what you were told by everybody else, including him.
In Greece, meanwhile, Socrates and his pupil Plato were employing their own method of questioning to similarly challenge the established authorities and beliefs of the time. Sorties were being launched by a range of teachers and masters—from Israeli prophets to Chinese sages—against spiritual notions that had served people for millennia but which were proving inadequate for a new time. Animal sacrifices and ancestor worship made no sense in this new world. The world of the spirit had to evolve with the world of economics and technology.
Then as now, old stories were failing and new ones were being conceived. What are our modern-day equivalents of animal sacrifice and ancestor worship? What are our faltering tales? We tell a story that the world is a machine that can be programmed to serve our purposes. We tell a story that humans are the measure of all things, that we can justify enclosing other creatures in factory farms or animal-testing labs, clearcutting the great forests and poisoning the seas, killing off other forms of life to feed our hunger and desire. We tell a story that we can mold the world to the needs of the self, rather than molding the self to the needs of the world.
These stories failed us long ago, and it is increasingly common now to hear the claim that we need "new stories" to replace them. These new stories, it is said, will be stories of belonging again. They will be stories of returning to the earth, of understanding our true place in the great maelstrom of the universe, not as gods now but as family members. Eco-theologian Thomas Berry made this case eloquently in his classic The Dream of the Earth: "Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value." This, it seems to me, is both true and essential. But it is not a new story. Rather, it is a very old one, being haltingly rediscovered by a culture that long ago forgot how to listen to it. Every indigenous culture recognizes this as the oldest of old tales. Once we peel back our failing narratives, we see it waiting patiently underneath. What we don't know is what to do with it. From the perspective of our modernity, enmeshed as we are in machines, in cities, in minds trapped by what we have built, we don't know how we might even start to live it again.
One thing is clear to me: any deep change is not going to come from intellectuals like me writing books or articles about why we need new stories. If that were going to save the world, the world would be fine by now. Deep change is going to come, just as it did in the last Axial Age, through a radical alteration in people's lived experience. And that is only going to come from a crisis that forces people up against the consequences of what we have done. It is going to come when economies start collapsing, when political systems crumble, when cities flood, when seas rise, when people are hungry or dying. New stories emerge from collapses that kill off the old ones. We can talk all we like, but until there is a world-changing shift, until our comforts really begin to slide away, we will have no incentive to change anything at all. And anyway, nobody will be listening.
"Deep change is going to come...through a radical alteration in people's lived experience."
Here in the West, we are deep into a centuries-long crisis of meaning. As we chase our goals, they drift farther away. If and when we reach them, they suck out our souls. Our material religion, like the transcendent religions it sprang from, aims for eternity. In the future, we will all be immortal millionaires. The goal of our religion is impossible to reach; and if it weren't, we would find ourselves in hell.
At the core of our animal beings, something is bleeding. If we stop and pay attention, we can feel the wound. In the wound lies the hope.
NOT MANY PEOPLE around here feel the way that I do about trees. Only literary blow-ins like me, with our heads in the works of Thomas Berry and Annie Dillard, can afford to be romantic about them. Since we moved to Ireland, nearly three years ago now, my family has planted nearly one thousand trees, and we're not halfway done yet. We've put in a coppice of birch around our fire pit, in an area that used to be a bramble forest. We've surrounded much of the house with native hedges and planted half an acre of willow, poplar, and alder, partly for fuel and partly for the birds. Still to come, in the back field where the tree house is, are a hazel coppice and hopefully another acre or so of native trees. In twenty years' time, the tree house will be surrounded by a small forest.
"What are you going to do with those?" our neighbors ask sometimes. We live in a farming community, and farmers are practical people. If I tell them we have planted the trees to coppice for fuel, there's a nod of understanding. I don't tend to talk much about wanting to plant them just because I like them, or because the birds do. I'm not sure how I would explain it.
Cutting down trees, not planting them, is the way around here. On many an autumn or winter day, the buzz of chainsaws comes rolling in from the surrounding fields. Sometimes it's hedges being neatened up, but often it's the mass destruction of mature trees for no reason that I can understand. Great oaks or ashes that have been standing in hedge banks for decades or longer come crashing down to be piled up and burned in the center of the field. Old trackways lined with beautiful trees are hacked about with flails or sliced with chainsaws until they look like First World War battlefields. I've come to dread the thin buzz of the saw. I live in the most deforested country in Europe, and sometimes I think I hear the echo of a great loss. This was one reason I wanted to build that tree house without damaging the tree. The notion of preserving, protecting, or respecting even one tree has suddenly come to seem a thing of real importance.
There is nothing especially Irish about the battlefield treatment of trees, and nothing European either. This is just farming. Until I came here, it was never quite clear to me what the basis of agriculture, and therefore of our food and our civilization, was. When I lived in towns I saw the countryside as a green oasis of calm. It can be, but that is almost incidental. Much of the countryside is a green desert: a factory floor. So much in our civilization, from fire and food to buildings and furniture and paper, is a result of the mass destruction of the trees that stood here before humans came.
Here in Europe, most of our great forests were gone millennia ago. The fields and cities were built on their ruins, and those of us who grew up in those ruins never knew they were anything else first. In other parts of the world, though, I have seen the ruination in action. In Borneo I have walked through rainforests where great dipterocarp trees, their trunks as wide as my house, have recently been destroyed, again by chainsaws, over dozens of square miles, to make way for plantations of palm. In Chilean Patagonia I have driven for hours along dirt roads surrounded by slashed and burned forests soon to be replaced by estancias for the production of more beef for a growing global population.
This is what we do, we humans. We came down from the trees and now we destroy them. The older I get, the harder it is to take this; the harder it is even to look at it. I pass through the ghosts of forests with W. S. Merwin's lines running through my head:
The possessors move everywhere under Death their star
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future.
It is long overdue that we start the restitution. I think the poets can help us to do that, because the poets come closest to the eternal, to the lost meaning, and to the silence in which we can hear the lost meaning. We are all possessors. "You've depopulated the vast heavens," rages Rilke at humanity, at himself. "Everything is afraid of you, / wretched destroyers of abundance!" We are all destroyers; but we can be redeemed, I think, if we want to be. We can be forgiven if we change.
"It is long overdue that we start the restitution. I think the poets can help us to do that."
"If I were called in / to construct a religion," Philip Larkin wrote, "I should make use of water." I would make use of trees. At the heart of the creation myth of the West, in the primeval garden, before the fall into fire and farming, stands a tree, on which grows a sacred fruit. We pluck and eat the fruit and we are cast from the peace at the heart of all things. The fruit will help us live forever, but first we must saw down the tree and burn it, and use the flames to forge weapons with which to battle the world itself.
What happens if the tree remains? What happens if the warnings from history, the new information provided by the sciences, and the song that sings deep inside us come together to make us, the people of the West, the children of modernity, look at trees as many of the ancients did? Would that begin to heal the wound? If we were to see not just the half of the tree that towers above the ground but the half that lives beneath it. If we were to see that great complex of roots connected to all of the other trees in the woodland by networks of mycelium that act almost as a neural network, connecting up communities of living beings, sending and receiving signals. If we were to see this network, this community, as alive, as in some way aware. If we were to understand that when we tug on one leaf it is connected to everything else in the world.
If we saw trees as living, connected, aware—would we change our ways in relation to them, and would that change us? Perhaps not. We know that mice and rats and cows and pigs are living, aware beings, but that doesn't stop us torturing and slaughtering them if we find it useful. But in the long term, or maybe sooner, we will be faced with what we have done. That crisis will hit. "The Earth will not be ignored," Thomas Berry wrote, "nor will it long endure being despised, neglected or mistreated." We will change, or we will be changed. I suspect it will be the latter. But in the meantime, there is work we can do.
New stories—or old stories in new form—will not be purely individual endeavors. They will not arise from research, from thinking, from analysis, from planning. They will not be utopian, globalist, all-encompassing, neat and satisfying. If we are to develop different ways of relating ourselves to the earth or to some new spiritual methodology that connects us back again to our natural heritage, this isn't going to come from our rational minds. It may not come from us at all. The mythologist Martin Shaw speaks of stories as being "an echo location from the Earth." The old folktales and foundation myths, he says, were not purely the creations of human minds. Rather, those minds acted like aerials, telling a story that a place, or the spirit of a place, wanted to be told. Such new stories, again, are the oldest stories of all: they are a retelling of the eternal story, from before we felled the tree. And they are not the product of thinking. They are the product of listening.
"He who knows does not speak," Lao Tzu wrote back in the first Axial Age. "He who speaks does not know." It's a useful warning to essayists everywhere. What if the stories we need, the new ways of seeing, are right here under our feet, waiting for us to notice them? What if they are dancing through the canopy in the sunlight? One of the most startling claims that Berry makes in The Dream of the Earth is that our human ability to question ourselves and question life, to measure and explore and think about the nature of everything, represents a necessary evolutionary leap. Human beings, he says, are the universe made self-aware. To care for the universe, then, is to care for ourselves. Respecting the earth is a form of self-respect.
As the second Axial Age accelerates, it is clear that our relationship with the rest of nature is the story by which our species will live or die. We are being tested, by the earth itself, as kings or heroes were tested in those old stories. We will live right by our inheritance—our inner wildness and that of the world—or we will die and the world will continue without us. I think we can make it, though it will take us centuries; but first we are going to have to walk through the fires we have set, and much of what we think we are, and much of what we have built, is going to have to burn away.
"If we saw trees as living, connected, aware—would we change our ways in relation to them, and would that change us? "
"Only a god," Heidegger famously said, "can still save us." An atheist would disagree, but I think that on this one, the atheist would be wrong. While we might not need a new religion, we do need a new sense of the sacred or an awakening of the most ancient one: a sense of awe, wonder, and respect for something greater than us. What could that something greater be? There is no need to theorize about it. What is greater than us is the earth itself—life—and we are folded into it, a small part of it, and we have work to do. We need a new animism, a new pantheism, a new way of telling the oldest of stories. We could do worse than to return to the notion of the planet as the mother that birthed us. Those old stories have plenty to say about the fate of people who don't respect their mothers.
But while we like to talk about "the earth," I'm not sure any of us can really relate to it. None of us has ever seen it, not as a whole. A planet is too big for our small minds; it seems more like a concept than a reality. What we can relate to is what we see and walk among. Any new religion, any new way of seeing, will probably grow from the ground where we are. It will emerge from something small that demands our attention; something we love; something animate with the spirit of life.
For me, it will be trees. Maybe I need to spend more time sitting in trees, just listening. Listening does not come naturally to me: I'm a talker, a thinker. I like ideas, concepts. I like winning arguments. Which is all the more reason to practice. The winter sun has come now and burned away the frost. Perhaps I should sit up in the tree again for a while and pay attention. I wish I had a few lifetimes to get better at paying attention, at listening. I wish I had more time to learn the song. But maybe the time we have is all the time we need.
It is not only the Abrahamic religions that place a great tree at the center of all things. At the heart of Norse mythology, too, stands a tree: the Yggdrasil. Perhaps it is the same tree that stood in the Garden of Eden. The Yggdrasil connects the nine worlds of Viking cosmology. Its roots stretch down into hell, its branches into heaven, and its trunk stands at the center of the world of men. When the Yggdrasil fell, the Vikings said, the world would end in a great war. Without the tree at the heart of things, there would be only fire and grief.
These old stories, seeking us out, singing us the song of the tree, offer us a path and a warning. I think we can still hear them, if we climb up into the branches, shut our mouths, and listen.
Image: "The Three Trees," by Rembrandt, 1643, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.
This article was made possible through the support of the Kalliopeia Foundation.