Last year a photo of an enormous spruce tree, chopped down, chained up, and hauled down a Canadian highway, went viral. Officials had felled the massive trunk just in time to dodge a new ordinance that would have preserved trees of its size. Following this sneaky act of destruction, the outcry was swift, widespread, and futile.
Why did a single tree provoke such a response? After all, most of us enjoy arboreal by-products every day. We write on pulp paper with wooden pencils, eat fruits and nuts, and put away a shocking amount of palm oil, the most widely consumed oil on earth – and also a leading cause of deforestation. But there seemed to be something about the size of the great tree that disturbed, as we watched it trundle grimly down the road, bereft of roots and leaves. Conservationists Malgorzata Blicharska and Grzergorz Mikusiński have studied how a tree’s size affects its meaning to individuals and societies, a factor which they argue ought to influence conservation policy.
As Blicharska and Mikusiński demonstrate in their work, a tree like this giant Canadian spruce must have thrived for centuries, offering shade to generations of human beings. Its sap would have made vitamin-rich syrup and tea, spare branches might have become walking staffs, twigs lent to fires. The tree was probably a local landmark, recognizable to all who lived nearby. And not only humans benefited. A tree like that is an ecosystem in itself, a nourishing home for countless beasts, birds, bugs, and fungi. Seen in context, the toppling of such a giant by the humans who have benefited from its existence feels almost hubristic.
Trees also allow us to breathe by trapping carbon and producing oxygen. The Amazon Rainforest, however, once the earth’s greatest carbon sink, now emits more carbon than it absorbs, the result of rampant deforestation. Just last month, a UN report confirmed what recent wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves have hinted at: the world has gotten irremediably hotter. Without immediate, extensive policy changes – and possibly even with them – unimaginable natural disasters await. Furthermore, these disasters will not afflict everyone equally. While this summer’s heat waves roasted the Pacific Northwest, affluent neighborhoods with high tree counts were several degrees cooler than those with no canopy. This disparity reflects the maddening fact that the wealthiest people, who are responsible for most of the effects of climate change, are also least likely to suffer its consequences.
There are, then, many logical reasons to be upset about the felling of a giant tree. But there may be emotional reasons as well, which should not be ignored. On the contrary, in the face of mass apathy and rampant ‘compassion fatigue’, honoring our feelings around trees is vital to repairing the schism between human and environment. In fact, long before climate change as we know it began, distant cultures expressed deep-rooted anxiety around harming trees by means of myths. Stories, passed down through centuries and across continents, demonstrate a profound empathy between people and the natural world, by means of the motif of the bleeding tree. The haunting implication of these tales is that trees, if they have the capacity to bleed, possess likewise the capacity to feel pain. Human destruction of the environment, seen in this light, is violence. The cautionary tales featuring such silvan suffering have lessons that may be relevant for us today.
Among the better known of these tales is that of Erysichthon. A mythical Thessalian royal, he appears in Callimachus’ 3rd-century BC Hymn to Demeter and Ovid’s 1st-century AD Metamorphoses (8.725–884). Despite slight differences between the tales, the main threads of the plot endured the intervening centuries: in a grove there stands an enormous tree (either poplar or oak), which stretches to the sky and regularly hosts dancing nymphs. Ignoring ominous warnings – a verbal warning from Demeter in Callimachus, a bleeding and begging tree nymph in Ovid – Erysichthon chops down the tree, only to be punished with insatiable hunger. In Callimachus’ version, he ends the tale having fallen from royalty, an ignominious mendicant. Ovid goes one step darker: after eating all his wealth and selling his daughter repeatedly into slavery, Erysichthon’s voraciousness finally compels him to eat his own body. As Robert S. Santucci has observed elsewhere on Antigone, this tale conveys a moral around the dangers of excessive consumption: Erysichthon consumes and consumes until there is nothing left, not even himself.
A further relevant moral may be gleaned from the myth of Erysichthon. In both Callimachus and Ovid’s versions, he is royalty – Thessalian prince in the former case, king in the latter. He therefore possesses tremendous resources to satiate his hunger, spending profligately to the detriment and embarrassment of his family. In Ovid’s version, Erysichthon’s daughter Mestra, sold by him as a slave, is the primary victim of his excess. Because she possesses the gift of shapeshifting, she repeatedly escapes her ordeal, only to be sold again by her father. As Erysichthon’s tree-felling indirectly dooms the innocent Mestra, so today’s unchecked capitalists build oil pipelines that set the ocean on fire and raze forests to graze cattle, causing collateral damage that especially impacts the impoverished. Ovid’s story, notably, has an element of poetic justice in Erysichthon’s death and Mestra’s implied escape. In our world, on the other hand, the worst culprits continue to skirt the consequences of catastrophic climate change.
In Greek and Roman mythology, tales like Erysichthon’s are fairly common. Elsewhere in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the nymph Dryope innocently picks a leaf off a sentient lotus tree, intended as a toy for her son, and is punished by becoming a poplar tree herself. Her dying warning to her baby is to avoid pools and flowers, lest they contain some capricious divinity. In Ovid’s poem, in fact, so many characters turn into trees and other plants (Daphne becomes the laurel tree, Syrinx water reeds, Narcissus the flower of his name, Lotus the tree of her name, to name a few) that Dryope’s message is reasonable. The trees here are sentient, capable of feeling an assault like a plucked leaf, and of taking their revenge. In Dryope’s tragic farewell, moreover, Ovid compels us to question how our interactions with the environment may impact the next generation.
Ovid’s forerunner Virgil also uses the bleeding tree motif, when his hero Aeneas plucks at myrtle leaves, ignorant that they conceal the entombed Trojan prince Polydorus (Aen. 3.22–48). Aeneas ignores the tree’s bleeding until Polydorus, like Ovid’s tree nymph, begs him to stop, lest the hero make his hands impious. This conflict anticipates an event later in the epic, when the Golden Bough, promised by the Sibyl to break easily for the worthy hero, unexpectedly resists Aeneas’ attempt to pluck it (Aen. 6.146–7, 211). Richard Thomas (1988) has argued that, taken together, Aeneas’ various interactions with sacred trees cast doubt on his virtue, his violation of the Polydorus tree in particular amounting to sacrilege. In this interpretation, Aeneas’ defining characteristic, his pietas, is called into question.
Anxieties around tree violation are not confined to myth, but appear in law and scientific texts from the ancient world as well. We know that certain sacred trees were illegal to cut down from the evidence of Lysias, a fourth-century BC orator, who defended a man accused of uprooting an olive stump (Oration 7). This act was a sacrilege to Athena, patron deity of olives, even if the stump was in the defendant’s own yard. Plato, echoing Presocratics like Empedocles, has Timaeus explain that a plant is rightly called a living being or animal, zōon (ζῷον, Tim. 77b). These views in turn influenced Aristotle, who states that plants have a psūkhē (ψυχή, “soul”) with comparable though inverse anatomy to humans, their roots corresponding to our heads (De Anima 415b–16a). Centuries later, the natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) would sound his agreement, saying that trees “are not without a soul (anima), since indeed nothing lives without one” (Natural History 12.1). Modern science has verified this idea, to a degree. Experiments demonstrate that plants have more sentience than previously thought, with the capacity to stretch their roots toward running water, sweeten their nectar in the presence of bees, and communicate chemically with one another, trading resources and raising stress signals through a vast and altruistic underground network.
My own specialty is Roman poetry, but my interests in trees have taken me far in time and space to other cultures whose literary tales feature bleeding trees and impious lumberjacks. For example, Mani, the prophet of Manichaeism, the religious sect which arose in 3rd-century AD Iran, told of pleading fig trees and bleeding vegetables, relating to his doctrine of metempsychosis (human/non-human reincarnation). Much later, in Torquato Tasso’s 16th-century epic, Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme Liberata), the crusader Tancredi cuts into a bleeding tree, which then pleads with him, hauntingly, in the voice of the lover he accidentally murdered. Trees which possess some sentience, but do not explicitly bleed, are even more widespread, appearing in Norse mythology and German folktales.
One could speculate that the motif of bleeding trees is found in several cultures simply because it is a narrative commonplace. Like the love triangle in American sitcoms, at a certain point, it became a self-perpetuating meme. After all, many of the cultures that produced these stories interacted with or influenced one another. Torquato Tasso read Ovid, who read Callimachus, and so on. Nevertheless, narrative commonplaces are not arbitrary. Those that endure have some emotional resonance with writers and readers, storytellers and listeners. The endurance of the tree violation motif suggests that it hits upon some deep-seated truth that many people, even in disparate times and places, recognize.
I suspect that there is some transcultural anxiety around the wellbeing of trees that afflicts the sensitive among us. Even if trees do not literally bleed or feel pain, at least in the way that we do, it is still reasonable to feel some amount of guilt over the one-sidedness of the human-nature exchange. Of course, not all anxiety or guilt needs to be acted on. But considering the mass deforestation which threatens our planet and all its inhabitants, a sensitivity around harming trees may well be beneficial. Human beings would profit from heeding these internal warnings before we, like Erysichthon, consume that which sustains us.
Miriam Kamil is a PhD Candidate in Classical Philology at Harvard University. Her dissertation, under the guidance of Professor Richard F. Thomas, is entitled “Naturae vultus: Personification in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Her research interests include Roman poetry, especially epic and elegy, and textual transmission. She also works on the modern reception of Sappho.
A. Henrichs, “Thou shalt not kill a tree,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 16 (1979) 85–108.
K. McKay, Erysichthon: a Callimachaen Comedy (Brill, Leiden, 1962).
J. Murray, “The Metamorphoses of Erysichthon: Callimachus, Apollonius, and Ovid,” in A. Harder, R.F. Reguit, and G.C. Wakker (eds.), Callimachus II (Peeters, Leuven / Dudley, MA, 2004) 207–42.
R.F. Thomas, “Tree Violation and Ambivalence in Virgil,” TAPA 118 (1988) 261–73.
C. Zatta, “Plants’ Interconnected Lives: From Ovid’s Myths to Presocratic Thought and Beyond,” Arion 24 (2016) 101–26.