The Trees' Praise
This ritual comes from a cycle of rituals “for the estranged” by Catherine Madsen entitled “In Medias Res.” The rituals as a whole are influenced heavily by Jewish texts. This particular ritual for the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (a holiday referred to as Candlemas or Imbolc that generally represents purification and new life), stems from the Tu B’Shevat (Jewish new year of the trees) celebration, and also refers to the modern Tu B’Shevat tradition of heightening one’s awareness of environmental damage and our responsibility to repair it. Close readers will discover biblical verses in this ritual as well as mention of the kabbalistic Divine spheres of generosity, severity, beauty, sovereignty, etc., which are often honored on Tu B’Shevat. This ceremony is appropriate either for Tu B’Shevat or for February 2. It is meant to be led by five individuals representing the four elements and the “quintessence” or sacred spirit of all.
To be held in the daytime, at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (roughly February 2). If weather permits, the ritual may take place in the woods or in a garden; otherwise in a shelter with woods or garden close by. Everyone attending the ritual wears green. In the center of the circle are garlands of fruit and nuts, cakes of suet and birdseed, and other ornaments for the trees.
Earth: And the world said: I am old, and you have dug me and builded me and poured out your poisons on me, but I am not dead, and I hold you.
Air: And the wind said: I carry the seed and the feather, the rain and the thunder, the ash of your engines, the dust of your dead , and I weary, but I am your breath, and I quicken you.
Fire: And the flame said: Why will you drive me? You who should love me bind me in slavery. I never weary, but I serve no one, and I will not serve you.
Water: And the waves said: Shallow; while you live, I will fill you; clean or unclean, I hallow; but I ran here before you, and I will follow.
Quintessence: And the unnameable said: where are you? Will you not speak when I call you? I draw life from the stones and the water; I teach
the flesh to grow warm and the leaf to flutter. When will you do what I teach, and not what destroys you? I will not be summoned, but I will be present among you.
I shall celebrate the season, and carry the salvation of roots to distant parts.
Earth: We honor the trees, keepers of quiet, whose branches rise in the heights, and whose roots sink in the dark among rock and trickle. We honor the strong bones of their winter sleep.
Air: We honor the green hush of their lavish summer.
Fire: Our life emerges from the life of trees: our shelter from their shade, their wood in our houses, our words on their paper, their breath in our lungs. We renew the air for each other: what one scatters the other gathers, and life continues in balance.
Water: Can we restore the balance? We have overburdened the air. We fill it with smoke, we dissolve the ozone above it, we alter its very substance. We have broken the covenant of breath, the one demonstrable speech between us and the green things.
Earth: How long will the trees keep the covenant of breath? We unbury their ancestors, the ancients mummified to coal and oil. We burn them for fuel, and their ghosts hover above us.
Air: Mystery of carbon, that turns from air to matter and back again.
Fire: Mystery of entropy, the solid turned to smoke, dispersed and lost.
Water: Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the sea returning?
At this point the Elements begin to speak in reverse order.
Fire: The smoke hangs in the heavens, and traps the sun’s heat.
Air: The smoke enters the rain, and turns it sour.
Earth: The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.
All: Under the sun’s eyes all is exposed to mutation. The spell of our creation is read backward.
Quintessence: Nature’s polluted,
There’s man in every secret corner of her,
Doing damned wicked deeds. Thou art old, world,
A hoary atheistic murderous star;
I wish that thou would’st die, or could’st be slain.
Silence. Slowly the Elements, and then all, begin to sing low, flat moaning notes. When this mourning has spent itself, the Elements begin a wordless chant with a calm, sustaining tune. After the others have joined in and a sense of stability has been re-established, all, still singing, take fruit and birdseed and the other ornaments and hang them on the trees. Then they return to the circle.
Water: For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and its tender branch not cease. Though the root grow old in the ground, and the stump die in the earth, it will bud at the scent of water and put forth shoots like a plant.
Air: Not by might, not by force, but by breath. Hope is a simple persistence: the slow indrawing and release of breath, the drawing down of spirit into deed. One cell at a time, chlorophyll conducts the air’s conversation. One act at a time, we begin the air’s restoration.
All: Through our persistence let the green tree spring from the dry, and the tree of knowledge restore the tree of life.
Quintessence: How does the crown of the tree transform light into green?
All: Through gratitude: so it discovers and does the law of its being.
Quintessence: How does that light descend into the branches?
All: Through understanding, that knows its work without having learned it; and through wisdom, that learns and does what it did not know.
Quintessence: How does the tree maintain its symmetry?
All: Through severity, that makes no more than is necessary, and through mercy, whereby the necessary is made sufficient.
Quintessence: How do the branches join to the bolt?
All: Through beauty, which governs all joinings.
Quintessence: How does the tree’s wood stand against the weather?
All; Through authority, which allows it to ascend; and through endurance, which allows it to bend.
Quintessence: How does it enter the earth?
All: Through desire, which longs to be rooted.
Quintessence: In what kingdom are those roots grounded?
All: In the kingdom of matter, where all that lives is covered and sheltered.
Quintessence: Earth! What is it you urgently ask for if not transformation?
All: Earth, my love, I will do it.
Quintessence: For the burden of matter is the indrawn breath of a word that may change all. The ritual is ended. We thank time and space for holding us here, and we bless the elements of making.
Earth: Earth, which is the gravity of love;
Air: Air, which is the levity of love;
Fire: Fire, which is the passion of love;
Water: Water, which is the patience of love;
Quintessence: And the presence of the Absence, which is love itself among them: remote beyond conceiving, intimate beyond mistaking, unto whom all that draws breath gives praise.
I shall celebrate the season… Edmond Jabes, El, or the Last Book, the Book of Questions, v. 7, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University press, 1984), p. 46.
Who shall gather the smoke… J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: The Lord of the Rings, vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), p. 112.
The parched eviscerate soil… T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Four Quartets: The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952), p. 140.
The spell of my creation is read backward. Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Death’s Jest-Book, act 4, scene 3.
Nature’s polluted. Ibid., act 2, scene 3 (var.)
For there is hope for a tree… Job 14:7-9 (a mix of several translations).
Not by might, not by force, but by breath. Zechariah 4:6.
The questions and answers about the Tree of Life are loosely based on the Kabbalistic diagram of the Tree of Life, composed of ten sefirot or emanations of divinity.
Earth!…I will do it. Rainer Marie Rilke, Ninth Duino Elegy, in Duino Elegies, trans. David Young (New York: Norton, 1978)
For the burden of matter…. John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1933), p. 233.
Catherine Madsen is a liturgical writer and essayist.
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