« Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. »
Since the beginning of time, Nature has fascinated mankind. For thousands of years, it inspired, scared and intrigued men. Many tales try to describe and explain it. We used to say that plants could talk, walk, dance and even sing. Nowadays, after losing touch with nature in the industrial and numeric eras, we find our way back towards it. For the older generations, tales as Moana (with Mother Nature) and Pocahontas (with Grandmother Willow) have met with success, as ecological awareness grows, and we can observe an ever-growing numbers of stories about plants as sensible beings.
Plants are talking
In many stories, plants can speak. At the beginning, the world was living in perfect harmony, and both the human and non-human worlds could speak. Several tales focus on how the latter lost this ability.
According to Slovenian traditions for example, when trees were able to speak, some of them begged a woodsman not to cut them down, but to cut others instead. It is said that they lost the ability to speak because of their selfishness.
In Estonia, legend says it is because a woodcutter asked for God’s help while trees were crying out for help as he cut them.
Other tales say that plants used to talk to humans, revealing to them their medicinal properties; but as one day, plants were all laughing at one of their own who cured diarrhea, God, made angry by their actions, took away their ability to speak.
There is a language and a symbolism of flowers. We can, by sending roses to someone, express how much we love them.
Nowadays, scientific studies reveal that plants have feelings, can defend themselves, make alliances, tricks, communicate with each other, express from afar their joy, but also their fears.
Mysterious plants and magic
Humans used to respect the vegetal world and to admire it, saying that some plants had magical properties or were able to feel. Plants do have special powers: they heal, they bewitch us with their beauty and their marvelous scent, they warn us about pollution and sometimes protect us from it (ivy is known to filtrate nanoparticles…)… We’re only beginning to discover the full grasp of those powers.
Etiological tales about plants
The collection of etiological tales about plants is not as plentiful as the one about animals, but we can nevertheless find many stories about the origin of flowers, such as the one about the forget-me-not. A knight was picking a handful of forget-me-nots for his beloved, but as he was doing so, he fell into the water and, because of his armor’s weight, sunk straight to the bottom. Right before drowning, he threw the flowers to the princess, yelling “Forget me not!”
As to the snowdrop, according to an ancient Fleming tale, when God gave colors to all things he forgot the wind and the snow, and told them to go and see those who had received colors and ask them for it. All the things God had created refused to give them some, but for the snowdrop. That is why all flowers suffer under the cruelty of the elements during winter, at the exception of the snowdrop which resists to the cold and is the first to bloom in the spring, even through the snow. Such tales exist for many flowers: narcissus, iris…
Trees and the forest
Over time, nature, and forests in particular, have grown to mark the collective imaginary. As opposed to the castle, the village, the fields, the forest embodies a mysterious place, an in-between place. This is at the root of the concept of “enchanted forest” or “forbidden forest”. The forest is the place of the unexpected; it can be both a shelter and a mortal trap. It is where people go at night to hide their crimes, where they can hide from their enemies. You can get lost in the forest, but you can also find yourself in it.
Trees are the ultimate symbol of life and its constant evolution. The way they change during the year, along with the seasons, makes them the perfect symbol of life’s changes, illustrating birth, death and resurgence. They show us the victory of life over death. With their roots firmly in the ground, and their branches stretching towards the sky, they are also the bridge between this world and the next.
Plants and religion
Plants can also act as guardians. In Japan, trees can be inhabited by a spirit, a yokaï named kodama. Those kodama, responsible for the echoes of mountains, are sometimes equated with mountain’s gods. The vegetal world can also be a god’s sanctuary, or the prison of an evil spirit.
The importance of vegetal tales
In literature, plants and their symbolism play a major part, whether they are shown as sensible beings, holders of wisdom, magical objects, the key of healing or whether they constitute plainly an enchanting environment. The emphasis on the importance of nature is essential to children’s development. Showing children the importance of nature will help them discover it, will allow them to appreciate its gifts and to respect them.
Activities with children
• Go out and discover nature, the vegetal world with the children. Tell them the story behind flowers’ names, the legends and tales associated with them…
• Create a herbarium.
• Make them sow some seeds, in class or, if possible, outside, and let them grow a little garden.
• Choose a plant of your liking (the favorite tree in the garden or at school, the favorite flower…) and have the children look for tales and legends telling its story: why is it named the way it is? Why is it shaped like it is?
• Have a look at the Celtic calendar: what’s your tree? Have the children tell a story about their tree.