Standing between a rusting metal shed, the tarmacked lane and our sagged fence is a mighty black poplar. It has a skirt of over two metres wide and is so tall that it’s visible above neighboring oak and ash trees from three fields away. The thick lower branches sweep out and downwards. Strong upper limbs stretch to the sky. There are deep, black fissures in the grey bark and a vast crown of thousands of cordate leaves on long stalks that whisper and tremble even in the calmest breeze. Its melodious voice contributes to the polyphony of our daily life. On windy nights, it moans, shakes and calls us onto the front door step. Its soft sound flows around us like water when the weather is warm.
In India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the murmur and movement of the heart-shaped leaves of the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) on a still, hot day is taken as a sign that devas or gods are residing there. The stirring leaves give voice to the tree, fill themselves with light and shine with the promise of illumination and renewal.
Roots run deep and spread wide. Branches reach out to offer passersby a moment of rest beneath their canopy.
Sacred fig trees are a symbol of peace and associated with the origin and interconnectedness of life. They represent cultural, social, religious and ecological benevolence and are known by many names in the Indian subcontinent including Peepal, Pipal, Ashvatta and Bo tree. Buddhists name them Bodhi trees if their lineage is thought to stretch back to the fig tree under which Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment (bodhi). For Hindus, they are sacred to Vishnu who was born beneath one. Shrines are built in their generous shade, decorated with flags, coloured silks and ribbons. Painted stones, fresh flowers and burning incense sticks are placed among their buttressed roots. People pace meditatively around their trunks as a sign of worship. Women stand beneath them in spring to catch rainwater in their mouths from the tapering leaves as they pray for fertility, healthy children and a long, happy life.
To plant, notice or nurture any tree is an act of devotion and a gesture of hope. Sitting still beneath one could restore our understanding of the nature of things. If we cleared the ground beneath the ancient black poplar in the corner of our garden and remembered to pass slowly and bow occasionally, it might repay our attention and offer us perspective. Then, ideally, we too would be filled with light and willing to let it flow through us out into the world.
Words by Louisa Thomsen Brits