Semiotics: Trees

By Christopher Zoukis

In The Giving Tree Shel Silverstein wrote:  “He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples.  And they would play hide-and-go-seek.  And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade.  And the boy loved the tree … very much.  And the tree was happy.”

The tree, of course, is simply a tree in the story.  But it’s also symbolic, especially to people who study symbols.  The study of symbols and their meanings has a really cool name, like something out of an Ugaritic lexicon:  semiotics.

Trees symbolize dynamic life in contrast to the static life of a stone.  Drawing strength and life from its roots deep in the earth, the tree grows into the world of Time.  And as it grows it adds rings to show its age.  Sometimes, according to some traditions, such trees sing, and are called Singing Trees.  Singing Trees may also be called Oracle Trees or trees as oracles, which means they can manifest a deity or a deity may speak through them.  For example, the Oak of Dodona, the burning bush of Moses, or the singing trees of 2 Samuel 5, which radiated the sound of marching Philistines to David.

And it’s interesting that mulberry tress are designated a Tree of Life by symbologists, and that the three colors of their three stages, white, red and black, symbolize the three stages of a person’s life:  white, the innocent child; red, the active; black, old age and even death.

In today’s world I would call Singing Trees muses, although the term ‘muse’ has dropped out of vogue.  But that’s because we live in a faded age.  Nevertheless, a muse is that, whatever it might be, which inspires creativity. 

Of course, a muse emanates music, and not just any old music, but eloquent music.  The music of trees is called rustling or sighing.

In Shel Silverstein’s story the Tree is the little boy’s muse, and he listens to her music.  He even falls asleep in the cool susurrations of her whispering voice.  And in the story, he leaves her, and is bedeviled by the worries and wants and ways of the world.  But he always comes back to the Tree, because he can’t get her voice out of his head.  In the end, he returns and remains even though she’s just a stump, a vestige of her former self.  All her magnificent beauty is gone. 

Yet still she sings.  And the boy, now an old man, rests on her stump and listens.