The Social Life of Trees

By Rival, Laura | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Social Life of Trees


Rival, Laura, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Jeffery's review of the book I edited on the symbolic significance of trees, in which he dedicates a good part of one paragraph of his three-paragraph-long review to such a key thinker as Tolkien (!) says so little about the rich data this book offers that I feel compelled to react.

The book in his view reiterates platitudes, for example, that trees have biological particularities that make them amenable to life-reaffirming and death-denying cultural representations. This generalization is far from obvious or banal. It is only after careful examination of political and religious symbolism across cultures that the contributors to this volume were able to conclude that trees in non-Western cultures are not used as symbols of immortality and past history, but, rather, as symbols of life, health and potency. Almost everywhere, the human imagination has identified trees with humans and glorified their great proportions, old age, potency and self-regenerating energy. Arboreal imagery continues to be central to the representation of political processes and socio-economic relations, as well as to religious and political symbolism concerned with the life and death of individual bodies and corporate identities. …

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