I was in my studio recently, absorbed in a drawing ,when suddenly the door blew open. My Muse strode in, her brows knit in righteous indignation. "Can't you hear that?" she demanded. "Hear what?" I answered absently. "Your plants are moaning at you in agony!" "Well, I don't hear anything," I shrugged indifferently, turning back to my work. "That's because YOU DON'T LISTEN!" she shrilled.
"OK, OK, I'll go water them," I sighed. Secretly, though, I was grateful for this distraction. The drawing of a tree which I had been working on was looking a bit wilted anyway. Tramping down the stairs, I couldn't resist muttering, "I'll bet that I should beg their forgiveness,too--hmm?" "You've got that right," Muse nodded.
"Uh-oh!" I gasped when I saw my little collection of plants and trees. They seemed to be in the midst of a near-death experience! .I quickly fetched my watering can , gave them a generous shower, and cleared away the debris of neglect. As I watched the water trickle towards the roots,a superstitious hunch suddenly grabbed me. Despite my cynicism, I found myself offering those plants a heartfelt apology! Reaching out to smooth their leaves, I promised to water them and visit more often, if only they would return to the land of the living! Was I imagining it, or did those leaves ruffle gently in reply? "I must really be losing it," I thought. Feeling a bit foolish, yet oddly vindicated, I sneaked a surreptitious glance around to make sure no one had heard me, and headed back up to my studio.
"What on earth made me to talk to those things?" I wondered incredulously." I mean, they're only PLANTS!?!". Then, a peculiar notion came to mind. "Could those ancient tree worship cults have been right? Did trees and plants have a secret life after all?"
"They sure do," Muse smugly informed me. "Yeah, right," I shot back, my cynicism returning. But then, she observed that for prehistoric folk, trees, as the tallest plants, must've been an awesome sight. "Imagine a primitive wanderer in a dark forest," she said. "Peering through the silent, creeping mists, he comes upon a gnarled old tree overgrown with moss and ferns. In his terror, wouldn't he assume that this was some sort of 'creature',who just might be in command of supernatural powers? " "Probably,"I agreed, slowly becoming curious.
"To make matters even more frightening," she went on, "these guys may have seen seasonal changes in appearance as proof that trees possessed 'souls' and 'personalities' as whimsical as their own. If you throw in the musical rustle of leaves or a whispering breeze, then you've got a genuine talking forest spirit!" "By the way," Muse added, there's an old Scandinavian belief that when Lucifer and his angels fell from Heaven, they landed in the woods and forests and were doomed to remain there forever as wood spirits and trolls."
At this, I began to rummage through a box in the corner of my studio where I kept some of my childhood treasures. Beneath a pile of moldy comics, I spied my tiny old troll doll wearing nothing but her mass of long, matted white hair. Fascinated once again by her hypnotic amber eyes, I picked her up, dimly recalling our innocent conversations. "Do you suppose those 'forest-spirit' ideas might have inspired this weird little thing?" I ventured. "Could be," Muse conceded with a wink. "Ooh!" I grimaced,shivering. "That's the stuff nightmares are made of. It's a good thing I didn't know that story at the time." Very carefully, I replaced the troll in its box.
"But, in most ancient cultures," she continued, "trees played a supporting role in many 'world-tree' myths. These were stories invented to account for the mysteries of creation. "Hey, wait a minute," I interrupted, "Speaking of old Scandinavian legends, wasn't there one about a strange tree which was the home of their ancient gods and spirits?" "Ah, yes," Muse recollected dreamily, "The mighty Yggdrasil. It's powerful magic held Heaven, Earth and the Underworld together. Older than ancient memory, Yggdrasil is with us still, even now." Intrigued, I reached for my pen and drawing paper, for as she spoke, a marvelous vision began to unfold...
"Imagine, if you can," she intoned , "an enormous ash tree which overshadows the whole world. Yggdrasil's leaves are the clouds,while its fruit and flowers are the stars. On the highest branch sits an eagle with a falcon perched on his head between his eyes. These birds are, respectively,the atmosphere and the universe beyond. Together, they observe the state of the world and must report to the pantheon of gods who sit in judgement below. A silver-haired goat who grazes at a nearby branch provides the mead which the gods drink."
Yggdrasil has three thick roots which reach into the past, the present and the future. These are fed by three fountains, which serve Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. The fountain which serves Heaven is filled with holy water, and is guarded by three Fates. These strange creatures, who rule the past, the present and the future, decide the course of our lives. Two swans float in this heavenly fountain.One is the sun, and the other is the moon. The earthly fountain sends forth the waters of the world, gives birth to all living things, and is the source of all knowledge. It is inhabited by a giant whose extraordinary wisdom has come from drinking those waters. And the boiling, bottomless fountain at Yggdrasil's roots sustains the underworld, supporting a monstrous dragon and a host of swarming snakes who generate the Earth's internal fires.
I glanced out of my studio window for a moment and noticed that it was beginning to snow."Did the weather have any effect on Yggdrasil?" I asked. "Absolutely," Muse nodded. "But not in the way you might think. Besides supporting the sun and the moon,it hosts four reindeer,who nibble on the upper branches,dropping dew from their antlers onto the earth. Then, scurrying between the eagle , the falcon and the dreadful dragon there is a squirrel, who is both the rain and the snow. The four winds frame this picture in the form of four rabbits flying among all of the branches. So, in a sense, Yggdrasil IS the weather."
"Well, that's neat," I said, "But do people fit anywhere in all of this?" "They certainly do," Muse replied,"because if the god's era should ever end, then the man and the woman who are chosen to repopulate the earth will emerge from the evergreen Yggdrasil, for it is the source of all life." As she ended her narrative, Muse arched her eyebrow dramatically, waiting for my reaction.
I just sat there, awestruck, images flitting through my mind like the four winds. I hadn't even touched pen to paper! When I had recovered my wits, I asked Muse what she had meant when she hinted that Yggdrasil is with us,'even now'?. Silently, she drew me towards my door. As we stepped outside into the chill December air, I heard cheerful holiday music from the nearby shopping district and saw several neighbors trimming Christmas trees with tinsel, stars and glazed,animal-shaped cookies.."There's your answer." she said, pointing to the topmost branch of one lovely tree. There, beneath a star,stood an angel, on whose shoulder a dove was perched. Mystified, I waited to hear more."You see," she explained,"what you're looking at is Yggdrasil's legacy. Like the eagle and its falcon, that angel and its dove illustrate our ancient collective memories of the gigantic ash tree's wonderful birds and animals, which have become our modern Christmas tree ornaments!"
Later that evening, as I reflected on the picturesque ideas which Muse had planted, and thought about my new 'tree' drawing, that old superstitious hunch returned. With my senses scurrying between curiousity and fear, I went to check my collection of greenery.The rational side of me scoffed, "Hey, those leaves have gone to the big Greenhouse in the sky; while my capricious side secretly hoped for a small miracle.
And lo and behold! Those plants and trees were standing at attention, their shining leaves and branches proudly raised! Amazed, I looked at Muse who stood with her arms akimbo. Then I did a double-take--for Muse's hair had suddenly sprouted soft, green ferns! And there,on her shoulder, clinging to those fuzzy strands, sat my little troll! Wide-eyed, I stared as they floated over to the plants, and turned to face me with mischievious smiles. "The Spirits thank you," they seemed to say, "We wish you a Happy Holiday!"
"Whatever,"I whispered, turning slowly towards my studio. "Same to you!"
ã 1993 Ilene Winn-Lederer.