Posted by: Rob Viens | August 11, 2013

Tree Worship – Is it Wrong?

On August 11th, Darwin set out on his inland adventure.  His enjoyment of being on the open trail was apparent in his long diary entry today.  So I thought I’d let Darwin do most of the talking today. Here goes:

“We started early in the morning, but owing to some horses being stolen we were obliged to travel slow & accompany the Cargeroes or loaded horses. — The distance between Patagones & the pass of the Colorado is 85 miles, & in all this distance there are only two springs of fresh water. — They are called fresh, but even at this season were very brackish; in summer this must be a very disagreeable passage; from the heavy rain of yesterday we were well off, for there were several small puddles in the waggon ruts. We passed several small Salinas & in the distance there was one which was at least 3 or 4 leagues in length. — The country has one universal appearance, brown withered grass & spiny bushes; there are some depressions & valleys.” (Aug 11)

On the trail the travelers encountered a sacred tree. Sacred trees, sacred groves, and tree worship in general, are quite common in cultures throughout the world.  Whether it be the Bohdi tree (where the Buddha received enlightenment), the Christmas tree, the Tree of Knowledge, or the (many different versions of the) Tree of Life – you can find all sorts of meaning embodied in trees. There are also many spirits that live in trees including Kurozome, Rakapila, Yakshis, djinn and dryads (among many others).   Heck, even in Game of Thrones, the old gods of the north inhabit the heart trees of the “godswood” (just ask Ned Stark).

La Dryade by Evelyn de Morgan

La Dryade

Trees really are an integral part of human culture, so it is not surprising that we often find ourselves painting them in a spiritual light. Having spent a lot of time in the Pacific Coastal forests where trees grow tall, large, and really old, I can attest to the religious experience of being in an old growth forest.  On the other end of the spectrum, I can also see how a lone tree in the grasslands –viable for a great distance – could also be a nexus for spirituality.

Here is what Darwin had to say about the tree which he wrote, was the embodiment of the god Walleechu:

“Shortly after passing the first spring we came in sight of the famous tree, which the Indians reverence as a God itself, or as the altar of Walleechu. — It is situated on a high part of the plain & hence is a landmark visible at a great distance. — As soon as a tribe of Indians come in sight they offer their adorations by loud shouts. — The tree itself is low & much branched & thorny, just above the root its apparent diameter is 3 feet. It stands by itself without any neighbour, & was indeed the first tree we met with; afterwards there were others of the same sort, but not common. — Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place were countless threads by which various offerings had been suspended. Cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth &c &c. — poor people only pulled a thread out of their ponchos. — The Indians both pour spirit & mattee into a hole & likewise smoke upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to Walleechu. — To complete the scene the tree was surrounded by the bleached bones of horses slaughtered as sacrifices. All Indians of every age & sex make their offerings, they then think that their horses will not tire & that they shall be prosperous. — In the time of peace the Gauchos who told me this had been witnesses of the scene; they used to wait till the Indians passed on & then steal from Walleechu their offerings. The Gauchos think that the Indians consider the tree itself as a God; but it seems far more probable that it is an altar. — The only cause which I can imagine for this choice, is its being a landmark in a dangerous passage. — The Sierra de la Ventana is visible at an immense distance & a Gaucho told me, that he was once riding with an Indian a few miles to the North of the R. Colorado when the latter began making the same noise which is usual at the first sight of the tree, & putting his hand to his head & then in the direction of the Sierra. Upon being asked the reason of this the Indian said in broken Spanish “first see the Sierra”. — This likewise would render it probable that the utility of a distant landmark is the first cause of its adoration.” (Aug 11)

A modern rendition of the Walleechu tree by Alex Eben Mayer (from Mental Floss)

modern painting of Walleechu

This was not the first “religious experience” Darwin had with trees.  His stories about the baobab tree in Cape Verde (see Of Tamarinds and Baobabs) and the forest of Brazil (for a couple of examples see Oh verdure New World, that has such forests in’t! and Stranger in a Strange Land) are also filled with a reverence for trees and forests.

My favorite part of the Darwin’s entry today is the description of how he wraps up the day. In particular, how much he seems to enjoy the life of the gaucho:

“About two leagues beyond this very curious tree we halted for the night: at this instant an unfortunate cow was spied by the lynx-eyed Gauchos. Off we set in chase, & in a few minutes she was dragged in by the lazo & slaughtered. — We here had the four necessaries for life “en el campo”, — pasture for the horses, — water (only a muddy puddle) — meat — & fire wood. The Gauchos were in high spirits at finding all these luxuries, & we soon set to work at the poor cow. — This was the first night which I passed under the open sky with the gear of the Recado for a bed. There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life, (in margin) to be able at any moment to pull up your horse and say here we will pass the night. The death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gipsy-group of Gauchos making their beds around the fire, has left in my mind a strongly marked picture of this first night, which will not soon be forgotten.” (Aug 11)

Will Darwin leave the Beagle and join the gauchos for a life on the pampas?  You’ll have to wait till next time to see :). (RJV)

PS – Yes – the title today is a little play on the fantastic work of artist Ray Troll…

Fish Worship - Is it Wrong? by Ray Troll


  1. Never! 🙂

    The Beag

  2. And a lotta good it did Ned Stark! 😉

    Important Reminder: We are now communicating with our students via their BC student e-mail addresses. If you are a BC student, please create your BC student email account, check it regularly, and use it when emailing BC faculty and staff. For details and assistance, go to ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Gwyneth Jones Affiliate Faculty, Earth & Space Sciences Program SAMI Ambassador, Winter & Spring 2013

    Give me silence, water, hope Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes Pablo Neruda ________________________________________ From: Gwyneth Jones Sent: Sunday, August 11, 2013 11:00 PM To: The Beagle Project Subject: Re: [New post] Tree Worship Is it Wrong?

    Never! 🙂

    The Beag

  3. Reblogged this on My Botanical Garden.

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