Who are the sycamores?

 

big sycamore
Too bad about the terrible picture quality; my cell phone camera leaves much to be desired. Still a beautiful tree though.

Might sound like a weird question, but I guess I have a thing about sycamores–that is, the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. (All the pictures in this post are of American sycamores.)

When I lived, for my sins, in southern California, the pitiful, stunted little sycamores there used to break my heart and make me apoplectic by turns. But I got a few bitter laughs from the irony too: In southern California, all parking lots are studded with trees. It’s hotter than hell in the summer (and increasingly other seasons too) and you need all the shade you can get. But what trees do they plant for shade? Platanus occidentalis, which never seems to get above 15 feet high and constantly drops its crispy brown leaves because it needs lots of water. In southern California, it’s just about the worst shade tree you can plant, after palms. And this is in spite of the fact that there is a variety of sycamore native to southern California, P. racemosa, which looks extremely similar, grows to majestic heights, and provides plenty of shade, without needing much water. I am so, so curious what goes on in the minds of the people who plant P. occidentalis in the desert. Do they pick them up on clearance? Are they all from the east coast, and did they so deeply internalize the idea that P. occidentalis = shade that they can’t see sense? Are they secretly looking for shriveled trees to drop their dead leaves on people’s cars? What?

As another wilting transplant, I really identified with those poor trees. I could actually feel their distress whenever I was near them.

Now here in southeast Ohio, sycamores are in their natural environment and they are magnificent. I think they really come into their own in winter when the trees are bare, towering above their neighbors (frequently alder, willow, and cottonwood), with their white bark and twisted branches stark against the surrounding sea of brown. It seems to me that these are the sort of trees that tend to accrue folktales and myths as their relationship with us humans unfolds. I believe Americans need to forge stronger, more reciprocal relationships with our floral and faunal neighbors and the spiritual powers inherent in the land, and there are people doing just that. (Thank you for your work.) But each of us is in the formidable, if exciting, position of having to do it all from scratch, without the benefit of ancient traditions at our back. And I’m just getting started.

As usual I take a two-pronged approach: (1) Observe nature. (2) Book (and internet) learnin’. Sadly, I’ve found only one site that speaks, briefly and vaguely, about American sycamore lore (oh, and one other that shamelessly plagiarizes from the first–tsk tsk). The task is complicated by the fact that “sycamore” is the common name for a number of often quite unrelated species all over the English-speaking world. This page is a perfect example of what can result, in that the author identifies sycamores in Scotland as Platanus, referencing their sacred role in acient Egypt–where “sycamores” are actually Ficus sycamorus–and then describes the seed pods of her local trees as helicopters, which means she is actually describing Acer pseudoplatanus. (Only maples have helicopter seeds; Platanus seeds are contained in prickly spheres, and Ficus sycamorus makes round, fig-like fruit.) Superficially, it’s an understandable conflation; but at a deeper level I think this speaks to a certain polyvalence in sycamores, less confusion and more semiotic shift. All the various trees, whether from the fig family or the maple, Genus Acer or Genus Platanus, Californian or Ohioan, would seem to share in some kind of elusive sycamoreness.

sycamore leaves and fruits

 

 

So what might that sycamoreness be? Or should I say, who are the sycamores?

I look first to natural history. All these different sycamores provide abundant shade with their wide-spreading crowns. One thing I learned in southern California is that not all trees are equal when it comes to shade production. For good shade you need a tall tree with a dense canopy and big leaves.

The sycamores all indicate the presence of water. Even in the eastern US where rainfall is generally plentiful, left to its own devices P. occidentalis primarily grows along rivers and streams. It has drinkable sap that can even, with much effort, be rendered into syrup. In dry places like southern California and Egypt, sycamores only grow where there is a stream or an unusually high water table. Shade and water are welcome on a hot day, of course, but the presence of water also means the presence of food, if not from the sycamore itself then from nearby trees, plants, or animals. And when it comes to plants, water is a necessary (though not sufficient) component of fertility.

In dry landscapes, sycamores’ need for water means that sometimes they grow alone, yet being long-lived they can reach massive size, which makes them truly striking–and that brings me to the third characteristic I’ve observed. Sycamores, whether of the desert or the woods, are nothing if not dramatic within their landscapes.

 

American sycamore

Looking to cultural history next, it seems that ancient Egypt’s sycamore was associated with the goddesses Isis, Hathor, and Nuit. Royal coffins were (at least sometimes) built from sycamore wood, and the wood used in tombs, various parts used for medicine, and in the Duat, sycamores provided nourishment for the ba of the deceased. The tree was referred to as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Love. During their flight to Egypt, Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were said to have taken shelter under a sycamore that supposedly still lives, near modern Cairo. An Egyptian poem states:

“The sycamore tree moves her mouth and speaks to me:
The drops of sap in her mouth are like the honey of bees.
She is a beauty, her leaves lovely, flourishing
And verdant, laden with fruit, both ripe and green.”

The creation story of the Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) of Kenya states that the creator, Ngai, directed the first man down from the summit of Mt. Kenya to a grove of sycamores at its base, where he met the first woman. These original humans were directed to make contact with the creator by sacrificing goats under the sycamores, and white body paint was made from sycamore ashes mixed with fat. Indeed, the name Gikuyu means “a huge fig [sycamore] tree.” So the Gikuyu are, in effect, the People of the Sycamore.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates was said to have taught beneath a sycamore, while the philosophers of the Athenian Academy gathered in a sacred grove of sycamores. (It’s nice to teach in the shade if you’re going to be outdoors.) Though Pliny claims the tree was introduced to Greece purely for its shade, he goes on to list some 25 medicinal applications.

In northern India, sycamores were planted in association with temples to Bhavani, a demon-slaying goddess embodying the qualities of both ferocity and mercy.

Sycamores receive some mention in the Bible, but only in passing, quotidian references. Sometimes sycamores are contrasted with cedars, with the implication being that sycamores were ordinary orchard trees while the cedars were more prestigious.

I have been unable to find any information on Native American culture history of sycamores, except the claim (cited above) that they were called “ghosts of the forest” by some group, somewhere. University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Native ethnobotany catalogue gives a number of medicinal uses, especially among the Delaware (search for Platanus as I can’t link directly to the search results). Though I don’t know the reason it was deemed so important, Tongva leaders reportedly traveled great distances to meet under a large sycamore where Los Angeles now stands.

When and how, I wonder, did the Greek name sycomorus (literally “fig-mulberry”) come to be applied to the plane (Platanus) and the very similar looking but only distantly related great maple (Acer pseudoplatanus). The Greeks did not conflate the species, for which they had different names. Possibly the name sycamore was applied to Platanus because the broad leaves and round “fruits” (technically they are indeed fruits, but not of the edible-for-humans kind) were thought to resemble those of F. sycomorus, but I’m not convinced. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t one of those historical-linguistic “accidents” that maybe aren’t really accidents. In a weird little synchronicity, the page I just cited also contains this:

“Greeks also call the [Platanus] tree Daphne, a strange little word. Depending upon the accent in Greek it can be the tree and an area of Athens [Ohio] that once had an insane asylum, and where we get the word ‘daffy’ in English.”

That asylum, popularly known as The Ridges, still exists, it’s just not used for the insane anymore–though by all accounts, many of them are still hanging around. My family used to live pretty much across the street from it. But daphne in Greek means laurel, and neither that nor The Ridges is where we get the word “daffy” from. It’s peculiar that the author of that page, who lives in Florida and is not, as far as I know, from Athens, would think to mention it in a post about sycamores. Another non-accident?

sycamore at Butts Run

From my own direct experience of them, the first word that comes when I call sycamores to mind is grace. Not only in the sense of physical beauty but also graciousness and generosity. I frequently find myself returning to the words power and majesty, and sometimes haunting (especially in winter). Within this landscape, they remind me a little of Japanese hinoki cypresses within theirs. Hinoki couldn’t look more different, but they are often considered shinboku (divine trees). The large sycamore that grows by the run (stream) back of the house is one of the beings around here that seems to resonate with extra magic. I just noticed last night when looking at a map that the sycamore, a little cluster of honey locusts on the side of the hill, and a group of trees in front of the house whose species I have not yet been able to identify are all magical spots and form a nearly-straight WSW-ENE line across the property. If I drew a line from the sycamore to the unknown trees, which I swear are full of gnomes or trolls or something, it would pass directly through this house (the honey locusts are a little out of line to the north). If you extended the line it would connect the ridge to the west of us with the river to the east. I don’t know what to make of that yet, but I’m filing it away for future reference.

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