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26 February 2021

Research Spotlight: Theology, Trauma, and Trees

Tim Middleton offers a snapshot of some of his work at the intersection of trauma theology and ecotheology, focussing here on the life of trees.

Trees, says Peter Wohlleben, can feel pain, make friends, and even tell the time.[1] Such statements sound far-fetched, but recent scientific discoveries have revealed that intricate, fungal networks connect tree roots underground, enabling forms of chemical communication. Such networks can be used to share nutrients between different species and even to warn trees about imminent attack from insects or disease. And in his bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben revels in human-like descriptions of these capabilities.

In my research, I examine the character of environmental destruction and ecological suffering through the lens of trauma—and trees are a part of this too. In fact, one of the central stories in early twentieth century trauma theory points directly to the importance of trees. The story is that of Tancred and Clorinda, first told by the 16th century Italian poet Torquato Tasso, and set during the Crusades:

[The] hero, Tancred, unwittingly kills his beloved Clorinda in a duel while she is disguised in the armour of an enemy knight. After her burial he makes his way into a strange magic forest which strikes the Crusaders’ army with terror. He slashes with his sword at a tall tree; but blood streams from the cut and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree, is heard complaining that he had wounded his beloved once again.[2]

Sigmund Freud analyses the disturbing way in which Tancred re-enacts his horrendous mistake. It is this repetition, he says, that is at the heart of traumatic suffering. For other trauma theorists, it is the voice of Clorinda that should hold our attention. Her voice, crying out from the wound, alerts us to a reality that is not otherwise available. But to focus exclusively on the tragic fates of either Tancred or Clorinda is to presume the centrality of humanity. What many interpreters miss is that the voice cries out from a tree. As Tasso’s poetry has it:

The wounded bark a sanguine current shed,
And stained the grassy turf with streaming red […]
When from the trunk was heard a human groan,
And plaintive accents in a female tone […]
Why dost thou still pursue with ruthless hate,
This trunk, to which I now am fixed by fate? […]
These trunks and branches human sense endows,

Nor canst thou, guiltless, lop the vital boughs.[3]

The tree itself seems to suffer; it is not merely a passive reminder of Clorinda’s traumatic death, but a living, bleeding, groaning creature endowed with ‘human sense’. Furthermore, the ‘strange magic forest’ mentioned by Freud is in fact an enchanted woodland that has been protected to prevent the crusading Christians from ransacking it to make siege engines. Hence, it is not just that Tancred’s slash traumatises this single tree, but that the whole forest is being traumatically wounded by the crusaders.

Of course, trees don’t literally talk or bleed red any more than they make friends or tell the time. And yet, what Tasso—and indeed Wohlleben—show us is that if we imagine the ‘wounded bark’ and ‘human groan’ of this tree, then we start to realise that we cannot ‘guiltless, lop the vital boughs’. It is by personifying the tree, describing it in relatable human terms, that we begin to recognise that ecological traumas are already folded into an apparently human story.

In much the same vein, trees also find a central place within the Christian narrative. In the garden of Eden temptation is found hanging on a tree, whilst at the crucifixion Christ’s body is nailed to another tree. As St Irenaeus describes it, Adam’s disobedience on the tree (of knowledge) is re-lived and replaced by Christ’s obedience on the tree (of the cross).[4] But these trees are not just passive props for the drama of human salvation; they are vitally important components of the wounded world in which we live. Just as with Tancred and Clorinda, these trees and their suffering are interconnected with the human stories that we normally focus on.

For example, the importance of Christ’s crucifixion for the life of trees is brought home by a project called Stations of the Forest. In this short film and accompanying booklet, the damage wrought by contemporary deforestation is recast as akin to the fourteen stations of Christ’s Passion:

Again and again, blades rip up the fragile skin of the forests […] the splintering wood fills the forest with its screams. […] Now the trees lie dead in the arms of their mother, Earth.

These visceral lines remind us that trees are not only present within the Christian scriptures but are intimately bound up with the fate of creation. To talk of the trauma of trees is not to mislabel the inanimate, but to recognise that, in our entangled world, a wound to a tree is also a wound to ourselves.



[1] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World, trans. by Jane Billinghurst (London: William Collins, 2017).

[2] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ed. by Mary Carolyn Waldrep, Dover Thrift Editions (Mineola, New York: Dover Publication, 2015), p. 30.

[3] Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered; an Heroic Poem, trans. by John Hoole, (London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley, P. Valliant, T. Davies, J. Newbery, and Z. Stuart, 1764), pp. 60-61.

[4] Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, trans. by John Behr (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), §33.