Few of us have not used the phrase “knock on wood” before. Ostensibly to protect us from something bad or evil, at the same time looking for something made of wood to knock against with our knuckles, and not really thinking why we were doing it. But where does this ritual originate? Who were the first people to “knock on wood”?
Ancient pagan people, like the Celts and other ancient Indo-Europeans, believed that spirits and gods reside in trees. They knocked their knuckles or other parts of their hands against trees to ward off bad luck or to bring them good fortunes. We still use the same gesture, rooted in our millennia-old history. Mention something bad which could happen to you and someone will undoubtedly say “knock on wood” while performing the old ritualistic gesture without even giving it a second thought.
What is this idea of trees being the homes of gods all about? All cultures of the world have their deities and spirits which are attributed to reside in trees. Some prefer all kinds of trees, like Druantia, the Gallic Tree Goddess, the Dryads of Greek mythology or Kukunochi, the Japanese Tree Spirit; Mielikki, the Finnish Tree Goddess; Metsaema and Metsavana, the Estonian Mother and Old Man of the Tree Forests.
Others were believed to live in specific trees, like Hathor, the Egyptian Lady of the Sycamore Tree or Kodama, the Spirt of the Japanese Cherry Tree. This may explain the Japanese visits to the blooming cherry trees in many parts of the world, like High Park in Toronto or Stanley and Elizabeth Parks in Vancouver.
From the first sticks of the Neanderthals to chase off invading animals to the complex structures erected by people today, wood has been a prime material in the evolution of the human race. North America and much of the ancient world were covered with enormous forests, whose wood was used (and is still being used) for bridges, roads, buildings and uncounted other purposes.
Ontario, which was once, before the coming of the first settlers, covered entirely by forests, is now almost entirely agricultural land, with the exception of the far north and the land occupied by towns and cities.
One of my most favourite films is “Avatar”. It is the story in which humans have depleted Earth’s natural resources, leading to a severe energy crisis. The Resources Development Administration (RDA) mines a valuable mineral unobtanium on Pandora, a densely forested habitable moon orbiting Polyphemus, a fictional gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. Pandora, whose atmosphere is poisonous to humans, is inhabited by the Na’vi, a species of 10-foot tall (3.0 m), blue-skinned, sapient humanoids that live in harmony with nature. They worship a mother goddess named Eywa, who lives in the gigantic Mother Tree. The Avatar are Na’vi-human hybrids. The Earth scientists use Na’vi-human hybrids called “avatars”, operated by genetically matched humans. To make this story short, the Mother Tree and all other trees in the forest are killed by the loggers, which is the end of the Na’vi society.
Many of the forested regions of the world, like the ancient woods of eastern and western North America, the huge Amazon Jungle, and the tropical forests of the islands and countries of the South, have been mercilessly exploited. They have been eradicated to make room for agricultural lands, growing only crops of plants limited to certain industrial uses. This takes them away from the production of food for the ever-growing humanity.
Before the European settlers came and almost immediately began with heavy logging, much of what is now the Province of Ontario was covered with oaks, red and white pine and spruce of enormous proportions. This is reflected in the spoken history of the original inhabitants, the written accounts by the Missionaries and current scientific findings.
“Toronto” is said to be the Mohawk (Iroquoian) word “tkaronto”, meaning “trees standing in the water”. Some of the Anishnaabe (Ojiibwe) place names acknowledge the former presence of many trees. The origin of the name of the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke is derived from the Anishnaabe/Ojibwe word “wadopikaang” (place where the alders grow), which was easily misunderstood by the first settlers when they named named it in the 1790’s.
There is actually a book called “Ontario’s Old Growth Forests”, by Michael Henry and Peter Quincy, published in 1909, which is a guidebook to the locations of the few remaining stands of old growth trees. An updated volume is to be published in this year.
We have 2000 years old bonzai-like dwarf cedar trees growing on the Niagara Escarpment, on the shoreline of the Canadian Shield. The old growth trees in Temagami are 10 stories high, but they are young compared to the 20 stories high trees which lived there centuries ago. We are accustomed to hearing about the huge cedars of the West Coast. But we have similar examples here in Ontario, but like in the West, some are located in hard-to-reach places like central Algonquin Park.
There is, however, near Georgetown, just 16 km west of Brampton, a place called Scotsdale Farm, where trees older than 250 years are found. That may not be amazing if you consider the age of the oldest pine in North America. The Bristlecone Pine, is located in the Inyo National Forest in a remote area between California’s Sierra Nevada range and the Nevada border. Based on the number of its growth rings, it was found to be 5,060 years old. The giant Seqouia trees of the West Coast are not older than 2,000 years, while other long-lived trees trees are usually less than 1,000 years old.
The oldest Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are found in the Niagara Gorge (435 years), Burnham Woods near Peterborough (460 years) and Algonquin Park (408 and 454 years). Other hardwood trees aged up to 300 years were found in the far North of the Province.
The Scotsdale Farm trees are located in a heavily urbanized location, with many trees in a Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar and Eastern Hemlock forest being 150 to 200 years old. Some of the trees in their cedar swamp are over 250 years old, and the place is within easy reach for visits.
Fortunately for me, I now also live in an area where there are enough woodlands to which I can escape from time to time to enjoy their peace and solitude, to breathe in their fresh air and scents, magnified by the presence of an immense body of water and wide, beautiful beaches. There are no 250-year-old trees here, but I will happily “knock on wood” if it helps to preserve this scenery and the tree environment for the rest of my life and beyond!