Student Althea Gunther ’12 talks about sacred trees.
The Julia Thompson Smith Chapel is the newest building on campus. Though the college is still related to the Presbyterian Church, this chapel belongs to people of all faiths. Those who enter find an aura of peace and a sense of reverence, created by the soaring ceiling that draws the eye upward, the natural light that fills the sanctuary, the warm wood tones, and not least, the views of trees through the chapel’s many windows.
Trees themselves are symbols of central importance in many religions. Evergreen trees in particular represent the resilience of life, what the historian of religion Mircea Eliade calls “the living cosmos, endlessly renewing itself.” The sight of green leaves and needles in deep winter has long inspired thoughts of rebirth and resurrection. Think of the Christmas tree: it continues an age-old tradition of adorning one’s home with greenery in the dead of winter.
The large evergreen trees in the woods directly behind this chapel are eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis). All of the hemlock species are truly resilient, having survived earlier periods of global warming and cooling. Today, however, the eastern hemlock is threatened with potential extinction by a ravenous insect called the woolly adelgid, introduced into the United States from Asia in the 1920s. The smaller evergreens in front of the hemlocks are Virginia pines (Pinus virginiana). Unlike the beautifully graceful eastern hemlock, the Virginia pine is considered “scrubby” and “untidy.” Still, any tree, even an ordinary one, can evoke a sense of wonder and awe: talk to any small child who has discovered that a Virginia pine, shining and sparkling with lights and ornaments, has miraculously appeared in her family’s living room.