The bus was speeding. From Mexico City to Oaxaca de Juárez was a long way – around 500 km or 6 hours in Mexican time, which means that it could extend to infinity. The road was strewn with car parts and crashed metal corpses left along the roadside to rot. The bus was heading to the capital of Oaxaca State. The state, famous for the variety of indigenous cultures, witches, mushrooms and magic. However, the only magic that I was looking for, was the magic of a decent sleep. Soon afterwards, the creaky hostel doors opened and heavy unventilated air filled the lungs – falling asleep was inevitable. I was sleeping, when he came at night…
The sky was emerald blue and the grass was chilly wet. Me and a couple of fellows were climbing up the hill. Like explorers on an expedition, we were struggling bravely through the spiky bushes. We all knew what the goal was – to find the oldest tree. Who knows why? The top was close at hand, but suddenly something happened. The hill spindled, the wind was howling. And when the time seemed to have stopped, a distortion shaped the reality. Someone knew that we were coming. A trembling energy started flowing through our bodies. The energy of terror and fear. We were intruders.
There was hardly any vital energy left, when I reached the top. And here it was – the tree. In the middle of the hill there was a stump of the size of a human being. Cracks on the wood formed a clear and monstrous face of an old man.
“Touch Me!” the urge was impossible to fight off, and I extended my hands towards the face. When my fingers reached the wood, the stump stirred. Slowly, the curvings started to transform and re-shape the face. Seconds later, a different face was staring at me – a face of an ugly baby.
‘This is how I stay alive for so long…’ and suddenly, I felt old and very weak, as if I had been living for eternity and more.
Fear woke me up. With my hands still trembling, I shook Arturas strongly. He seemed to be dreaming something really pleasing and was resistant to come back. But dreams were bound to vanish.
“Do you know that close to Oaxaca there is a very old tree – Arbol de Tule? It was believed to be the Tree of the Worlds by the Indigenous…” he told, after listening attentively to my story.
Well, for better or worse, the Tree was calling me…
Arbol de Tule
With a couple of fellows, I found it in a small town called Santa María del Tule, around 9 km or one taxi ride from Oaxaca de Juárez. A huge stack of branches was stretching into the air. It seemed that the huge trunk consisted of hundreds of trees. But my eyes were lying – they all belonged to one creature. The Giant. Like a monument of the new era, in the shadows of the tree, there was a small church. A cross on the rooftop, like a flag on the peak of a mountain, seemed to be claiming this ancient sacred land.
Tule is a tree called Montezuma Cypress or, more scientifically, Taxodium mucronatum. Its magnificent trunk is the stoutest in the world, with a diameter of 14 m. It is even bigger than the trunk of Giant Sequoia, which comes next on the list.
In the beginning of 20th century, Montezuma Cypress became the national tree of Mexico. However, it was sacred for Indians many centuries before. A local legend tells that the Tule Tree was planted by a priest of the ancient wind god, approximately 1400 years ago. According to another legend, the Tree is even older. It took part in the creation myth. So probably it is as old as the Earth itself, if not older…
But let’s ruin the magic with cold science. The biological age of the tree is around 1300 years.
The Tree of Worlds
So why was the Tree sacred? Probably because it was an important part in the ancient perception of the world. It was believed that in the center of the universe there is a tree. Its roots and branches are spread throughout the worlds, connecting cosmic regions. Old trees, such as Tule, were live representations of this cosmic tree of worlds.
The cosmology of the world consisted of three main zones: the sky, the earth and the underworld with an axis going through all of them At the center, where the axis was, there was a hole, which made it possible for gods to go to other worlds, for the dead to reach the underworld and for shamans to travel through different worlds.
Perceiving the world based on an axis is very archetypical. Examples of this perception could be found all around the globe. For example, Siberian tribes imagined the sky as a tent, and in the center was situated the world pillar which held the sky, as in a tent. The smoke-hole in a tent was imagined to be also present in the sky, the hole through which the communication with other worlds was possible.
Other nations also had this image of the world pillar. The world pillar was in the shape of a huge mountain or a huge tree. For example, in Egypt or Mesopotamia, where the world pillar was in a form of ziggurat or pyramid. Mongols imagined the center of the world as a huge pyramid mountain with a tree on it. They believed that gods were hitching their horses to that tree.
Some tribes believed that there were three cosmic trees: one in the sky, where souls of men were perching and waiting to be born, the second one on earth and the third one in the underworld. Yakuts believed that in the paradise there was a cosmic tree, and when the first man was born, it was fed by the breast of a woman, which half emerged from that tree. In India there is a belief that the first man drank with gods under the miraculous tree.
I have not noticed a magic breast on Tule, but it seemed to be a real source of life for animals. Birds were nesting on the many branches, and the gnarled trunk was hosting bees. Was the trunk a ladder? Were there Ancient Gods waiting up above?
The Tears from Above
An hour or two. No one knows. Time stopped under the tree. And no one noticed how the threatening clouds gathered above the branches of the giant. Soon the first heavy drops hit the pavement.
“Come and lie on the sidewalk”, invited my friend.
We both lay down on the wet ground. Through the bushy branches the grey sky was glimpsing at us and the drops were falling on our faces.
“Imagine, what if the rain was the tears of the tree…”
I remained silent. What if the tree was really crying? Giants also cry. One story tells that the legendary Hernán Cortés, Spanish conqueror of the New World, wept under the Montezuma Cypress tree. Tears were running down his face when he lost the battle of La Noche Triste against Aztec’s Emperor Montezuma. Not only did he lose the battle, but also most of his men and almost died himself.
The Tree is also losing the battle – the battle of the changing World. Once wild, now it is entrapped by the growing city. Daily, about 8000 cars pass by on the neighbouring highway. Paled in its compact cage, the Tree looks more like a sad animal in the zoo than the Ancient Giant connecting the Worlds of Gods and the Underworld. Its deep roots suffer constant thirst, because massive urbanization highly reduced water supplies. Even though it belongs to the UNESCO tentative list of World Heritage Sites, it is slowly dying. Like the order of the Old World.
I was observing the complicated and gnarled trunk. Many shapes of miraculous animals and creatures were hiding in the curves of the trunk. I raised my head and froze. There it was… Undesirably, nightmares of the night revived and became an inevitable part of reality. From above, the familiar face was staring at me. The face of the monstrous baby. The wind blew low branches into my face, and I felt their rough texture on my skin. Ahuehuete was the name of the Tree in Nahuatl language. Old Man of the Water. Suddenly, I felt old and very weak, as if I had been living for eternity and more…